Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Niche Snowboards Takes Sustainability Up A Notch

An ecological niche is defined by the space  an organism or species fills within a particular ecosystem by focusing on the availability of resources and its response to competitors. In the case of businesses, we’re all just slighly-clever organisms searching for an uninhabited home to call our own, and often exploit. One company that sees some elbow room in the snowboard hardgood landscape is Niche Snowboards, and it’s carving out its foothold rapidly and globally by focusing its efforts on protecting the environment in which it works, lives, and rides.

Transworld Business caught up with Niche Founder Dustin Morrell to find out how he is creating and growing a habitat without simply exploiting resources.

Tell us a little about your background – where you from, how’d you get into riding, et cetera? 

I’m from Utah but have lived in Washington, Oregon, California, Massachusetts, Cyprus, Dubai, Kuwait, and the Philippines—the mountains and snow always bring me back to Utah.  My father started me skiing at a young age, but at fifteen I had a dream of snowboarding and hawked my skis for a board that week. I’ve never been on a pair of skis again.

Why’d you decide to take your relationship with shred to the next level from merely casual to a livelihood and why do you see a future between the two of you? 

I graduated college with a BS in Aviation Science/Management and pursued a career in aviation.  I love flying but always wanted to do more with snowboarding. My wife supported me in purchasing the equipment to make custom boards out of our home on my time off from flying.  I don’t think you need to be the sickest rider to enjoy snowboarding, contribute, and make it a part of your life.  Riding is about enjoying nature, friends, and pow when you can find it.  Doing what you love and getting paid for it is a bonus for sure!

The biggest thing that jumps out in looking at your catalog and your story is obviously the sustainability story – break it down for us. 

Time to nerd out on tech stuff.  Niche uses a Digi-Print process that prints directly to the backside of the topsheet, cutting up to 60% of the material and 75% of the energy wasted during traditional printing processes. Our Snappy Sap Bio-Resin repurposes waste products from the pulp and paper industry to provide plenty of cancer-free adhesion and reduce pressure cracks.   By replacing fiberglass with basalt, we maximize the tensile strength and impact resistance of our shredsticks while minimizing the production of green house gases.  We replace traditional carbon stringers with hemp.  Hemp stringers also have longer fibers than wood, so they add pop and vibration dampening to a deck.  Using flip-flop die cut bases uses material efficiently and leaves minimal waste. Our use of sustainably harvested cores and recycled material further reveals our commitment to the environment. Our boards are lighter and stronger than boards made with traditional materials.

How did you source and develop all of the materials under the hood like Magma Fiber, Snappy Sap, and HempHop? They look like some seriously innovative materials, especially for a new brand.

I made custom boards in the basement of my home for about two years and honestly did not know what I was getting into.  I thought making snowboards would be a great way to connect with nature and boarding.  I soon found out that your home is not the place to make traditional snowboards. The resins and flood coat inks filled my home with carcinogens. I became desensitized to the resins and any contact with my skin made me break out in hives. Cutting out the snowboards made me concerned that fiberglass was getting into the vents of our home and into our lungs.  I did the best I could to contain these harmful chemicals and materials but I felt like our home was being invaded.  We began to search for eco-friendly products and found that these materials actually outperformed traditional materials in many aspects.  The use of these materials came about after years of research, testing, and trial and error.

How much different are the environmental impacts of the lifecycle of a Niche board versus a traditional deck? 

We know our boards are much better on the environment than any board out there, but a lifecycle test has not been done. The results would be amazing and we would love to do this someday soon.

Why did you decide to produce your boards at GST? Are you concerned that shipping product across the globe invalidates some of your claims of sustainability? 

Austria has always been known for quality in the industry and GST takes it a step above the rest.  Our new technology and materials needed the extensive testing that GST provided.  Many manufacturers use foam injection or other mass production processes and we’re not willing to adjust to our product. Our Snappy Sap was developed in California but we found a manufacturer in Europe to produce our resin to keep all of our materials close to Austria.  Since all of our raw materials are close to the manufacturer we cut our carbon footprint down by not having to ship the raw materials from across the globe for assembly and then ship again for our finished product. All prototyping is constructed and tested in Salt Lake City.  Our only shipping from GST is for our final samples and product.  It may seem counterintuitive, but by building our decks in Austria with regionally-sourced materials and then shipping them to the States, we are able to create a smaller footprint than if we produced them in the States using an abundance of imported material.  Being a global company, it is important to produce our boards near the material sources and then ship around the world.

A company can’t be successful if its one dimensional – what else is going on with your boards to keep from pigeonholing yourself as a niche  (sorry, had to) player? 

We thought about this from day one when choosing our name and direction as a company.  A Niche isn’t just a standard deck pulled from the shelf.  It’s the result of a deep commitment to the boarding culture and caring for the environment—a commitment that requires no sacrifice of style.  Our graphic line, technology, testing, customer service, and warranty will always be strong selling points in addition to our environmental benefits.

Who else is involved with the brand to spread the word on the sales/rep force side? 

We just hired Greg Hughes as VP of sales for Niche.  He comes from an extensive background in sales and years of experience in the industry.  Greg will be managing our reps that are now a global force.

You’re launching at SIA – what are your goals as far as securing distribution and what’s your elevator speech for retailers? 

We have distribution /reps set up throughout the USA, Canada, Europe, Korea, and Japan. Local shops are important to Niche Snowboards and the sport. Whether it’s the neighborhood park crew or a pack of friends on a powder day, many of our experiences on the mountain are shaped by a sense of community.  Shops play an essential role in creating and supporting strong local shred scenes.  From sponsoring contests to repairing broken bindings, shops are responsible for getting riders stoked day in and day out.  We’ve partnered with dealers known for providing excellent service and being committed to their communities.  So when it’s time to pick up a shred stick, please support the people and shops that support you.

What are prices/margins going to look like? 

Because we are using eco-friendly materials in every board, we can purchase larger volumes of these materials to get our prices lower for a high-end board.  Sourcing materials close to the manufacturing facility is not only good for the environment, but also brings the cost down.  This enables Niche to pass these savings on to the consumer.

Anything else you’d like to hit on? 

We will be launching our newly designed website in a couple weeks, so be sure to drop into www.nichesnowboards.com.  In the meantime,  Facebook has a lot of info (www.facebook.com/nichesnowboards).  You can also see clips of our product testing and team riders at http://www.vimeo.com/nichesnowboards.

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