Practice What You Preach: Sustainability in Winter Sports
Curated expert and ski journalist Donny O'Neill zooms in on sustainability in winter sports gear production.
As consumers demand more environmentally-sound business practices, snow sports manufacturers are doing more than just marketing to meet that demand.
The focus on sustainability in the manufacturing of winter sports products isn’t a new one. Consumers in 2020 gravitate toward companies that are conscious of their environmental and social impact in producing goods, and more and more, companies have touted sustainable processes within their manufacturing.
But, it’s difficult to parse through the marketing language and find out if sustainability actually matters to a company, or if it’s just for show. It’s also a tricky proposition for companies. Manufacturing ski and snowboard gear is inherently bad for the environment, whether it’s wood sourced for cores, plastics, or toxic chemicals—not to mention the energy use needed in ski factories.
While there is a component of marketing talk to take with a grain of salt, what is evident is that ski and snowboard manufacturers are incorporating sustainability into their production processes, in large part because they realize contributing to a healthy environment best sets the industry up for the future.
Sustainable From the Start
While many brands have had to implement sustainability standards into their business models after many years of production, some companies were born out of the idea that snow sports gear could be built in a sustainable fashion.
Picture Organic Clothing was founded in 2008, with the goal of manufacturing clothing from completely recycled materials. Since its inception, the company has grown into one of the gold standards of sustainable product manufacturing. Co-founders Julien Durant, Vincent Andre, and Jeremy Rochette had always dreamed of contributing sustainable practices to brands in the ski industry, but as the topic wasn’t at the forefront of most companies’ minds, they could never get hired. In turn, they started their own operation.
“We said, if we are going to start something new, we want that brand’s [products] to be 100-percent made of recycled products, recycled material, organic cotton, and we want to be fully involved in sustainability or nothing,” explains Durant. “I really thank Jeremy for his vision in 2008. Because where we are going is really where every single company has to go for the future. And he’s provided that vision since day one of launching a business fully invested in sustainability.”
Incorporating Sustainable Practices
While Picture began at a time when sustainable mindsets were really taking off, many established companies in the snow sports world have had to pivot their business operations in order to take a more sustainable approach.
Icelantic Skis, for example, has really had to analyze all aspects of its business, from production to outreach to community involvement, in order to achieve its environmental goals. There are so many components to sustainable manufacturing and business practices, but company founder Ben Anderson doesn’t believe there is one that’s more important than the rest; it’s more about identifying internal company goals and applying practices where it best fits for the business.
“What's most important is that you take it seriously and you try to apply where you can towards one of those common goals. I don't get too caught up in the best way to do it is to only use recycled materials or the best way to do it is to donate X amount of your profits to an organization. We’ve done a lot of those different things,” says Anderson. “We're experimenting with every aspect of the business; everything from the packaging that we're using, to the story that we tell and how we present ourselves as a brand, how we encourage our customer base to get involved and be active. There's a whole variety of ways that you can engage, focus, and use your resources. But I don't think there's one strategy that's better than the rest, it's more about working towards a common goal.”
To that end, Icelantic is working towards becoming a certified B-Corporation, a company that meets the highest standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit with purpose. With that comes a total analysis of every piece of the company’s business, but it’s a goal that Icelantic believes in, and also knows that the consumer is looking for.
“With where things are going in our market, and the importance in the consumer’s mind of how conscious a company is, it’s just going to continue to grow in importance,” says Anderson. “There are benefits to our internal vision and strategy, that we’re acting on what we believe in, and there are benefits for the globe in general and where the market is continuing to shift.”
An Emphasis on Sustainable Manufacturing
Many companies share that broad view of the importance of sustainable business practices, but with snow sports gear manufacturing, companies must implement nitty gritty tactics in the production process to ensure that what’s being produced is the least harmful it can be. Much of this relies on a company’s ability to control every aspect of its manufacturing.
This, of course, starts with the infrastructure supporting the production process: the factory. A huge amount of energy is put into building these products, and companies have turned toward renewables to ensure their factories are operating sustainably. Blizzard Skis, one of the giants of European ski manufacturing, is one of several ski brands that has converted its factory to 100 percent renewable energy.
“We’re proud of the fact that the Mittersill facility that produces Blizzard, Nordica, Black Diamond, Black Crows, and a lot of different skis runs on 100 percent renewable, naturally produced energy.”
“The Blizzard factory has a giant solar cell on the roof, which produces about 20 percent of the annual power. The rest comes from hydropower,” says Jed Duke, director of product marketing for Tecnica USA/Blizzard Skis. “We’re proud of the fact that the Mittersill facility that produces Blizzard, Nordica, Black Diamond, Black Crows, and a lot of different skis runs on 100 percent renewable, naturally produced energy.”
Within the factories, it has become increasingly important to control all aspects of where materials are coming from. For companies that rely on Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) for components and materials for their products, this is near impossible. Companies that control all aspects of their business, including the supply chain, have a better ability to identify sustainable ways to gather their materials.
“We control our own destiny, we build our own stuff."
“We control our own destiny, we build our own stuff. I started in supply chain, and so it’s critical just starting there,” says Thomas Laakso, vice president of product and operations at DPS Skis, which owns its own factory in Salt Lake City, Utah. “Focusing on domestic sources is key, and, with the climate we have today, overall, it's going to be a more and more important factor about where you are getting your skis and where are the materials coming from? Our supply chain is critical.”
Icelantic also believes in this holistic approach to manufacturing, as it builds its skis locally in Denver, Colorado, and all of its apparel is manufactured in the United States.
“It’s about sustainable processes,” says Anderson. “Building locally, supporting the local economy, and really just keeping that hands-on approach to the manufacturing cycle.”
For a company like Dynafit, it’s paramount to produce its goods close to home in Germany. Benedikt Boehm, general manager for Dynafit, notes that he can draw a roughly 300 kilometer circle around Munich, Germany, and that at least 70 percent of the company’s production falls within that circle.
“We are still producing every single binding in Germany, every single ski boot in Italy, every single climbing skin in Switzerland, and the majority of our skis in Austria."
“About 77 percent of our products are made within the Alps. I want to keep investing in that. That's something I'm really proud of,” notes Boehm. “We are still producing every single binding in Germany, every single ski boot in Italy, every single climbing skin in Switzerland, and the majority of our skis in Austria. Of course, it would be much cheaper to produce bindings in Taiwan or skis in China, but no, it's better to give something back to the community and to try to get into the circular economy.”
Seeking Out New Materials
Keeping production domestic is one strategy for responsible and sustainable manufacturing, but investing in research of new materials that are less harmful to the environment is an extremely important production strategy for some brands.
For a company like Picture, which has built its brand on sustainability, one strategy for finding new materials has been looking to other industries that have had success. For example, Picture has attended trade shows for the sailing and military industries, to see what sustainable materials are being produced that could crossover to apparel. In addition, Picture has chosen to partner with innovative materials manufacturers that share its same mission of sustainability, in order to get in on the ground floor of using those new materials. Through these partnerships, Picture has been able to ensure that 69 percent of the polyesters used in its technical apparel come from recycled plastic bottles, 92 percent of the cotton used in its production is organic, and many of the inner linings of its products are made from scraps generated during the manufacturing process.
“Partners are showing us the products now, because they know we will buy it if the innovation is real and not greenwashing.”
“We want our partners to understand our brand commitments, and to feed us with some innovations for new products and we're ready to pay for that. But we have to know what's happening,” says Durant. “Partners are showing us the products now because they know we will buy it if the innovation is real and not greenwashing.”
Within ski manufacturing, Icelantic is exploring new eco-based resins, and on the boot side, Tecnica is investigating new bio-based plastics and materials in its ski boots.
But when manufacturing more sustainable products, companies can’t just focus on the here and now. They must look to the future, to the end of the life cycle of a product, to make sure it’s truly less harmful to the environment. To this end, companies rely on lifetime guarantees and upcycling programs, to make sure products will last a lifetime or be properly recycled when their useful lives end.
Dynafit implemented a lifetime guarantee in 2019, and is proud to make ski gear that lasts more than just a few seasons.
“It's called Handmade in Germany Lifetime Guarantee, that's something that we’re going to expand to more than just bindings. It’s very clear to us that we really want to make products for lifetime and not just consumerism,” says Boehm. “I'm super happy if somebody buys a beautiful product and has it for 10 or 15 years.”
DPS also aims to ensure that its skis will last an extended period of time. The brand builds its skis with a foundation of carbon fiber, which, compared to similar materials like fiberglass, has an infinite fatigue life—it’s able to withstand extended use without bending or breaking down. While wood is also a natural material used in skis, it breaks down after time. Because carbon is the major source of pop and energy in its skis, DPS is able to elongate the lifespan of the wood by putting the brunt of the work on the carbon fiber. It also uses the hardest race bases on all of its skis, regardless of intended use, in order to elevate durability and require fewer base grinds, to further that lifespan.
“We're not building skis with a goal to recycle them. We're building skis to last through your journey and hopefully after that,” says Laakso. “In terms of our sustainability, when you buy a DPS ski, we hope it lasts a lifetime.”
Anderson echoes that message for Icelantic, noting that the goal is never to have a customer blow through a pair of skis in a single season or two.
While these strategies certainly go a long way toward extending a product’s life, in reality, no piece of ski gear can last forever, and so brands have taken a look at end-of-life aspects—what happens when a product is no longer usable?
“This entire after-care, how the ski is recycled, is so important,” says Daniel Tanzer, head of hardgoods for Faction. “We have a task force here in Europe with Federation of Sporting Goods, and are working on a concept to get this aftercare built. For me, that’s really one of the hot topics of how sustainable skiing looks like in the future.”
Sweet Protection, makers of snow sports protective equipment, understands that it’s difficult to balance the performance of a product with environmentally-responsible materials, but by designing the products with the end of life in mind, the company can rest easy knowing that its gear can be disposed of properly.
“We make sure that our products are designed for disassembly, so that they can be disassembled and recycled,” says Bjørn Fjellstad, managing director of Sweet Protection.
Companies also explore upcycling programs to find further use for their products. DPS is exploring a new initiative for fall 2020, where it will create an aftermarket marketplace for all DPS Skis, where consumers can buy and sell used products from the brand. And, of course, all of Picture’s clothing can be recycled if it’s not re-sold.
Focus on sustainability isn’t a new idea in product manufacturing, but it’s important for consumers to know that there are numerous ways that these companies are investigating becoming more environmentally conscious. While the eco-marketing message is put out there in order to sell products, when you dig a bit deeper, you discover that the many of these brands are walking the walk, and doing due diligence to ensure a healthy environmental future for the snow sports industry.