Praise in a recent ski industry sustainability report and recipient of the 2021 Sustainability Achievement Award – it looks like the early bird really does get the worm. Suston meets Earlybird Skis’ founder Hanno Schwab to get the dirt on why the rest of the ski industry still hasn’t woken up.
Suston: In the outdoor apparel sphere, you can’t be taken seriously anymore if you’re not serious about sustainability. Consumers will shun you and retailers will shut their doors. What is stopping hardgoods, like skis, from being given the same treatment?
The technologies for more sustainable products exist. There must be companies, such as Earlybird Skis, that prove that these technologies work. The whole thing must be accompanied by NGOs and industry associations that point out the possibilities of new, but also the shortcomings of old production principles. Customers must first be made aware of the problems in the hardwear sector. This has already happened in the textile industry, where the topic of sustainability and fair production conditions has become mainstream. That’s where we have to go.
Suston: A big part of the apparel industry’s move towards increased sustainability can be traced back to demand for more transparency following a series of exposures surrounding working conditions and environmental impacts. How transparent is the ski industry today?
The industry today is very non-transparent. There are multi-brand companies that have their products manufactured at various locations by contract manufacturers. The production sites often change within a few years. This makes it very difficult to reliably monitor production conditions. Earlybird makes all information accessible and transparent to the monitoring agents (Greenroomvoice, myclimate).
I think that if the sometimes catastrophic working conditions, but also the handling of hazardous substances and their disposal were to come to light, consumers would also wake up. It would make more consumers look behind the pretty advertising images and colorful products and ask questions.
For example, one of the most contaminated sites in Austria with chlorinated hydrocarbons is the site of a former ski factory. This has an impact on the groundwater and directly on the health of the people living there. This is virtually unknown and is not addressed in the media.
Suston: One point the Mountain Wilderness report makes is how ownership structures of many familiar ski brands are much more diffuse than most consumers are probably aware of. Is it likely that multi-national corporation-owned ski brands will lead on sustainability? Why or why not?
In my view, the established large corporations are too sluggish to develop new sustainability technologies and to take the lead here. They are trapped in production processes that have been tried and tested for years and see new material technologies as a threat to their established processes. In new materials, large manufacturers see above all the danger that something might not work and that their reputation might suffer. But if you don’t try anything, you can’t take the lead.
Suston: The report singles out fossil-fuel energy as contributing to the bulk share of production impacts – short of moving production to countries that have a primarily renewable energy mix, what should ski companies do to mitigate this impact?
In almost all European countries, you can now buy green electricity through your energy supplier. This is the first and easiest step to do something without even having to change anything or to change anything in your own company. The second step is to conduct an LCA of one’s own products, identify potential for improving the footprint and implement the measures. The third step is to compensate for the remaining footprint. Apart from this, it must be ensured that the product is produced fairly and safely.
Suston: The Mountain Wilderness report identifies ski recycling at end-of-life as a non-solution at this point in time, even as Earlybird and several other ski manufacturers are developing models that can be recycled. Does this mean these efforts are in vain?
The LCA concludes that ski recycling does not make sense at this stage due to the increased transport needs to the recycling station in Spain. This ignores the fact that it is a proof of concept at this stage. It is not planned to send thousands of skis to Spain, but to show that the technology works. A network of national and regional recycling stations needs to be established. We are not just talking about ski recycling here, but about composite recycling in general, which then affects the automotive, wind power, boat building and also the construction industry.
That’s where it gets interesting. The sports industry can be the pioneer here. In Switzerland, earlybird skis is already in the process of setting up this recycling option on an industrial scale, with a partner from the recycling industry, which could become a model for other countries. At the same time, we are working on an app for end consumers that identifies their product and shows them the next return location based on their geolocation.
Suston: So do you then think ski producers should themselves take responsibility for their own products at end-of-life?
Yes, definitely. For example, this could also be similar to the electrical industry in Switzerland, where the customer already pays the advance recycling fee when buying an electrical appliance. This finances the construction and operation of the recycling infrastructure. This works very well and can also be applied in other areas.
Photos: Earlybird Skis
About Earlybird Skis
earlybird skis was founded in 2014 by the engineer and passionate freeskier Hanno Schwab in Bern, Switzerland. His ambition was to pioneer the art of sustainable ski engineering and to be the first to crush big lines on earlybird skis.
Keeping the environmental footprint as small as possible while enjoying winter sports was and remains the guiding principle. That is the idea of not only building the best performing, but also the most environmental friendly freeride touring ski.