The leading ski and snowboard maker is a case study in outdoor economy resilience amid several unknowns — including climate change. CEO Vincent Wauters is committed to working with competitors for the greater good.
While so many industries have struggled to survive since the onset of the pandemic, the outdoor recreation industry saw one of the biggest boons by far.
With an estimated $887 billion in annual consumer spending, anything and everything outdoors-related took off as indoor entertainment closed and people looked for space anywhere and everywhere they could find it.
Ask anyone who went to a mountain resort this season, and they’ll likely tell you things have been busier than ever. Vail Resorts, for example, reported a 12.5 percent increase in visits through April 2022; and that doesn’t even take into account an extended ski season due to late winter storms across the western half of North America.
Across-the-board increases in winter recreation makes it an especially interesting time to speak with a leader at the helm of one of the most storied brand groups in the sport: Groupe Rossignol CEO Vincent Wauters.
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Wauters took over as CEO in early 2021 and finds himself in this leadership role at a crucial time for the winter sports industry. Skiing and snowboarding are facing steep cost barriers to entry, along with the unpredictability of what a changing climate will do to snow seasons long term.
“We cannot hide ourselves from reality,” Wauters told Sustainable Brands™. “We know global warming is urgent for all industries; but we are more connected to nature than others, so we can see it and feel it.”
Based in Isère, France near the Alps, Groupe Rossignol counts six brands within its portfolio — headlined by the namesake ski and snowboard maker and supported by smaller, niche winter brands including Dynastar and Look. A 2018 report puts the group near the top of market share in ski hardgoods (essentially anything besides apparel and related accessories).
Building a better ski
One of the bigger, ongoing problems within outdoor recreation is what to do with all of the hard gear once it either reaches the end of its useful life or its owner grows out of it either by size, ability level or need.
The group is making a big push to promote its Essential Ski — launching this fall in France — which is made from 75 percent recycled materials and is meant to be returned to the factory for reintegration into new products at the end of its useful life. Wauters says they can recover 77 percent of the pure raw materials from the ski (a combination of mostly aluminum and wood), then repurpose that material into other uses.
Wauters says other ski brands were already experimenting with recyclable and plant-based materials; but Rossignol’s commitment to scaling this endeavor is a strong signal of where he would like to steer the business.
“The ability was already there in our DNA,” he says. “We plan to use [the Essential ski] as a base towards creating a movement for the company and a movement for the industry; we feel we’re launching a movement towards fixing and extending the longevity of skis.”
Shifting company strategy to embrace a warmer climate
In March, Rossignol relaunched its mountain bike lineup with several models tailored towards a range of riders. While the models are competitively equipped and priced, the offering will ultimately remain a small part of the company’s business. Wauters says that it’s difficult to scale bike production, as they’re reliant on an outside frame maker and other component providers; but they’re looking at ways to manufacture products closer to “the Western world” in the same way Rossignol produces its winter hardgoods.
Perhaps of more importance than the bikes themselves is the integration of environmentally friendly packaging to ship the bikes — a big step for a product that traditionally arrives covered in plastic and non-recyclable ties. The delivery box is 99 percent plastic-free, according to the brand, and can be reused to ship the bike (something appealing at the more advanced enthusiast level). Wauters says that the improved shipping box has the potential to significantly cut emissions as it reduces the overall shipping volume of the bike, but Groupe Rossignol has yet to do formal estimates on the potential savings.
When asked about a potential pivot, Wauters says that they’re not moving to warmer-weather activities so much as a way to build climate-resilient business, but rather to reach the same consumer in a different space.
An additional challenge is coping with the already-increasing cost of most winter sports, even before the more recent spikes in inflation. Overall, skiing and snowboarding are incredibly expensive sports with built-in extraneous costs and mobility needs — including the time and means required to get to a mountain and typical lift ticket/travel/accommodation costs.
“We also have a role to be more inclusive and mirror the diversity of our societies,” Wauters says.
Speaking specifically to the cost barriers, Wauters says that the future is using a mix of gear made from recycled materials and keeping that gear in use longer. Ideally, the combination would help increase access with cheaper used gear on the market, allowing newer participants to enter the space. Considering the average cost of skis is anywhere from $400 to $1,000, this would certainly address a major inclusivity challenge.
What will be interesting to watch is how winter sports brands will elevate their collaboration as the effects of climate change continue to become more apparent. Groupe Rossignol is a leader in this space and can move the needle for others to follow, and Wauters is committed to working with competitors for the greater good.
“The impact of climate change is bigger than one producer, and we need to help each other,” he says. “We have an open-source mindset and more businesses are joining us.”