Karhu makes skis with sustainable wood cores.
But greener materials aren’t the only way to make a better product—the processes for making skis and boards are improving, too. All of Arbor’s factory machines are wind-powered, and boards are shipped factory direct to minimize transportation emissions and costs. The Venture factory has been wind powered since 2004, and also recycles nearly everything. Wood scraps become signs or birdhouses. Sawdust becomes horse bedding, which is composted. Shipping boxes are used and reused until they fail, then recycled. Branner says, "We always try to incorporate sustainability."
Unfortunately, many of the necessary materials used in ski and snowboard manufacturing don’t have eco-friendly alternatives—yet. "What we’ve found most challenging is finding suitable, durable, vegetable-based alternatives for the petroleum-based plastics and resins," says Venture’s Branner. But that may be changing.
Kingswood is investigating a flax alternative to fiberglass—a component used in almost every ski and board made today. Arbor is looking into alternative sugar-based resin to replace the harsh epoxies now used, and is also researching corn-based plastic. "We’re trying to build a totally organic board," says Perkins, "and corn-based plastics will happen."
But while the world waits for new technologies to emerge, there are other ways companies are making a difference. Kingswood’s carbon emissions were measured by the third party organization carboNZero, which invoiced the ski maker for an appropriate number of offset credits. And Kingswood is actually double offset (carbon positive) for 2007. At first, the company purchased credits for the entire year from an organization in the U.S. Then, says Herbert, "I was told by carboNZero that the credits were not "Kyoto compliant" because the U.S. has not signed the Kyoto protocol." So the company purchased compliant credits in New Zealand at additional cost.
Global giant Head has also recently jumpstarted a program designed to eliminate its carbon footprint. The ski and snowboard maker is offsetting 10 times its annual carbon emissions (as measured by them) through partnership with the Cool Earth charity. The partnership will protect more than 7,000 acres of mature South American rainforest annually. It’s also launching a "Don’t Pray for Snow. Do Something." advertising campaign featuring Head athletes like Olympic skier Bode Miller.
Doing Your Part
How can consumers know if the ski industry’s "green" movement is real and not just greenwashing wizardry? Arbor’s Perkins says the most important thing is to "be more conscious of where your consumer dollar is going. Some companies trying to "go green" still make their products in China and other places where fewer regulations mean both lower prices and greater environmental impact." Venture’s Branner agrees, but doesn’t feel threatened by skeptics. "It’s the reason we got started, and a deep-rooted conservation ethic has always been a part of our company," he says. "These efforts aren’t a marketing tactic—they’re just part of who we are."
Some companies are surely capitalizing on the marketability of "green" skis and snowboards without believing in, or improving upon, sustainability ideals. But for others, making skis and boards sustainably is a labor of love. Kingswood’s Herbert says, "Sure, it’s good for business to take sustainability measures, but there is also a deep satisfaction that comes from doing these things for the right reason." Venture’s Branner says, "There’s no point in making a "green" snowboard if it can’t take its licks and ends up in the landfill. It’s a difficult proposition, and we’re not environmental angels by any means, but we feel that we are headed down the right path."
The bottom line is ultimately a shared love and passion for winter. "Even if you were a skier with a completely selfish, amoral viewpoint who took no interest in the overall health of the planet, or human beings" responsibility to look after it," says Herbert, "you’d have to be concerned about global temperature increases. To think you watched the snow melt away and did nothing…How could anyone who passionately loves skiing live with that?"
DREW POGGE is the associate editor of Backcountry Magazine.