The crisp cold of fall is here, and you know what that means: time to start shopping for a fresh kit.
Finding the right fit, flex and look is all part of shopping for new gear -- but this season, with climate-change legislation a legit possibility and the harsh realties of global warming more present than ever, it's important to consider more than just matching colorways. With nothing less than more winter seasons at stake, we've assembled a Green Guide, breaking down what goes into the "eco," "enviro" and "green" products hitting the shelves for the 2009-2010 season.
Of all snowboard products, boards require the most materials and consequently have the highest price tag attached to building a complete kit, but it's here where the sport has seen the largest growth in "green" manufacturing processes. A board breaks down into five basic parts: base, core, sidewalls, edges and topsheet, with additions such as carbon fiber and aluminum-infused cores for higher-tech boards. Holding it all together are a host of plastics derived from fossil fuels, fiberglass, toxic glues, resins and finishing coats. The goal of making a "green" snowboard is to reduce the use of these unsustainable and environmentally harmful materials.
No one's entirely licked it yet, but Mervin Manufacturing is coming the closest. Almost all their Lib Tech and Gnu boards feature recycled bases, soy-based elastomer sidewalls, low-VOC (volatile organic compound, b-a-d) epoxy resins, sustainably harvested wood cores, and no toxic finishing clearcoats. Their new Banana Magic model takes it further, incorporating 100 percent Baslat fiber instead of fiberglass, and a topsheet made from castor beans.
Mervin co-founders Mike Olson and Pete Saari say they can pull this off simply because they've been doing it for so long. Unlike many late-comers to the green party, Mervin has been researching and implementing natural materials and non-toxic manufacturing processes since the '80s. Because manufacturing is intrinsically linked to the factories where it takes place, Mervin can rightfully lay claim as the "world's most environmental snowboard factory"; witness their staggeringly thorough recycling program (down to the sawdust from milling cores).
Burton, on the opposite spectrum of the board market, has emerged this year as another major player in the eco-niche. "The Eco Nico was the catalyst to create the most environmentally sustainable board ever produced," Todd King, business unit director for boards at Burton, said of freeride guru and all-around green guy Nicolas Muller's late 2008-09 season pro model release. "Because of this board we were able to create new plastics, materials and processes which were integrated into the entire line."
The industry has made an assumption that the only customers making conscientious purchasing decisions are old guys that ride straight and soul surf the pow on some bamboo torpedo. In reality, there are a lot of educated young park and rail riders that want to make a responsible choice while staying true to their own style.
Blue Montgomery, Capita Snowboards
This season, 29 men's and women's board lines -- more than 75 percent of Burton's lineup -- incorporate Green Mountain Project (GMP) eco-features, including recycled content in bases, edges, sidewalls and Burton's Channel plug; certified wood cores; water-based inks for topsheet printing; and sustainable wax. Burton was able to step up in such a deep manner, in such a short period of time, because of their scale -- when you own your own factory (Burton runs five globally) and are buying materials for 29 different board models, you can leverage your suppliers and factories into working with you to develop better materials and practices.
Salomon has garnered attention for their Green Initiative For Tomorrow (GIFT) construction in their Sick Stick board, which uses bamboo to reduce the amount of resin required in construction, and increases pop at the same time. This season, the GIFT construction is being used in six decks, including the new Grip.
Arbor has been in the business of building decks using renewable natural materials since 1995, and their 14-board 2010 lineup integrates bamboo along with paulownia, another fast-growing wood, and FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified cores.
K2 took a technical approach on their 2009 Zero board, reducing impact by reducing the overall amount of materials used in construction. For the 2010 season, K2 incorporated the Zero's "Eco Conscious Construction", which K2 reports saves on steel and base material, as well as a 65 percent improvement on sidewall material waste over the standard ABS versions, into five board series, including the Gyrator and women's Eco Pop.
Ever the indie brand, Capita is releasing its own take on "eco-friendly" for this season: the Green Machine. "The industry has made an assumption that the only customers making conscientious purchasing decisions are old guys that ride straight and soul surf the pow on some bamboo torpedo," says Capita captain Blue Montgomery. "In reality, there are a lot of educated young park and rail riders that want to make a responsible choice while staying true to their own style. They might share the same concerns as the old dudes, but they don't ride like them and definitely don't want to look like them." The design and aesthetic of this true-twin freestyle-oriented deck, emblazoned with a gnarly beast and recycling pentagram graphic, plays to the under-30 set, while on the inside you've got a reforestation certified wood core, a toxin-reducing EVO fiberglass layup, and outside there's a 95 percent recycled base, 100 percent recycled sidewalls, and a bean-derivative topsheet.
Bataleon and Signal are two boutique brands that have also created eco-friendlier decks. Bataleon's Project Green model sports an FSC wood core, recycled sidewalls and base, plus a solvent-free topsheet with soy wax finish. Signal's OG boards feature a Flotsam and Jetsam base, using base material that would otherwise end up in a landfill. Venture takes a similar hand-crafted approach to all their high-performance backcountry decks, starting with sustainably harvested wood, adding inlayed base graphics that can be swapped between boards to reduce waste, finishing with natural wax, and juicing their entire operation on 100 percent wind power.
Owning your own factory, like Mervin, Burton, Signal and Venture, can make it a lot easier to make the changes you want. So can selling a ton of boards. For the rest, it's a question of whether it's worth the risk, and the often elevated cost, of pushing snowboard construction toward a healthier and more sustainable future. Despite the high up-front costs of sourcing renewable materials and working with suppliers and factories, the evidence suggests that companies are seeing green as more than a trend, and are moving toward a new standard. For most of these brands, select ingredients of their flagship "eco" board are making their way into the rest of the line, with or without PR hype.
"While we don't play the green card as the crux of our consumer message," says Montgomery, whose Capita lineup has three other non-"green" board lines with a sustainable wood core, "we have accepted the simple reality that we all need to do whatever we can towards more responsible manufacturing."
Composed of plastic polymers, snowboard bindings bear an unfortunate un-environmental reputation. Scientists still don't know how long these manufactured plastic compounds will take to break down completely -- likely tens of thousands of years -- and the small plastic pellets that comprise the raw material for snowboard bindings are making their way into the ocean in alarming amounts.
This season, snowboard-binding brands are experimenting with recycling the waste scraps from standard binding manufacture, and re-grinding the plastic into fresh baseplate and highback material. The process reduces the amount of virgin plastics used and saves landfills and oceans from more polluting plastics.
Union's Re-Union binding features a recycled plastic baseplate; recycled EVA material on the bushings, straps and highback padding; and zero finish paint.
"The direction here is utilizing all the waste from our production of other bindings, not throw anything in the dumpster at the factory, and still have a binding with a lifetime baseplate warranty," says Union chief George Kleckner. Union has also partnered with Protect Our Winters on a custom POW Data binding, with a 100 percent recycled aluminum heelcup, 15 percent recycled baseplate, and a portion of proceeds benefiting POW. For 2010-11, Union plans to expand the Re-Union line and incorporate scrap material from other snowboard brands (Holden, for one) for recycled straps and highback padding.
Burton's GMP line of bindings, including the Cartel and Lexa models, uses a plastic blended with 10 percent reground plastic for baseplate, highback and other parts. Burton expects this tech to be in all bindings by the 2011 winter season.
But in the case of high-performance products like snowboard bindings, too much recycling can mean downcycling. "Nylon loses significant strength each generation it goes through the regrinding process," explains Union's Kleckner. "Putting a bunch of bindings on the market that break would cause more waste than making bombproof gear out of virgin materials."
Starting with one of the strongest plastics out there, and using only first-generation scraps to re-grind, has been Union's solution, allowing them to extend their 'til-death-do-us-part warranty to the recycled baseplate. This season will be the test, as more recycled baseplates than ever hit the hill. The process has its shortcomings, but if proved effective, will be a significant step in the right direction.
Creating a "green" boot means swapping out harmful leather treatments, fossil-fuel-derived rubber and foam, and toxic glues with alternative materials that can hold their flex, and not breakdown or blow out. Vans and Burton have stepped up to the stiff challenge.
Vans' new Cirro and Veil boots are another collaboration with Protect Our Winters. Constructed with a 100 percent recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate, a plastic polymer used frequently in beverage packaging) textile, 50 percent recycled PET synthetic and nontoxic water-based solvents in the upper, the Cirro and Veil reuse waste plastics and contribute a portion of proceeds to POW.
"One of the main initiatives of the Cirro/POW project was to discover and develop new materials and processes that could later become standard practices throughout the rest of the line," says Vans equipment category director Jared Bevens.
Burton's men's GMP Driver X and women's GMP Q boots feature Vibram "Ecostep" 30-percent recycled rubber, a recycled PET liner and shell lining, and eco-friendly synthetic leathers. Burton hopes to have some of this tech in 80 percent of their line by 2011. But for both brands, progress still hinges on the availability, and prices, of greener ingredients. The main challenge with the Cirro and Veil, says Bevens, was "finding materials with recycled content that met all of the required performance criteria, at a cost that still made sense."
Across boards, bindings and boots, progress is being made. The more manufacturers demand high-performance recycled, renewable and bio-based materials from their vendors, the lower the prices will go. And what drives manufacturers to demand the green goods? Knowing there are snowboarders out there that will buy the product. "Consumer demand is always a good start," says Vans' Bevens. "The more sustainable manufacturing becomes an expectation of the consumer, rather than a nice alternative, the more manufacturers will have to react."
Seek out a board, binding and boot that reflects your values, and let 'em know you support better building.