Sunday, September 30, 2012

How do snowboard companies address environmental issues?

It's hard to find any commonality among how the snowboard industry discusses environmental impacts and potential solutions. Honestly, it's not a surprise that this industry isn't trying to pigeonhole itself into corporate responsibility reports or other corporate lingo. Luckily (or not), I know nothing about marketing strategy. So here's my first impression while scanning through company websites and reports.

Size matters. Brands can be broken down by those owned by a larger corporation and those made in limited quantity by small companies. I was blown away by Illicit Snowboarding's article, The Faceless Corporations That Run Snowboarding that listed how many companies are actually owned by a larger corporation that manage multiple brands under a "division". To me this means a few things, more dollars to investigate and more available lending ability to invest in a strategy to return dollars to meet goals...and more employees. If a brand has the means to put time and effort into tracking issues and producing a report, then it has more options to enhance communications through their website or glossy annual reports, investing in manufacturing improvements, and developing a strategy. That's not to say that a small company doesn't have an environmental program, but that it seems to me most mega-global-investor-backed-types may be able to afford to track water/energy/waste/community projects full-time, than the owner that is their own shop-keeper/board-presser/marketing-strategist/receptionist/accountant/gotta sleep sometime-type. Which brings me to...

Focus. Obviously, most companies are focused foremost on technical details and quality; however, some brands make an effort to develop an environmental focus and strategy, whether it's because they realize the sport is environmentally-dependent or for a lifestyle expression. Some are straight-up, we focus on product only.

So, what do they say? Metrics. Initiatives. Lists. I looked at both producers of apparel and boards, and I looked at both the corporate-level and individual brand-level. Not everybody has the same approach and not one is the best. I did find that some in fact do define and track their amount of greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, and waste production and that some report that amount and have set goals to reduce impacts. These were either the corporations themselves or large companies (uh, Nike for surprises there). This approach was the most detailed and directed towards improving the manufacturing process, as well as probably the most expensive. There are several brands and corporations that focus their approach under an "umbrella" of programs aimed at providing funding or foundational support to environmental non-profits (such as POW, Surfrider, etc) and to projects that have a direct approach on improving the place where the action goes down, such as community clean-up days and grass-roots action. There were also brands that provide information on what the community or individual can do through brand blogs or outreach campaigns. Some have a dedicated product line focused on using alternative materials with fewer environmental impacts. Then, there were some that said nothing. Maybe it's because they are new to the approach and haven't unveiled a framework or maybe that's not their focus.

It's hard to say which approach is the best, because of the intended audience. At first, I wanted to see some numbers. I like details behind how much a brand is actually trying to lessen impacts, but I am a bit of a number-cruncher. If the intent of the brand/corporation is to swoon investors and number-nerds into purchasing, then a report-format will fit that audience. However, if the intent is to pull partners and individuals together to accomplish a common goal, then maybe the foundation-support is the approach.  Despite the audience, I do like some information on what the product is made from. There are not rights or wrongs, and I am not trying to pull-punches. The industry does have guys/gals making boards by hand because they love to do it and they want to sale a product that they believe in to only a few people. They shouldn't be chastised because they don't produce a 80-page sustainability report. It really boils down to what the consumer is looking for.