Words by Hannah Tapping
Developing innovative oceanwear with the environment in mind.
It feels like a lifetime ago, before the madness and mayhem of Covid-19 overtook our lives, that I interviewed Paul Strike and Jim Standing, directors of Fourth Element. As we emerge from lockdown, it’s now time to tell the story. It all started with Paul; a Cornish boy, through and through, whose family has always had an affinity with the sea. Generations of Strikes have been connected with the ocean, whether that be volunteering for the Coastguard or selling the very fish from it. Uncle John Strike was Porthleven’s finest fishmonger, and it was in this Cornish fishing village that Paul’s relationship with the sea began. His formative years were spent swimming and snorkelling off ‘Breageside’, living a childhood of dreams that nurtured Paul’s affinity with the ocean.
Paul was just 12 when he was first exposed to diving. His parents ran a bed and breakfast in the village, and recognising Paul’s love of the sea, a guest offered to lend him his scuba kit. “Don’t go down too deep and breathe out as you come up,” was pretty much the extent of his tuition. And the rest, as they say, is history. It did however take a few years before Paul’s relationship with diving really took off. A self-confessed, mad-keen sportsman, Paul studied for a degree in sports science and played rugby for his beloved county and then at the highest national level, for Saracens and Northampton.
Paul became a teacher by profession, but still pursued his love of diving whenever possible, and it was while attending a PADI dive course, in a cold quarry, during a chilly March, that he questioned why he always seemed to be, in his words: “Freezing my ass off!” Thinking he must be wearing the wrong kit he asked his examiners for their advice. He was more than surprised to learn that, even though they were all long-time dive professionals, they were also freezing!
A seed was sown and while shooting the breeze over a few beers on a diving trip to Egypt in 1999 with fellow teacher and friend, Jim Standing, the pair realised that they shared a passion for the ocean. Their discussions made them realise that there was a definite gap in the market for dive kit that actually worked, as well as a need for a ‘lifestyle’ brand to accompany it. It felt to Paul and Jim that surfers were well-catered for in terms of technical and lifestyle brands, whereas the dive industry seemed to be somewhat lacking in these areas. They wanted to create a brand that would instil a sense of community, one that divers would be proud to wear both under the water and on dry land.
The friends took the leap of faith to set up a company that could manufacture the gear that was wanted, and needed, for their sport and passion. Being teachers set them in good stead when it came to the research and development needed to source the best possible performance yarns and fabric. They were fast learners and excellent communicators, which made the process that much easier. Their remit was to source a fabric technology and initially make a base layer that would be so good that everyone would want to have one. This wasn’t the only life-changing decision they made. Paul also decided to leave his job as a teacher and relocate, with his young family, back to Cornwall to pursue the business dream. Luckily, Paul’s wife was supportive in the decision, as it meant adopting a mammoth mortgage while simultaneously taking Paul out of full-time employment, and moving hundreds of miles with two children under five! Jim joined them, living with them for a time in their new-found family home on the Lizard – and so Fourth Element was born.
Early adopters of the brand were more than impressed and many influential members of the dive community gave their recommendation and seal of approval at an early stage. The brand has now been adopted globally by the dive industry; Fourth Element technical clothing and drysuits are used in some of the most extreme places on earth and it’s the brand of choice for leading dive teams, including the FBI and the British Special Forces.
However, it has been more than just the technical kit that has driven the business to where it is today. Jim and Paul are both vocal in that they don’t just want to produce the best kit at any cost; they also want the kit to be the best it can be in terms of sustainability and the impact it has on the environment and the ocean they love so much. They coined the term ‘OceanPositive’ to describe this ethos, underpinning everything at Fourth Element – from their range of recycled swimwear and the use of compostable packaging, to their environmental collaborations and professional practises. Jim and Paul are often asked to discuss a sustainable approach to business, and the manufacture of product, at industry and business events around the world. Paul presented on this subject on behalf of World Animal Protection at the UN, with Jim’s powerful talk at Cornwall’s Eden Project gaining a global reach.
As creator of Mission 2020 (mission2020.org) the company pledged to eliminate single use plastic packaging by World Ocean Day in June this year, Unfortunately, the project was knocked off track by the global pandemic, and it will be a few more months before all the products are single-use plastic free, but in the meantime they are continuing their commitment to look for and share new alternatives.
Paul, returning to the harbour as a young boy with his catch of mackerel
Fourth Element’s OceanPositive swimwear, rashguard and legging range is made with ECONYL® nylon that is derived from a combination of recycled ghost fishing nets and other waste nylon products. Ghost nets account for a staggering 600,000 tonnes of gear lost to the ocean, which become a huge hazard to marine life. Dive teams across the world are removing these nets, recovering them from the seas so that they can be recycled and spun into nylon yarn. Designed with an athletic style, the OceanPositive range not only looks good, but also, in the case of the rashguard and leggings, offers UPF50+ protection, blocking at least 97.5% of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation.
While sunscreen is essential for ocean lovers, recent studies have shown that the pollutants in mass-produced sunscreens are contributing to the increase of dead and sterile ‘zombie reefs’, and so many are looking for safe alternatives. Fourth Element are also partners of Stream2Sea, a body and skincare company that manufactures the most stringently-tested, ocean life-friendly sunscreens, body lotions and shampoos. A continued part of a commitment to a healthy ocean, this alternative to harmful chemical sunscreens, uses minerals to protect the skin and is the only mineral sunscreen tested and proven safe for fish and coral larvae as well as being safe for humans. Even the packaging is eco-friendly, made from sugarcane resin to minimise contribution to plastic pollution and the 32oz bottles are made from 97% recycled milk jugs.
Despite its global reach, the heart of Fourth Element remains in Cornwall. The head office is in Helston, which employs over 30 local people and also houses 70% of their stock. A warehouse in the US, and another in Australia, keeps the brand moving across the continents and Fourth Element product is available to order online, from their flagship stores in Shanghai, Beijing and Bangkok, as well as from one of 1,400 dive shops spanning the world.
Now in their 21st year of business together, Paul and Jim’s partnership remains as strong as ever. They continue to innovate and expand with an agility that sees new and exciting products coming to the fore on a regular basis. Their success is testament to their continued vision and drive coupled with their boundless love and respect for the ocean.