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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Kingston

The Profound (and Avoidable) Environmental Footprint of Ski Gear

This article serves as a follow up to our recent blog on the environmental impact of ski resorts, where you’ll find key info on how sustainability functions on the ski hill and how we can get involved in shaping a greener ski industry.

Before leaving home for the ski mountain, it is common to go through a long checklist of winter gear. Skis? Got ‘em. Poles? Sturdy. Ski Boots? Each of these items is a requisite to having a joyful, safe day up on the ski hill. However, every piece of gear we rely on to take us up and down the mountain also has an associated environmental footprint based on the materials and resources that went into its manufacturing and transportation. Understanding how your gear plays into the overall sustainability of skiing is essential to cultivating an environmentally responsible ski ethic.

What we wear/ride up on the mountain has a direct impact on the environment we love. Photo courtesy of Matthew Tangeman.

Any ski fanatic will tell you: the #1 goal is to revel in mother nature’s fresh, fluffy snow for as long as possible. With this shimmering gift from the sky as our guiding light, it is therefore in our best interest to ensure we are all committed to a shared sustainable ski practice. So, let’s make sure we’re well informed by taking a deeper look at some of the key sustainability considerations that go into our gear collection.

A Waxy Dilemma Underfoot

Perhaps the easiest to overlook piece of gear we take up with us on the mountain is ski wax—the water-repellant material applied to ski bottoms to facilitate a fast glide on the snow. For decades, skiers of all sorts have loaded their skis up with wax season after season, sometimes as frequently as once a week. This seemingly innocuous speed enabler may not be the first thing one thinks of when connecting skiing and eco-friendliness, but it’s environmental impact is more staggering than expected.

Most frequently used ski waxes contain hazardous chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs). Also known as Perfluorochemicals (PFCs), these chemicals are among a class scientists call “forever chemicals,” for once they are released into nature they fester permanently (or until actively cleaned up). While out in nature, PFAs pose a number of human and environmental health risks, including widespread pollution and bioaccumulation in alpine creatures. Considering just how many waxed skis fly down the snowy ski slopes each day during our 5-8 month ski seasons, this toxic bioaccumulation adds up.

There’s got to be a more sustainable way to keep your skis gliding fast, right? Fortunately, there is. There are a number of quality plant-based waxes on the market, including mountainFLOW eco-wax. Additionally, DPS, the future-forward ski company out of Salt Lake City, Utah, has recently developed a permanent waxless glide base treatment for skis and snowboards. They call it Phantom. It is watershed friendly, does not cause biological damage, and will last the lifetime of your skis. So the next time you go to wax up your prized possessions, consider these environmentally-friendly options.

VF Corporation, the owner of well-known winter brands like The North Face and Timberland, recently announced its plan to phase out toxic PFAs from their product lines. This acknowledgement of unsustainable business practice is no doubt a step in the right direction—one that will hopefully reverberate throughout the ski gear industry. The first step to reducing the pollution and bioaccumulation of this harmful chemical is for major ski retail apparel brands to discontinue using these chemicals all together.

Greenwashing in the Industry

Environmentally-minded skiers will also find sustainability related issues in ski industry supply chains and so-called green branding tactics. As with the fashion/garment industry on the whole, the outdoor gear industry is no stranger to quasi-eco greenwashing. In fact, many of the most recognizable names in ski gear are also retail fashion mega-corporations. Due to profit-driven bottom line business strategy, these retailers often fall into the trap of fast fashion: a high seasonal turnover under the guise of more flashy, new, sometimes sustainable products.

The newest wave of sustainable consumerism has ushered in marketing strategies targeted at selling more sustainable, eco-friendly, or responsibly sourced products, especially in outdoor activity sports. In some cases, industry-leading mega-retailers are committed to rejecting greenwashing in favor of transparent, sustainable business practice. Yet, this responsible business ethic is not always the case. The less progressive corporations in the ski space seek to capitalize monetarily as they subversively convince consumers to swap out their perfectly functional ski products with this year’s sexiest trend.

In the wake of this greenwashing, we “skico-consumers” can do our part by doing our research before making a purchase. When we do our due diligence by looking under the hood into a product’s design, manufacturing, and lifespan, we find some ski retailers are practicing what they preach. Others are not.

As an example, the industry’s leading waterproof jacket technology GORE-TEX® is still laden with PFCs. Nearly every waterproof jacket on the market today has a durable water repellent (DWR) coating that contains these harmful chemicals. However, some manufacturers have begun to hear the calls of passionate eco-skiers for a more sustainable design; brands like Picture Organic Clothing, Páramo, and Open Wear all offer PFC-free DWR jackets. Just recently, the company Gore, the makers of GORE-TEX®, also announced the availability of a new PFA-free membrane for their waterproof technology. It will be available for purchase in late 2022.

What about the skis themselves? Most skis are manufactured using a hefty combo of wood, synthetic plastics, fiberglass, metal, and carbon. Some ski manufacturers have taken on the challenge of creating high performance skis with sustainably sourced material. Among them, Grown Skis and Mervin Manufacturing have pioneered zero hazardous waste product lines with sustainably harvested wood cores; ski company WNDR has produced a new line of algae-based skis to tackle the plastics issue; and Salomon, one of the top-grossing brands in the ski market, has made progress by increasing the percentage of recycled materials in their designs. These advancements in ski tech are exciting steps toward a more sustainable model for the sport. Even so, there is still work to be done to save our winters!

Invest in Gear that Lasts

While our ski kit helps us reach high heights and send steep slopes, the ways in which our gear is manufactured often do not support the longevity of the environment in which we love to play. Seeing as skiing is one of the most kit heavy activities out there, each precious piece of gear can rack up an unsettling emissions tally on our environmental footprint. So, what can we do?

If it still serves its purpose, keep that old ski gear in rotation. Soon enough, it'll be all the rage. Photo courtesy of Paris Match.

When purchasing retail winter gear, be sure to do your homework on what goes into its production. Consider the source materials, how and where a product is made, and how long it is likely to last you. While this mindful approach does add an extra step to our consumerism, it is all in the name of longevity. For now, it is our responsibility to take ownership and ensure we invest our resources in the companies most devoted to preserving the planet’s resources.

The point is not to disavow our allegiances to the companies that make these top-quality ski products. As we seek to improve our personal environmental footprint, we certainly should not go tear up our favorite jacket just because it isn't as sustainably sourced as the newest product on the market. Rather, by educating ourselves on greenwashing and consumerist tendencies in the ski industry, we invite a healthy scrutiny with regard to how outfit ourselves up on the mountain. Buying new gear every season or two, as fast-fashion marketing ploys and greenwashing techniques encourage, leads the industry as a whole down a path of environmental degradation rather than conservation. As impassioned, well-informed alpine enthusiasts, our job is to ensure these trend-setting corporations put their money where their love for skiing is while we do the same.

Finally, let's unearth one of the most closely-held secrets in the ski biz: the best thing skiers can do to mindfully manage their environmental impact is to keep their gear in rotation for as long as possible. Investing in gear that’s made to last is inevitably the most eco-friendly purchasing option when it comes to sustainable skiing.

Let's keep the slopes we love beautiful and snowy for generations to come. Photo courtesy of George Kingston.

When the time comes to swap out your gear, extend the circular economy by buying and selling used. Try not to fall prey to the allure of fast fashion and frivolous upgrades. If you’re fully invested in skiing season after season, pick up some pre-owned, well-loved gear to bring along on your ski adventures. Make it a New Years resolution to get crafty with a needle and sewing machine to patch up those old ski pants. Hold onto your goggles from a couple seasons ago. Ski fads come and go—soon enough your old gear will be vintage and you’ll be the talk of the ski town.

To learn more about the insulation materials found in ski gear, sleeping bags, and winter jackets, check out our recent Sustainability Series article on Down vs. Synthetic materials.

About the Author

George Kingston is an all-out outdoorsperson. He holds a B.A. in Political Science and an M.S. in Sustainability Science & Practice from Stanford University. His training has motivated him to advocate for greater sustainability and accessibility within outdoor activities. These days, George is working as an actor and screenwriter to depict our relationships with the natural world.

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