Breaking Trail: Matt O’Laughlin, K2
Sustainability is becoming impossible to ignore in the outdoor industry. In this series, we look to our industry leaders for guidance, inspiration, and best practices in sustainable business in the outdoor-product space. Breaking Trail is an Outdoor Retailer Series that is powered by Walden Hyde. Here, Walden Hyde speaks with Matt O’Laughlin, Senior Ski Design Engineer for K2 Skis and Chair of the Sustainability Action Team at K2 Sports, about sustainability in product design and the future of snow.
What’s your role at K2?
I’m a Senior Design Engineer working on K2 Skis and Chair of the Sustainability Action Team for K2 Sports. I’ve designed K2 skis for the last nine years and have been in this role for about three years. On the engineering side, it involves design; prototyping; testing in North America, South America, and Europe; and coordinating with other designers, marketing, sales, our athletes, and production in Asia.
How did you first become interested in sustainability in your work?
I’ve been interested in the environmental impacts of product design for a while. When you make thousands of pairs of skis, any small design change can influence not only cost and performance, but also things like the amount of waste generated and energy used.
Before joining the Sustainability Action Team, I had been reading about sustainable materials and design innovations when I could. After joining, I took a Natural Step course which helped me articulate the challenges and opportunities surrounding sustainability as they apply to our business.
What’s sustainability like in the ski industry?
It’s interesting… I feel like the ski industry hasn’t been pushed as much as footwear or apparel. It seems like people who love snow sports would be interested in the environment since they enjoy time outside and have a vested interest in working against climate change.
But the culture is interesting. The range of concern for the environment varies greatly within the culture, from those who carefully minimize their impact to those who don’t worry about it. We need to educate ourselves and our consumers so we are aware of the impacts and make it easier to make the best choices… I don’t think change will initially be driven by consumer demand.
Some athletes are leading the charge, though, and working in groups like Protect Our Winters, which was started by Jeremy Jones. Ski resorts are making improvements, too. I know that Stevens Pass won an environmental award last year. They’re offsetting 100% of their power with wind energy, have composting and recycling, and have charging stations for electric vehicles.
What is the Sustainability Action Team like at K2?
It started out as a small group of volunteers who were interested in looking at issues like recycling and packaging and has evolved into a group of 15, including three executives.
This group represents a cross section of K2, and we’ve increased our scope to include things like business processes, product design, shipping, energy savings, recycling, and how much scrap we’re creating.
What motivates K2 to support its Sustainability Action Team?
K2 is primarily a winter sports company, so we see the effects of environmental decisions directly in our business. Last year was a difficult year due to poor snowfall globally. It’s in the company’s best interest to pay attention to the environment that fosters our business.
From a financial standpoint, our business is directly affected by a lack of snow or cost increases of nonrenewable raw materials and transportation. But there’s another aspect to our motivation—because we love snow sports, there’s an emotional connection to the snow and a responsibility to the environment.
What makes it successful?
We have the support of our executive team, and it’s great that three executives are a part of the group. This support extends to our work—K2 lets us take work time to not only participate in the development of the Higg Index, but also run our products through it. This helps us know about our own products and make the index easier to use for others.
How has the Higg Index been evolving?
The Higg Index was originally focused on apparel, but it’s been growing to also become relevant for footwear and equipment. We’re working on making the equipment measurements relevant and practical to use. Engineers and developers are so busy—and they’re already working under time and cost constraints—so adding a step to run products through an index needs to be straightforward and worth the time investment for the company.
How does customer perception affect sustainability decisions?
Customers influence the speed of change, but if they aren’t aware or demanding better choices, we need to lead them and make choices easy.
I hope that the Higg Index makes a great impact within the industry, and I’d eventually like to see a consumer-facing aspect to it. It adds a massive amount of complexity, but if people are buying one product over another [because of a better score], things will start to move exponentially.
For example, if you buy Timberland shoes, you can see a sticker with all of this information based on their own internal sustainability rating system. It allows the consumer to compare one Timberland shoe to another for sustainability. If people eventually can compare two products from different brands based on the same scale, that would do amazing things for the end consumer… and the consumer could change the industry direction with their purchasing decisions.
What should drive sustainability in the outdoor industry?
I think that sustainability leadership needs to come from within the industry; we have the opportunity to lead customers to better options and we can’t wait for them to demand it.
It’s been really great to be a part of the OIA Sustainability Working Group to figure out ways to raise the bar for everyone. We’re basically sitting at the table with our competitors, but collaborating on ways we can all do better in terms of sustainability.
About K2 Sports
Driven by innovation and a passion for the sports enthusiast looking for unique and authentic lifestyle experiences, K2 markets snowboard, snowshoe, bike, in-line skate, alpine, telemark/Nordic ski equipment, apparel and accessories. K2 Sports is what happens when fun meets science and technology.
About Matt O’Laughlin
Matt O’Laughlin is a Sr. Design Engineer at K2 Skis and Chair of the Sustainability Action Team at K2 Sports. He has over 10 years of experience in product development, including the areas of research, design, prototyping, testing and production, among others. Despite his daily tasks for creating and testing skis, Matt combines his problem solving skills and love for the outdoors by leading the cross-functional Sustainability Action Team at K2. The team focuses on K2’s business processes and product designs to improve the company’s impact on the environment. K2’s sustainability journey started with a benchmark Seattle carbon footprint, global shipping carbon footprint, beta testing of the Higg Index and work towards a Corporate Sustainability Report. Matt also joined the Outdoor Industry Association’s Sustainability Working Group to further his education and drive sustainability within the outdoor industry.