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Pioneer Stories: Kiri

In our latest Pioneer article, we caught up with Olaus McLeod, who is championing sustainability in the surf industry by creating wooden surfboards with his company Kiri.

It was an early start for the team to catch dawn patrol but the Cornish weather was glorious and it was the perfect place to get to know Olaus and his family.

 You’ve been selected as a Pioneer for &SONS - What’s your definition of the word Pioneer?   

For me, the definition of a pioneer is someone who is a trailblazer. Someone who zags while everyone else is zigging. Someone who ignores the naysayers and has a real sense of purpose - an unshakable resolve to achieve something that may improve things that are already out there - or to innovate something completely new.   

Tell us your story. How did you begin your career and what led you here? 

How I arrived at Kiri has been quite a journey! I started with a degree in philosophy. I then spent 12 years working as an airline pilot. After that, I was employed as a drone operator and completed a couple of tours in Afghanistan. I then wanted to get back home to Cornwall to be with my family more, so I became a primary school teacher! Then COVID hit, which became the catalyst for so much change in the world.  

Personally, COVID allowed me the time that I'd never had before to commit to something that I’d wanted to do for a long time. I'm a lifelong surfer, but I'd never had the opportunity to shape my own board before.   

Alongside that, I had a growing sense of the need to look after our planet and make the right choices of products, materials and manufacturing processes. So, for me, the only way to go forward with Kiri was to create a wooden surfboard. I taught myself how to shape a board by researching it online, and also getting hold of how-to books and eBooks.  

No sooner had I shaped my first board than friends and family started saying “Do one for me please!” Very soon, the snowball started to gain momentum, all through word of mouth. It's just been growing ever since - completely organically.   

"I firmly believe that if you're going to produce anything you should do it the right way...the sustainable way, which has the least impact on the planet"

In your work, what values do you cherish the most?  

One of my personal core values and therefore a core value for Kiri is sustainability. We put the planet before everything. In everything we do, we relentlessly pursue the most sustainable materials and strive to use the most sustainable processes that we can. We're not there yet, but we're working on it. For example, I use a lot of electricity in the shaping of my boards and we're working towards sourcing renewables, so that we can be completely off-grid.    

Tell us about your sustainability goals?  

We have built Kiri from the outset as a social enterprise. We are members of 'One Percent For The Planet'. We have always given a percentage of our profits, right from the outset, to worthy, ocean-related charities - both marine conservation and ocean regeneration organisations. We're also currently working towards our B-Corp certification.   

From the outset, we have never wanted to just shape a few boards and flog them. It's always been about how we can create boards with the least impact on the planet.    

Using wood is one of the most sustainable ways that you can shape surfboards. We shape our boards from Paulownia wood, which has incredible characteristics. It's very much like balsa wood, in that it is very light and strong. In fact, it's known as the ‘aluminium of timber,’ because of its light, strong properties. Unlike balsa, however, which sucks up lots of seawater, paulownia is very non-porous. Most timbers used in the construction of surfboards need to be finished by being sealed in polyurethane or epoxy - highly toxic, poisonous resins. Unlike those timbers, because of its low porosity, paulownia only needs to be oiled. We oil our boards in UK-grown hemp oil, which makes Kiri boards some of the most sustainable surfboards on the planet.   

I firmly believe that if you're going to produce anything you should do it the right way. It's actually a very easy choice - once you decide you're going to do things the right way - the sustainable way, which has the least impact on the planet - then your core values become very easy to maintain.  

Fundamentally, Kiri is an expression of my personal passion for the ocean environment - that we should really take care of it for our own benefit, as well as for the benefit of the entire planet and for future generations.   

How do you connect with your community?  

Kiri is without question about people, family and friends and community. It’s about growing a movement really, a tribe. In fact, we have a Facebook group called the Kiri Tribe. Anybody that buys a Kiri product, ends up in the Kiri Tribe. We keep in touch with them and keep them up to date with what we're doing. I also organise monthly get-togethers for people to come and try Kiri boards or they can bring along any other wooden boards. It's really about building a movement that promotes and celebrates sustainability in the surf industry.   

Where do you get your inspiration?

Kiri surfboards are deeply inspired by traditional Hawaiian designs. We mostly shape boards called ‘paipos’ - traditional Hawaiian bellyboards, which you surf lying down. They absolutely fly!  

Why surf wooden boards?  

On first impressions, people might think that our prone paipos are loosely similar to the polystyrene bodyboards that you see up and down beaches, all over the world. This couldn’t be further from the truth! These cheap bodyboards often break on their first surf session and are usually left - effectively fly-tipped - on the beach. Of course, these boards don't biodegrade, instead, they break down into microplastics, which find their way into every member of the food chain - even being found inside human stomachs. Cheap bodyboards are absolutely poisonous to our beaches, our coastlines, our oceans, marine life and ultimately to ourselves.  

Our mission at Kiri is therefore to rid our beaches of cheap polystyrene body boards and replace them with sustainable, beautiful wooden boards for life - which, by the way, also perform fantastically in the surf!  

Tell us a bit more about your creative process.    

The Kiri design process is a rigorous evolution of design, test and redesign, tweaking, learning and evolving as we go.  

Kiri boards appeal to discerning surfers and beachgoers who have a genuine appreciation of beautiful, long-lasting products. They perform amazingly well, without the need for the fins that you usually see on surfboards. Instead, they have a concave running down the underside, about two-thirds of the length of the board. The concave resists a lateral slide down the wave face, which enables you to be propelled forwards, along the wave.  

Unlike a fibreglass or epoxy board, if you ding a Kiri wooden board, you can just sand it down and repair it, or completely reshape and change the character of the board, if you want to.

We know that mental health is really important - what do you do to help your mental health?    

Kiri surfboards are an expression of my deep, lifelong passion for the ocean. I've swam in, surfed, paddled and sailed on the ocean, my whole life. Particularly since COVID, I have become increasingly aware of the mental health benefits of time spent in blue spaces, in, on and beside the ocean. I dip in the sea every day before I go to work, year-round, in my board shorts. I am passionate about keeping our beaches clean and often take part in local beach cleans, with fantastic organisations such as Plastic Free Penzance and Surfers Against Sewage.  

What is your favourite piece from the &SONS Collection?    

It's unbelievably difficult to choose! Firstly, I am a massive advocate of the workwear-inspired nature of the &SONS collection. I love the fact that all the pieces in the collection are immensely durable and are designed to look great with each other.  

Two of my personal favourites are the Breton shirt (I'm a lifelong fan of a stripe!) and the Carver jackets. I love the fact that the Carvers have an authentic connection to the hardy outerwear, traditionally worn by French workers, fishermen and sailors. They're fantastically practical and comfortable, season in and season out. I love my Carver jacket. It goes with me everywhere! 

Keep up Olaus and Kiri on socials

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