While jackets and other apparel seen on the ski slopes gradually are getting better, are skis themselves still a blind spot when it comes to sustainability? A recent report from Switzerland says the answer is yes – but also that pioneers can shake up the industry.
Riding the ski lift in Responsible Wool Standard Certified thermal underwear, a Recycled Content certified rePET fleece jacket and a Carbon Neutral shell jacket, one might be forgiven for thinking they’ve gone further than most in doing their part for the cause. And rightly so! Conscious and informed consumption of this sort has helped set an appallingly dirty apparel branch on a more sustainable trajectory, now offering a range of certifications and innovations to satisfy this increasing demand.
But our convictions appear to stop at just around ankle height, when we enter the obscure and unexplored realm of hardgoods. What does it mean to be a good ski? And where do good skis go when they die? According to a recent report, there are (almost) no good skis and that good ski or bad, they all end up in the same fiery inferno.
“What is inside a ski and who is behind it?”
A report by the Swiss chapter of the conservation NGO Mountain Wilderness dared to ask the big, existential questions that we usually reserve for apparel. The results were unsettling albeit unsurprising: beneath the glossy ads of the familiar brands we’ve grown up with lurks a ski industry that can be every bit as dirty as apparel. Take a look at the report summary here, but a few key findings were:
Materials: Use of hazardous compounds and exclusively virgin materials, often non-renewable and designed in a manner that is virtually impossible to recycle. The overwhelming majority of skis are currently landfilled or incinerated at end-of-life.
Energy: The greatest leverage in terms of environmental impact is the choice of electricity used in the manufacture of the skis. Carbon intensive production using fossil-fuel based energy leads to a high impact.
Transparency: Complex multinational conglomerate ownership, sometimes with ties to the weapons industry, with non-transparent supply chains that often source and produce in countries with lax environmental and labor regulations.
While the report undoubtedly paints a dystopic picture of today’s status quo, it’s not all bad news. That’s because according to the report’s co-author Tim Marklowski, “The technologies for more sustainable products already exist.”
Take materials, for example, whereby wood cores can be FSC certified, laminates can use flax fibers instead of glass fiber, and the base and edges can use recycled polyethelene and steel respectively. Recyclability can be factored in at the design stage, though an industry-wide effort is needed to see to it that recycling actually becomes feasible at a regional level (efforts are already underway to scale up composite recycling centers, based on a proof-of-concept ski recycling facility in Barcelona).
The biggest impact reduction, however, comes from energy. By changing to renewable electricity in manufacturing, a ski can reduce its overall environmental impact score by half. This is also perhaps the easiest to implement, as it’s possible to buy green energy from energy providers in most European and North American countries.
So, the question arises: as many (if not all) of these impacts are largely avoidable, what’s holding the ski industry back?
Consumer Demand, in Demand
As Tim Marklowski sees it, there’s really just one thing standing in the way of the ski industry’s transition towards sustainability:
“There is no public awareness that hardgoods are problematic, too. It is crucial that consumers ask the right questions. There needs to be a clear signal that we care not only about how our shirts are made, but every product.”
Tim Marklowski acknowledges that hardgoods are a tougher nut to crack, as Outdoor has nearly zero leverage over suppliers compared to the purchasing power of automobile manufacturers and other heavy industry that share the same space. But he remains optimistic that as far as hardgoods are concerned, skis are a good place to start:
“One reason for hardgoods like carabiners are under the radar so far, could be, that people do not identify with these products as much as with clothing. They do not contribute as much to their image, their identity. Skis could be easier here as they are part of the cultural identity in lots of alpine regions and a ‘cool’ product to be seen with.”
Yet if we’re to take another lesson from the apparel industry, in order for awareness and demand for sustainability to grow a trigger is needed that sets things on the agenda: consumers get informed, industry roundtables ensue, certifications and legislation are established and consumers regain confidence. No Greenpeace Detox campaign, PETA wool exposé or Rana Plaza tragedy, no one cares. And then there’s the flip side: in order for consumers to make the right choice, they need a sustainable alternative.
“It is impossible to say what needs to be first, the hen or the egg (demand or offer),” explains Tim Marklowski, who continues:
“There needs to be both, an offer and an increasing demand. For both awareness and public interest needs to be created. And that is exactly where we as an NGO with our study/report come to play.”
Where to start?
While NGOs like Mountain Wilderness work on increasing awareness and demand, a handful of manufacturers are working on ensuring there’s a viable, sustainable alternative. Here, the snowboard industry has led the way with big labels like Burton, Jones and Arbor innovating with new materials and low impact production techniques. In the ski industry, pioneers like Earlybird have demonstrated its possible to cut a ski’s environmental impact in half when manufacturing using renewable energy and recycled materials (read interview with Earlybird’s founder here).
Half is good. But before we get too excited about that, perhaps a little perspective is in order. Namely, that after one has done all their research and now have the most environmentally-friendly skis underfoot, the Mountain Wilderness report comes with a sobering fact: one single 100km drive to the mountains in a fossil-fuel car has the same environmental impact as that pair of ecological skis. This doesn’t even begin to factor in the land-impacts of roads, lodgings and infrastructure in sensitive wilderness areas and the colossal carbon footprint of most ski resorts.
Leaving our passions aside and looking at this sport objectively, as aliens looking in, downhill skiing today might appear to have more in common with strip mining or clear-cut logging than with any of its other “outdoor” relatives like hiking or canoeing.
If we’re serious about cleaning up skiing, we need to start with our behavior: skiing locally, traveling by train or electric car, skiing using human power or choosing from the increasing number of ski resorts that run on renewable energy.
Even here, Tim challenges us to think a few more steps ahead and not simply trade one problem for another:
“Renewables can have a massive ‘landscape footprint’ by building huge dams, wind turbines in the mountains etc. Thus, sufficiency and efficiency must be top priority. Otherwise there won’t be much wilderness left to explore on our carbon neutral touring skis. Energy is not only a CO2 problem that can be solved by simply switching to renewables. It is also a wilderness/landscape conservation problem. If we want pristine landscapes/intact nature and carbon neutrality, reducing and better efficiency are critical.”
But one thing at a time. This article’s about skis. And dealing with smaller challenges can often help raise awareness and pave the way to tackling much larger ones like these. By replacing our skis’ “fire and brimstone” dogma to one of reincarnation, we could be one sustainable product closer to keeping our powder deep and vistas pristine.
About Report’s Authors
Mountain Wilderness is an international non-governmental organization dedicated to the preservation of mountain areas, in their natural and cultural aspects. The organization was founded in Europe and has a stronger presence in Alpine and Pyrenean regions. It has, however, a worldwide reach, with representatives and actions on all continents.
Photos: Johanna Fraenkel, Earlybird Skis, Yann Allegre on Unsplash