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Paddling Gear for People and Planet 🌎

Written By | Priscilla Macy & William Tooley

Paddlers are often a group of people who can rally for a cause—advocating for the undamming of rivers, the protection of natural resources, promoting recycling, buying sustainably sourced foods, and striving to live with a smaller footprint on the planet.  Unfortunately, as much as we paddlers would like to think otherwise, our sport is not one without its share of adverse environmental costs. 

Paddlers and outdoor recreation leaders in Washington DC with the Conservation Alliance - advocating for things like recreation access, infrastructure, and the protection of our natural resources.

Most modern whitewater kayaks are constructed of high-density polyethylene (HDPE). Some older boats are made from high-density crosslinked polyethylene (XLPE) - both of which are, in most ways, non-recyclable plastic that has a very limited lifespan.  Inflatable kayaks and rafts are made of rubberized synthetic fabrics, PVC, Hypalon, urethane, and polyurethane.  Once a hardshell kayak or inflatable is no longer usable, there are very few options for sustainable recycling or disposal of the plastic hull, boat outfitting, or rubberized synthetic fabrics.  

For many paddlers - getting to the places that we like to paddle has environmental costs as well. Whether it be our backyard run, weekend trips, vacations, or remote expeditions we most likely will be getting there in transportation that uses fossil fuels or lithium batteries. Even in situations where we could probably squeeze the whole group into one vehicle, shuttle logistics can often require the use of two - further increasing our footprint.  Once considered, all of this can bring a bit of a damper to an activity that, for many of us, brings an indescribable amount of value.

Long shuttle efficiency at its finest. Photo | Lucas Reitmann

Whitewater paddling provides so many of us with a sense of purpose and can be a core part of our identity - and something closely tied to our own well-being. Because the activity means so much to many of us, even the most eco-conscious paddler probably won't choose to reduce their travel or to stop paddling just because of the environmental costs associated with it.  We can, however, increase our ability to be conscious consumers, and make personal choices that lead to the reduction of our collective impact. That is why it is so important that when we choose to buy gear, we pay close attention to the companies that make our gear,  and become consumer advocates for sustainability by choosing to support companies (when we are able to) based on what they are doing to reduce the overall footprint of the paddlesports industry.

You may have seen recently that Immersion Research, like a number of companies in the global outdoor industry, stepped up to help relief efforts for the global pandemic.  Many of us who know the folks who work at IR, and are familiar with their “do-good” ethic, might not be very surprised that they stepped up to help in a time of crisis.  

Rob Fusilli constructing surgical gowns. Photo | Zahne Calzada

What is likely lesser-known, even by those of us who think we know a lot about the company, is what they are and have been doing to be an environmentally conscious gear manufacturer.  Since 1997, when IR was founded by owners John and Kara Weld, they have made significant investments of efforts and resources into reducing the company footprint in their production line and in their retail spaces.  As much as IR staff have wanted to spread the word about these efforts through a well-designed advertisement or a compelling social media campaign, as a smaller company with a limited marketing budget, their staff resources are prioritized to serving an ever-growing number of customers. As a result, Immersion Research’s sustainability story is one that is not well known, but well worth telling.

Reducing The Use of Plastics and the Impacts of Shipping

Over the years, Immersion Research has made choices to limit contributions to plastic waste by reducing the amount of plastic involved in shipping their products - both on the receiving end as well as the shipping end. Despite standard industry practices, IR has decided to forgo receiving individually wrapped products from their production centers. On the consumer end of their supply chain, they have reduced the amount of plastic packaging passed on to the consumer when an item is ordered and shipped.  Spray skirts are placed into tote bags that can be reused as grocery bags, shorts come in bags made from recycled factory scrap fabric, which can be reused as a lunch sack, and dry suits are delivered in a large and durable tote style bag that is made from recycled billboards. IR envisions becoming a completely non-recyclable plastic-free operation in the near future and will keep seeking ways to reduce their contribution to the problem.  

Recycled lunch sacks short packaging. Photo | Priscilla Macy 

Max Blackburn shows off the plastic packaging IR is trying to reduce. Photo | Priscilla Macy 

Upcycled vinyl billboard gear bags. Photo | Priscilla Macy 

Renewable Energy Resources

IR has been working towards powering the brick and mortar component of the company with 100% renewable resources. With the help of a grant from the USDA Rural Energy for America Program, they were able to install a 27kW photovoltaic (solar panel) system at their headquarters in Confluence, PA. The installation has produced over 20mWh of energy, which equates to around 50kWh of energy a day and generates more than one and a half times the electricity usage of an average U.S. household per day.  Any of the renewable energy that is produced in excess of what IR needs is sold back to the energy grid and then dispersed and resold in the energy market to local households. Since the solar panels were installed in June of 2018, the company has avoided the emissions of over 15 tonnes of CO2.

Founders and owners John and Kara with their Solar Installation.

Striving for Sustainable Designs and Seeking Sustainable Materials

Each year, IR modifies their designs to better fit the diverse dimensions of many types of paddlers as well as to meet the performance demands of harsh environments. Over the years, they have found that innovation and performance do not have to be a trade-off for sustainable materials and conscious production.  

IR maintains Bluesign certification, which is a standard set by the European Union’s academic, industrial, environmental, and consumer organizations.  Unlike other standards, this certification process verifies that the materials and the methods in the production of a garment meet the certification standards even before the manufacturing process starts.  The entire IR fabric mill has achieved and maintains this certification, guaranteeing that their products avoid the use of any hazardous substances, have a high degree of safety for their customers, and that the manufacturing process has a minimal environmental footprint.

The Shawty, 7Figure, and Aphrodite dry suits and dry tops are constructed from predominantly recycled polyester shell fabric. Recycled polyester gives products that would otherwise end up in landfills or oceans a second life. According to a 2017 study done by the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, recycled polyester requires 59% less energy to produce than new polyester. Using recycled polyester helps to keep the non-biodegradable goods that make up much of our technical gear out of landfills and waterways and helps to reduce the amount of CO2 emitted as a result of new product manufacturing. 

Priscilla points to a line on a PNW creek, wearing her new Aphrodite drysuit. Photo | Jacob Cruser

IR continues to seek ways to reduce the company's contributions to non-recyclable waste and overall output of emissions while still prioritizing the production of reliable, long-lasting, and high-performance gear.

The Problem with Neoprene

Unfortunately, there are still materials that lack a genuinely sustainable alternative that can always meet the performance and safety needs of whitewater paddlers.  Neoprene is one of the materials that still does not have a sustainable and comparable material nor an alternative process for production that does not have unavoidable environmental costs associated with it.  The neoprene core of a spray skirt can be made one of two ways: either with a petroleum base or with a limestone base. Since both of these methods have unavoidable environmental costs, neither is an optimal choice.  However, limestone spills and accidents are far less disastrous and much easier to clean up when compared to petroleum accidents. 

The application of adhesive to sprayskirts and other pieces of gear is a necessary process for gear performance. Still, it is an environmentally costly part of the manufacturing process since it involves the use of the chemical toluene. Paddlers know that a spray skirt is a critical piece of safety equipment that must be trusted not to fail. Currently, there is not a great alternative that can meet these performance demands and maintain flexibility and water resistance through time and heavy use. Though at this time, there are no adequate substitutes, IR is committed to seeking out possible alternatives.

The sprayskirt line-up at Immersion Research White Salmon. Photo | Priscilla Macy

In-House Repairs for All

IR knows that there are environmental downsides to creating just about every product needed for outdoor recreation, and therefore offers in-house repairs as an effort to keep each piece of gear in rotation for as long as possible and to reduce the volume of production and consumption of certain types of gear overall. Because IR’s objective is to reduce the overall impact of the industry as a whole, they offer repair service on any brand of gear - contributing to an overall goal to reduce the demand for the production of new gear and keeping more used gear (that might just need a little love and attention) out of landfills. Out of all the efforts IR employs to reduce their footprint of doing business, perhaps the most significant one is offering in-house repairs. 

The repair line-up. Photo | Priscilla Macy

It might seem counterintuitive for a gear manufacturer to discourage rampant consumerism, but ultimately it pays off.  As time goes on, and as more companies start to develop and practice a sustainability ethic, it's showing that in most industries, these businesses will ultimately succeed in the long term - whether it's by customer retention, brand awareness or through a connection to a broader base of like-minded conscious consumers.

Resident repair master, Ian Wingert getting a sprayskirt back in working order. Photo | Priscilla Macy

Repair and manufacturing equipment at IR White Salmon. Photo | Priscilla Macy

Stoked to be Small and Sustainable

While it's important for large corporations to be doing good acts (and regulation often requires large companies to counter the environmental and social costs of doing big business), it is just as crucial that small to medium-sized business do what they can, with the resources they have, to reduce their impact while still providing quality services and products to their customers.  

There are obvious and not so obvious downsides to being a smaller company when it comes to lessening your footprint and seeking overall sustainability. The upfront cost to achieve and maintain an environmentally sustainable business can be a significant hurdle for a smaller company, and other resources such as dedicated staff, education, and certifications required to achieve sustainability goals can also be noteworthy. However, there are some upsides and flexibilities for smaller businesses that can be an advantage when seeking suitability goals. 

Immersion Research White Salmon. Photo | Priscilla Macy

For one, smaller companies might not face the same obligations that companies with large contracts have.  For many smaller businesses, they can have an increased ability to focus on smaller batches and can be much more flexible and creative in product supply sourcing.  IR uses their flexibility as a smaller business to take advantage of the availability of excess and high-quality materials (think Polartec, Microfleece, and other technical fabrics)  from large companies (think Nike, Patagonia, and Adidas) and using, or recycling materials that would otherwise see their end in a landfill.  

 Layering produced by Immersion Research. Photo | Priscilla Macy

A Better Bottom Line

Sustainable development is defined as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Simply put, sustainability is an action that balances resource usage and supplies over time.  Today, environmental sustainability is inextricably linked with business success, and it will become even more critical as time goes on.  

In today's increasingly competitive landscape, more companies realize that doing their business with environmental sustainability in mind is closely linked with their long term success.  These types of actions are more than merely an environmental gesture—it makes long-term economic sense, and is the right way to conduct better business.

Immersion Research - a company that John and Kara Weld started in their garage, has grown to be the only stand-alone whitewater gear company left in the USA. The company has long moved out of the garage and on to locations on both the east and west coasts of the United States, and while the gear they manufacture has evolved, the values they and their company embrace, have remained the same.  They continue to aim to create the highest quality gear that will stand the test of time and the beating that paddlers put it through, to fix it if it doesn’t, and to do so with the smallest impact that they can. IR will continue striving towards reducing their impact on our natural environment while providing boaters with an innovative, reliable, and stylish line of products that they are proud to wear. 

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