Sustainability was a core theme of last year’s ISPO (the leading sports industry trade fair). Our reflections on the event came as we were planning to head off for a team skiing trip. Little did we know how Covid-19 would put a stop to that and find us all attending ISPO online this year.
So after an extraordinary year – what’s changed? The good news is that despite facing business challenges, the sports and outdoor industry have used this reflection time to double down on sustainability. Here’s our summary of what we found important at ISPO 2021:
Is Real Change Happening?
Well yes! The issue we raised last year was how outdoor sports products are primarily marketed on high performance above all else; meaning that sustainability’s largely been perceived as add-on expense, compromising performance, making it the runner-up when setting design priorities.
But there is clear evidence this year that sustainability and performance are coming together, in the thinking of producers and customers. For example, Dietmar Brandl from the NPD Group revealed from research in the running market, that consumers are now willing to spend 20% more on a more sustainable product IF it doesn’t compromise the quality or performance. This kind of shift releases one of the major brakes on sustainable product development, but equally highlights the technical challenge facing manufacturers.
And there were more sustainable products and initiatives than ever being announced and discussed at ISPO 2021, with some of them significant like Adidas’ fantastic commitment to phasing out the use of virgin polymer by 2024 (a huge technical feat!).
This is epic stuff. But without wishing to downplay the mega giant of sport, it was a few things from smaller companies that caught our eye in particular:
Let’s start with the winner of ISPO’s Sustainability Achievement award (a product which also won ISPO Gold just for its performance). The CHICKADEE touring ski by Earlybird, with a circular economy approach to design, is 100% carbon neutral in its manufacture, made with sustainable raw materials and is easily recycled at the end of its life. They look wicked and sound like a peach to ski on (I say ‘sounds like’… *deep sigh*!).
Secondly, Dr Caspar ‘seems like a dude’ Copetti, the co-founder of On Running, also presented their work on Cyclon, a product born out of the challenge “can a 100% recyclable shoe be designed?”. Their solution also works on circular thinking. Firstly, innovative lightweight plant-based foams derived from castor beans, which moves them away from petrol-based materials. Secondly, the set-up of a returns process so that shoes can be sent back, and the raw materials reused in new products. Thirdly, that this ‘backloop’ system is supported by a subscription model rather than outright purchase, encouraging runners to ‘run and return’ with an ongoing membership to a supply of shoes.
Finally, we believe Tecnica should be applauded for setting up their new ‘Return Your Ski Boots’ system and in particular Maurizio Priano whose idea and drive was behind this. It’s great to see a company tackle the messier, less glamourous end of the problem. Better still, they’ve managed to create a new closed material loop as a working business model, bringing in partners like Intersport for the customer’s return point, Fecam doing the disassembly and Laprima Plastics to reprocess the materials for Tecnica to now use in newly designed parts. Chapeau Maurizio! Their video gives you an idea of what’s actually involved:
System Change Requires Legislation + Collaboration
Despite there being lots to applaud, there was a sense of realism about the challenges that these new models create. For example it’s not easy to get consumers to return products – something that the electronics industry only achieved due to European WEEE legislation.
At ISPO the EU’s new Green Deal was therefore welcomed as a real defining moment, providing the much needed level playing field to justify investing in sustainability. It literally makes the choice “to do something now or wait until you are forced to”.
Various speakers at ISPO acknowledged that to create real impacts, brands need to involve the whole supply chain. But shifting a supply chain is really hard for a typically small outdoor brand to do. It’s highly complex when interrelated aspects all along the value chain contribute to sustainable products and critically, the large base material manufacturers need promise of enough volume to justify the investment and risk.
Collaboration is therefore vital – even though real collaboration is problematic in a commercially competitive world. On the upside, co-designing, long-term thinking and robust traceability built on mutual trust between suppliers and producers creates a very furtile space for brave innovators. The energy and inventiveness of small brands are ideally placed to contribute, and can gain far more together, than they lose in competitive advantage.
All Great Explorations Start in the Mind
Everyone agrees it’s hard to break out of the norm, to persuade, go the extra mile, risk cash and potentially upset what currently pays the bills. But when literally “what got us here, won’t get us there”, how do we go about entering the unknown?…
Mike Horn, adventurer and polar explorer, talked about how achieving what can seem like the unthinkable is largely about having the right mindset. Which he broke this into three key things:
- Allow yourself to dream big about the possibilities to “enter the unknown with maximum potential”. Gotta love that quote.
- Keep open to possibilities as you progress, don’t let fear make you want to control everything.
- Understand that the real rewards are in discovery, where the unimagined richness of life will be found.
As speakers from Scott Sports (the Swiss producer of bicycles, winter equipment, motorsports gear and sportswear) discussed – outside the comfort zone is where the magic happens. And that is also where snowboarders, skiers, surfers, cyclists and other outdoors fans often achieve their very best – it’s in the DNA of sports culture.
All Great Explorers Bring People on Board
Paradoxically, the Pandemic has forced many people to spend much more time outdoors, developing a deeper connection with nature and a more visceral desire for sustainability. Many speakers at ISPO highlighted that makes this an important moment to act, as right now outdoor types, whether colleagues or customers, are more receptive to genuine ideas, stories or more sustainable products than you might think.
One of the most insightful discussions sprang out of the session on ‘Adopting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s)’, reminding us that ultimately this is about bringing people with you.
To be effective and truly relevant to your customers, sustainability needs to be about core values and brand, not an add-on off to one side. Echoing Mike Horn, the speakers agreed sustainability is not a sprint, or even a marathon, but a multi-year, perhaps even decade long adventure. When you start out, rather than worrying about making mistakes, your aim should be on building your team’s and your supply chain’s confidence, trust and skill in tackling change in a long-term systemic way.
Clearly great leadership is therefore key, but as Richard Collier, CEO of Jack Wolfskin, highlighted – ‘this is not about senior management having all the answers, but providing the guidance and permission. The whole company needs to be involved, working on the plan, ideas and delivery’. But he also cautioned ‘you need to be prepared to try, fail and learn, but especially early on, don’t bite off more than you can chew – start with the easier things to build confidence.’
Jill Dumain, CEO of Bluesign Technologies and formerly Patagonia’s Director of Global Environmental Strategy, described how in her experience ‘at the beginning your colleagues will always see the barriers and reasons why it can’t be done, but once they see success in some way, they get so excited and empowered, they want to work much more with suppliers and show what can be done’.
So that’s people internally, but what about customers? Hao Ding from DuPont Biomaterials reminded us of the importance of brand communications and clearly explaining the benefits of more sustainable products – which again is ideally dealt with holistically, i.e. not just relying on a swing tag, but through ‘joined-up’ communications, including crucially how you educate salespeople and retail staff. If not, great R&D could simply be undone by the marketing of the past!
Great, so what next?
The very serious challenges of sustainability can create a sense of powerlessness and anxiety. But rather than burying our heads, let’s see the wealth of opportunities this presents. Sport is an inspirational arena of human endeavour. As the sustainability representatives from Adidas put it “through sport, we have the ability to change lives”. If you’re wondering how – then the good news is ‘design’ is a really great way to tackle these kinds of complex, difficult human + technical + commercial problems. Whether you call it product design, human centred design or design thinking… it dissects fuzzy situations to define opportunities and requirements, explores out of the box thinking to generate lots of creative solutions and then selects and hones through development and real-world validation. The aim of this is coherent products that deliver value to people, businesses and the planet. So if specialist designers like Realise, working with an industry that loves the outdoors don’t set the example, then who will? Let’s get to it.
Want to explore? We’d be very happy to talk through some of your challenges and opportunities. Talking things through is always a great start – so why not give us call or drop us a line…