NICHE: THE FIRST STEP IS THE HARDEST
Based in Salt Lake City, this young, scrappy snowboard company illustrates how startup manufacturers in the outdoor industry might approach sustainability in a new way—from the ground up.
THIS IS PART 4 OF A SERIES. READ THE OTHER PARTS HERE ▸
In this series of profiles, OIA takes a close look at a few outdoor brands that have created legitimate programs to reduce their impact on the environment. Invariably, each began with small or isolated efforts, but by more deeply exploring supply chains, studying data, collaborating with other outdoor brands, and using assessment tools like the Higg Index, these companies have been successful in growing their sustainability programs in substantive ways.
Niche: Building snowboards sustainably—from the get-go.
Committed to improving sustainability within the snowboard market, Niche Snowboards launched the world’s first zero-waste 100-percent recyclable snowboard. This small company’s secret sauce mixes an innovative new epoxy technology with a healthy dose of passion.
Laying the Groundwork
When the founders of Niche Snowboards set out to create a new brand in 2009, they vowed to do something different and innovative. “Traditional snowboard manufacturing is extremely toxic, and ironically, it’s for a sport based exclusively on the enjoyment of the environment. We kept coming back to the fact that no one was focusing on the environment,” says Ana Van Pelt, Niche’s co-founder and chief creative officer. “We thought that was crazy.” In an effort to find a more environmentally friendly path, Niche started slowly with a year of R&D. By the 2011–12 season, the 3.5-person company introduced its first fleet of eco-friendly snowboards using a host of sustainable materials and manufacturing processes.
Niche was one of the first companies to adopt the concept of using bio-resins in snowboard manufacturing. Instead of petroleum-based epoxies, Niche opted to use a bio-resin composed of bio-renewable waste materials from industries including bio-diesel and vegetable oil refinery. A quantifiable impact study commissioned by Entropy, the resin manufacturer, determined that using bio-resins reduces your carbon footprint compared to traditional resins by 40 percent.
The Mothership Launches
In 2015, Niche moved its manufacturing to The Mothership, a state-of-the-art facility in Austria’s Southern Alps. “When we heard they were building the world’s most environmentally friendly facility, we were beyond excited,” says Van Pelt. The facility, which is owned by CAPiTA Snowboarding, was the perfect partner for Niche: It’s 100-percent hydro-powered and uses an NH3 natural gas heating system, putting out zero C02 emissions. From the wood for the snowboards’ cores to the steel for their edges, The Mothership sources 98 percent of its materials from Austria, Germany, Slovenia, Switzerland, and Italy. “We take advantage of regional ground travel to obtain materials instead of pan-continental trucking or pan-global airfreight,” says Mark Dangler, marketing manager for CAPiTA. “Doing this supports local business and results in less energy used and less emissions released.”
Niche took the sticky issue of resins in snowboard manufacturing a step further for the 2017–18 season by teaming up with Connora, a company committed to zero-landfill manufacturing in the action sports industry. For the 2017–18 season, Niche launched the Theme—the world’s first zero-waste, 100-percent recyclable snowboard—using Connora’s new Recyclamine technology. Traditionally, the excess material cut away in the manufacturing process ends up in landfills because the epoxy can’t be removed from the snowboard’s structural components.
With Recyclamine, the excess waste materials are soaked in a benign vinegar-based solution that releases the chemical bonds so that the materials can separate. In their virgin state, materials like wood, plastic, fiberglass, and steel can by recycled or upcycled into new products. “It allows us to break those things down and harvest and recycle them,” explains Van Pelt. “Until now, that wasn’t possible.” The Mothership was willing to hand-mix the bio-resin as part of the Recyclamine process. “It’s more labor intensive,” says Van Pelt, “but it’s worth it.”
For 2018–19, Niche will roll out additional boards with Recyclamine, and the company plans to utilize Recyclamine across its entire line of products by the following season.
Niche is currently prototyping different upcycled products that can be made from its reclaimed manufacturing waste. “Plastics can be pelletized and turned in to injection-moldable thermoplastics,” explains Van Pelt. It could be binding parts, surfboard fins, goggles, or sunglasses. Niche is tinkering around in a California lab, as well as at its home base in Utah, to see what it can make with the leftover materials.
The Big Picture
Niche continues to look for eco-friendly alternatives to traditional manufacturing. The company uses recycled base material, sidewalls, and steel edges. The wood used in the cores is sourced sustainably. In place of carbon, which the company says releases half its weight in C02 when manufactured, Niche substitutes stringers made from either flax or basalt fibers for added pop and vibration dampening. Graphics are printed digitally directly on topsheets with water-based inks that are non-toxic, solvent-free, and use up to 75 percent less energy than is used in alternative printing techniques. Niche also leaves off the traditional lacquer finish—which they say is toxic to both the environment and to the people working in the factory—in favor of an eco-friendly matte finish.
Consumer Demand Finally Catching Up
“We’ve been shouting from the rooftops since day one about sustainably made products,” says Van Pelt. “When we first started communicating our message, people didn’t get it.” Even in the last two years, Niche has noticed a significant change in mindset with consumers seeking out ethical, eco-conscious products. “People are asking for it,” says Van Pelt. “It’s refreshing to see this trend become so big.” It’s also impacting the company’s bottom line. Over the last two years, Niche has enjoyed a 50-percent year-over-year growth in sales. “We’re a small team of people who care passionately about the earth,” says Van Pelt. “We believe small steps can lead to big impacts.”
Niche hopes other snowboard makers will follow its lead. “We’ve been vocal and overly transparent about our supply chain and manufacturing,” says Van Pelt. “Part of our mission is to inspire others.” Today, a handful of snowboard manufacturers are using bio-resins, including CAPiTA, Burton, and DC Snowboards.
“We’re a small team of people who care passionately about the earth. We believe small steps can lead to big impacts.”
Ana Van Pelt, Co-Founder, Niche Snowboards
For the past two years, CAPiTA has been using a bio-resin called Magic Bean Resin in all its snowboards as part of the company’s sustainability initiatives. It’s a plant-based resin formulated with renewable, agricultural raw materials. “It doesn’t compete with primary food sources and is produced with no waste or greenhouse gas emissions,” explains CAPiTA’s Dangler. A lower temperature requirement in the press equals less energy needed to make each board. “Niche has done an incredible job of pushing what is possible with the sustainable production of their snowboards,” says Dangler, “and we are happy that our clean-energy production facility can be a part of that process.”
DC Snowboards, which are also crafted at The Mothership, recently switched over to a bio-based resin in 100 percent of its snowboards, starting with its 2017–18 line.
“Niche has done an incredible job of pushing what is possible with the sustainable production of their snowboards and we are happy that our clean-energy production facility can be a part of that process.”
Mark Dangler, marketing manager for CAPiTA
Burton introduced Super Sap bio-resin its 2016 Family Tree line of boards. For 2018-19, the bio-resin will appear in every board in Burton’s lineup. Super Sap employs green chemistry techniques that lead to a 33-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from resin production compared with conventional petroleum-based epoxies.
Burton is also using Connora’s ReRez recyclable epoxy (which is an identical technology to Recyclamine). “All models coming out of our Craig’s Prototype facility are using ReRez,” says Jenn Swain, Burton’s Senior Sustainability Manager, “and our long-term goal is to have all board models using ReRez.”
The folks at Entropy Resins are optimistic about the eco-friendly direction these brands are moving in with snowboard production. “Companies are switching to bio-resins to reduce their environmental impact. The next step is moving toward recyclable technologies, like ReRez and Recyclamine, which allow for a circular economy of materials and zero-waste manufacturing,” says Jordi Oliva, global applications manager at Entropy Resins EU. “It’s the future.”