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History of Orta, part 1: Chile, Surfing, and Plastic

(That's me above, fixing the sewing machine at Dreamstyle, the company I ran in Chile before I moved back to California)

If I had to pinpoint the very beginnings of Orta it would be this moment:  On a squinty-bright afternoon about 15 years ago that smelled like eucalyptus and dust, I was suddenly overcome by stillness and interconnectedness, like the descriptions I’ve read of people seeing God.  But instead of Grace, I saw garbage.


I was taking out the trash behind the surf business I owned at the time, Dreamstyle, the first company to make products for Chilean surfers in Chile.  I started Dreamstyle after living in Chile for about 2 years, as a co-owner and ski guide with CASA tours. By then, I’d had enough of the sub-par gear for surf and snow sports.  Along with a partner (who runs Dreamstyle today), we imported some better quality snowboards. And to sell those boards, I designed a special bag to carry them around town. It was pretty rad for 2001.  Picture it: Satin finish camo print cordura with orange silk screened logos. The snowboards were a flop. They were just too expensive for the market, but every store we visited wanted the bag (because it was rad). So we became a bag company, and added surf products because when we weren’t snowboarding, we were surfing.


We worked out of a storefront in a converted adobe hotel in a beach town called Pichilemu, about 3 hours Southwest of the capital, Santiago.  Because Chile is so centralized, every couple weeks I had to go to Santiago to do everything from depositing checks to visiting customers to buying fabric at the Casa China fabric store in the garment district.  I loved my shopping trips, with the endless possibilities of new colors or details for our bags, and the bustling commerce buzz.  


All the materials we used, except the metal zipper pulls, were essentially plastic:  Polyesters, nylons, PVC waterproof coatings. On the one hand, buying all that plastic made me a bit uncomfortable even back in 2001, but on the other, the materials were shiny and clean, in pretty colors, and made affordable, attractive products.  And there weren’t any alternatives available.


On my way back to the beach, I often found myself riding the subway across the city with a backpack full of zippers and two, two-meter rolls of fabric, one one each shoulder, to catch the bus to Pichilemu.  So you can imagine after all that, I would be rather careful not to throw too much away.


Though we were as frugal as we could be, making smaller bags with scraps from bigger bags, and making wallets with the smallest scraps, I still took out two full trash bags every couple days.  And on that fateful afternoon of the garbage epiphany, as I watched a horse and cart clomp by, I saw both how insignificant I was, and how connected to the whole. If I, the owner of a tiny, 3-person company, in a tiny town with dirt roads and horses, in a small country in the “poto del mundo” (Chilean for “butt of the world”) was generating this much plastic trash, holy s#!t the real industries of world must be making mountains.


Because surfers are in intimate contact with ocean life where pollution feels very tangible and personal, we are often at the forefront of environmental activism. The first pro surfer Dreamstyle ever sponsored was Ramon Navarro, who is now a well-known big wave surfer, Patagonia ambassador, and environmental activist.  


For me, the hypocrisy of a surf company creating so much pollution didn’t sit right.  And yet, surfers need to cover their boards and carry their gear in something. I vowed that it was time to work towards solutions, though I had no idea how to begin.


I didn’t leave Chile for another year after that, and I didn’t stop using plastic fabrics, but I did begin to research alternatives that we could source locally, like Chilean wool and Peruvian cotton.  The changes to our supply chain, manufacturing and financial structure would have been monumental. I might have continued on that path indefinitely except that my partner and I started diverging (as business partners do) right when I was accepted to Stanford’s graduate design program.  I decided to return to California, and see if I could make change on a bigger scale. At the time, I thought that meant learning about substituting greener materials for toxic ones, but I quickly learned that sustainable design is a social problem more than a technical one. That realization will be the subject of the next installment of the history of Orta.


But I want to finish by coming back to the present.  Yesterday, I was taking out the trash for the company I own now, Orta, thinking about this post.  So much is the same: I still surf. I’m still the owner of a small company, making stuff. I still take out the trash.  And I still worry about it. As someone working towards zero waste at home and in a manufacturing environment, I can tell you it’s much easier at home.  


Also, much has changed:  I have succeeded in shipping products with zero toxins, and zero plastic.  And the products themselves are part of a growing consciousness that I couldn’t have dreamed 15 years ago.  We as a culture are waking up to our impacts on the planet, and are finding ways to reduce our carbon footprints and plastic consumption.  We’re also beginning to focus more on conservation, from large activism projects to caring for the nature that starts right outside your door in your garden.  Often this consciousness can manifest as despair, as we come to realize what we're losing.  But for me, writing this post is leaving me optimistic, as I look back and see how much has changed in the 15 years since the seeds of Orta were planted (pun intended!).


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