Person standing and looking out on a snowy mountain, holding a snowboard.
From seeking out industry experts to choosing sustainable vendors, small businesses can tap their flexibility and nimbleness to build sustainable practices. — Getty Images/Dougal Waters

Companies of all sizes are increasingly prioritizing environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals in an effort to not only meet consumer and investor demand, but to take meaningful action against climate change.

This mission of sustainability was the inspiration behind Niche Snowboards, an environmentally friendly and zero-waste snowboard company. Kirsten Kolter and Ana Van Pelt, co-founders of Niche, discuss the importance of innovation in small businesses and key steps small businesses can take to advance efforts in sustainability.

Why small businesses are best equipped to drive innovation

While entrepreneurs may assume impactful changes are best left to big business, Van Pelt noted small businesses are actually at an advantage when it comes to innovation.

“Small businesses have the creativity, flexibility, and nimbleness to be able to make company-wide changes that larger businesses simply [cannot] within the same time frames,” Van Pelt explained. “While small businesses may not have the same resources, I do think it is far more arduous for larger businesses to make changes at scale in the same way.”

She noted the first changes are usually small ones which “slowly pick up steam, and snowball, and lead to big changes over time as others get on board, too.”

Kolter and Van Pelt observed this radical change firsthand in their time at Niche. The two started their innovative business in 2009 — a time before sustainability efforts had been prioritized in the ski and snowboard industry — with a goal of seeing what sustainable efforts were possible within the structure of the industry.

“We faced challenges at every point you could imagine — from being young women in an entirely male-dominated space, to using new materials not standard to any factory, to convincing consumers and retailers alike why this was important and worth investing in, to helping scale supply chains in parts of the world where those supply chains had not yet been established,” Van Pelt shared. “It is cool to do good now. It wasn’t always.”

Though the founders faced challenges at the outset, Van Pelt noted that the snowboarding industry has done a “complete 180” in the 13 years since Niche’s launch.

“The governing bodies at the head of the industry are leading discussions about the impacts we all have on our environment,” she said. “Most importantly, consumers have made it known that they want more sustainable products, and are willing to put their dollars behind those efforts. This is where real change starts to happen.”

We have taken risks to push sustainability forward in ways others have not, sacrificing productivity and profit in favor of bettering our space.

Ana Van Pelt, co-founder, Niche

Tips for small businesses focusing on sustainability

For small businesses looking to implement more sustainable practices, Kolter and Van Pelt share the lessons they have learned over their 13 years with Niche.

Choose vendors that prioritize sustainability

Partnering with vendors that share the same mission around sustainability will only enhance your efforts. For Niche, this has meant scouting out vendors that meet the company’s requirements, while also working actively to minimize the environmental impacts of their operations.

“Luckily, this has been fairly easy to do, since we have seen the momentum of like-minded businesses really starting to shift toward our mission and goals,” added Kolter.

One such like-minded business is FedEx, which spotlighted Niche as a grand prize winner in the 2022 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest.

“We are excited that FedEx has a goal of carbon-neutral operations globally by 2040, which it hopes to achieve through vehicle electrification, sustainable energy investments, and carbon sequestration,” Kolter said. “As they work to revolutionize their operations with sustainable technologies, it’s clear that we both share a goal to create a more sustainable future.

Seek out what you don’t know

You don’t have to be an expert in sustainability, engineering, or manufacturing to begin the process of creating a more eco-friendly product. When Kolter and Van Pelt decided to launch their zero-waste snowboard, neither had formal education in manufacturing or engineering. While some might consider this a disadvantage, Van Pelt considers it an asset, as it’s allowed the duo to keep their minds open.

“We have never been afraid to admit what we don’t know [or to] seek to educate ourselves via experts in the field,” explained Van Pelt. “You have to understand the space enough to know what exists, and somehow also be naive enough to see how it could work differently.”

Remember the greater mission

Kolter and Van Pelt have never been afraid to publicly share their manufacturing efforts — a decision that has not only built trust with consumers but has also helped other companies in the industry follow suit in developing more eco-friendly products.

“Many companies are using bio-based resins, are implementing recycled materials [and] more sustainable wood core sources, or are exploring alternatives to plastics,” Van Pelt said, noting that many of these changes have come from Niche’s publicly-released case studies or proofs of concepts.

“We have taken risks to push sustainability forward in ways others have not, sacrificing productivity and profit in favor of bettering our space,” she emphasized. “What has mattered most to us has always been to make the snowboard industry a better, less harmful place. And I strongly feel that we have done that.”