Meet a Swiss pioneer in sustainable ski engineering, and find out about challenges and the power of business partnerships when building a sustainable brand from scratch.
The ski season starts soon. My old skitouring equipment is still intact, but for how long? I know it is only a matter of time before my very old pair of skis hit a rock for the last time. Is it possible to find new skis that are both environmentally sustainable and fun to ski? It turns out that I am not the only one who has been searching for such a combination.
In 2012, a Swiss architect who specializes in sustainable buildings asked himself the same question. Hanno Schwab and his girlfriend were travelling and skiing a lot in different parts of the world. They did not like the skis they bought in terms of weight and performance, so Hanno decided to build a suitable ski himself.
“I built my first pair of skis with conventional materials, but I found that the materials were quite nasty to work with” Hanno explains. He searched for alternative materials by using his contacts within the sustainable building industry. Finally, he built a prototype that was both eco-friendly and environmentally sustainable, plus had improved technical properties such as better damping compared to other freeride skis on the market.
Hanno built skis to his friends to start with, but the demand quickly grew. In 2014, he established the brand Earlybird skis and started selling homemade skis through a website. His friends were not the only ones who appraised the performance of his skis. At the ISPO exhibition in 2015, his Earlybird skis were awarded a gold medal in the skitouring category.
Is it possible to make a living on eco-friendly skis?
“Currently, we earn enough to run the company and to develop new products” says Hanno, who still works half-time as an architect. Last winter was the first season Earlybird skis were distributed in shops in the Alpine region.
Is it a conflict between running a sustainable brand and expanding globally?
“Partly, yes, but the market is too small for sustainable skis in the Alpine region alone, so we have to look wider” Hanno says. He argues that it is important to provide sustainable alternatives also in other parts of the world. By doing that, Earlybird is pushing other manufacturers to turn sustainable as well. Shipping overseas means a much bigger carbon footprint, but Hanno plans to limit the number of shippings each year and to climate-compensate for the shipping.
“Previously we only built skis on order and here in Switzerland, but now we have scaled up the production and outsourced it.” Hanno describes that the production line thereby has become ‘cleaner’. They no longer need to ship small packages with material from their suppliers to Switzerland several times a year. The production is now located closer to the suppliers, and they have reduced the shipping of end-products to a few times per year.
“So far, we have grown step by step without external investors. But now we have reached a point where we must scale up to speed things up.” Several investors are interested, but Hanno has not found the right match yet. “This project is my baby, you see, and I want to find an investor who is interested in long-term sustainability. Such investors are difficult to find” he says.
The company has some partner brands with whom they share a sustainable mindset and philosophy. Hanno sees an opportunity in that type of collaboration, for example to share distribution lines and marketing channels. It is also a source of inspiration. “I had no real inspiration in the beginning, but now I analyse the other companies and get inspired by our partners brands” he says. Currently, Earlybird skis is collaborating with brands such as Vaude® and Tierra®, and Hanno is actively searching for additional collaboration partners.
Are other brands following you in terms of sustainability?
“At the shows in 2014 and 2015 the other ski manufacturers were a little curious. But now with the #Fridaysforfuture movement they realize that sustainability is a major issue. This year, our competitors asked lots of detailed questions and they are probably working on something themselves now.”
“Nevertheless, we still have a unique selling point, because our whole company is built around sustainability” Hanno reflects. “As long as our competitors restrict their development to occasional eco-friendly ski models, they are less of a threat to us. Our customers like the whole-company philosophy.”
The production technique and materials can be used to improve the sustainability of other products too. Hanno is searching for new investors and collaboration partners in order to expand the collection of eco-friendly products. “We have several ideas about how to improve other products and we offer a unique sustainable concept and technical knowledge. Our network of suppliers of materials and sustainability experts is in place. We can provide development of other products, like helmets, ski boots, ski poles etc. When we talk to other product manufacturers, they don’t even know they can produce their products differently.”
The coming ski season looks brighter now. If my old, faithful old skis must retire, there is a sustainable option to try. And I look forward to the day when more sustainable ski products are available on the market and not only in Hanno’s garage.