Sustainability vs. Tech: The Next Big Race in Product Innovation.

Written by:sherlockiscool

Published: February 19, 2020

Sustainability vs. Tech

The Next Big Race in Product Innovation

A team that designs together and rides together

Many of us at Realise are keen snowboarders or skiers and at the start of this year, we thought it was a great time to plan a team ski trip to the French Alps. We all love earning our turns on the mountain, but we’re also very aware that by doing what we love, we have a hefty carbon footprint.

Skiing and sustainability is a hot topic that echoes the concerns we’ve had for a long time. However, it’s not just us. Professional athletes, freeriders and the best of the best, are raising their voices on the matter. If you haven’t seen it, Shelter is a freely available movie released by Almo Film and Picture Organic Clothing that follows five riders on their quest to reduce their environmental impact and change the way they do what they’ve always done.

With a new decade beginning and our ski trip in planning, we began to ask ourselves some big questions about high performance sports and sustainability. Given our own passions for technical sports and creating a more sustainable future, our most burning questions was, “can and should sport be sustainable?


Putting sustainability and technology on the starting block

Last month’s ISPO 2020 event provided an excellent opportunity for us to explore the relationship between the sports industry and sustainability. Coincidentally, the event’s “50 years of tomorrow” theme was heavily focused on sustainability and showcased new product innovations with many enabling more sustainable consumption, especially for textiles.

Speaking to leading brands in the sports industry confirmed some of our thoughts about the relationship between the brands, the products and the experience they provide to the users. So what is really driving the industry right now, and how much does sustainability matter?

I feel the need, the need for… Change!

Our perspective is that sport is driven by a passion to win and to be better versions of ourselves. But passion for sport can also be found in people finding meaning and belonging as part of a wider community or being able to explore and connect with the world around them. It’s also because sometimes, it’s just feels good to be moving.

Over the years, sports and products have progressed together dramatically, and skis have come a long way from planks of wood with rope bindings used for arctic hunting. You can now find freeriding skis with titanal layers that allow backcountry riders to conquer the most epic terrains imaginable. Titanal, if you didn’t know, has nothing to do with titanium and is mostly aluminium with some zinc, magnesium and copper.

With a passion for the outdoors and focus on technical innovation, surely the sports industry is ideally placed to lead a sustainability revolution? We certainly think so. But, we strongly believe there is a fundamental blocker to be overcome that is also an opportunity for some much needed change.

K2 Disruption MTI and STI skis on show at ISPO 2020 featuring Titanal I-beams and K2’s Dark Matter Dappening (DMD)

The toxic relationship between brands, performance and users

Nearly all of our conversations at ISPO confirmed that despite good intentions, in a race between technical performance and sustainability, the former is currently in the lead. The focus on performance and commercial competition between brands means that the choice of products on offer and the messaging about them has formed a toxic habit by valuing the highest performing products above anything else. This isn’t necessarily the best way to improve our skiing experience, but we’re all hooked. And at what cost?

Consumers, including professional athletes, are starting to see and understand the impact of climate change and the urgency to act now. They are also beginning to ask big brands for more sustainable products. But sustainability is currently really challenging to achieve without compromising performance. So we then find it really hard to choose a sustainable product, when years of competitive marketing by the top brands have literally trained us to choose their best technology which is locking everyone into this toxic relationship.

Jumping off the performance plateau

It’s great to understand the problem, but how do we solve this?

It comes down to changing that value equation. Firstly, re-imagining a relationship between the consumers and the brands takes a real entrepreneurial mindset with some big picture thinking. Whilst there are some brands out there thinking differently in sustainability – Arc’teryx, Patagonia and Mervin Manufacturing to name a few of our favourites – they do not represent a majority.

Here’s a little intro video to Mervin Manufacturing who have been championing “enviroMENTAL board making” for over thirty years – epic riding footage and humour included!

We understand that most of the brands making high-performance products are incredibly invested in knowing how to produce gear that tops sales reports and popularity poles. However, the pressure to cross the bottom line with a gold medal makes it really hard to see the wood for the trees. The eagle-eyed focus on incremental innovation to achieve performance gains is how we got into a toxic cycle and the same thinking won’t solve the problem. Leaders at the top of the tree need to stand back and see the picture from the outside, see what alternative true value could be and then make some very brave choices to experiment and achieve big change successfully.

As part of this stepping back, brands also need to work with people who deeply understand product innovation and user interactions – because it’s also really hard for their own development teams to see outside of that same box and relate in new ways with all the different users of their products. As designers, we know that offering proven tools and processes can allow brands to explore exciting new perspectives. Helping brands understand every twist and turn of the entire product journey and user experience, creates very valuable insights and opportunities for more creative innovation – and ultimately sustainable profitable products that can help us all win-win.

Realising you can make an ethical choice

People want to make more ethical choices and brands need to take responsibility for how they influence what consumers value in their skiing and snowboarding experiences. The challenge ultimately lies in finding how to use competitive spirit to choose sustainable options over pure performance, without greenwashing or fooling consumers who want to make better choices. This won’t be easily done – but anyone who has faced their fears and pointed their nose downhill to ride a steeper slope, knows it wouldn’t be so thrilling if it was too easy!

Imagine putting your feet in someone else’s shoes?

Some impressive outdoor and performance gear on show by Petzl and North Face at ISPO 2020.

As for sustainability and technology, and  who will win the next big race in innovation? – we’ve opened up some big ideas on the sports industry that is going to take a bit more thought and a lot more work. If you are as passionate as we are and would like to start a conversation on this, reach out to us and take the first step on an epic journey in a race to make a difference for the future.


Let’s get started

+44 (0)117 325 9100 |

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