Addressing the circularity blind spot in the sports and outdoor equipment sector

3 May 2024

Written by Katie Reid, Consultant

Outdoor sports enthusiasts share an undeniable bond with the natural world. With this deep-seated connection, they are often committed to protecting the environment that they hold so dear. Many brands have recognised this and have stepped up to champion sustainability. Companies such as Patagonia and Finisterre have emerged as trailblazers, embedding care for the planet at the heart of their business.

While a growing number of outdoor companies are addressing the environmental impacts of their clothing and accessory lines, there remains a significant blind spot: circularity in the sports and outdoor equipment sector.

2024 is a crucial year for the sports and outdoor equipment sector as the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games brings a fresh opportunity to inspire new sports stars around the world. With huge potential to boost global sports participation rates and demand for sports and outdoor equipment, the race is on for the sector to embrace the circular economy.

What is the circular economy and how can it be applied to sports and outdoor equipment?

The circular economy presents a transformative approach to reducing and continually reusing resources. In an ideal scenario, products are made from low-impact materials, used and reused for as long as possible; undergoing repair and remanufacturing to extend lifespan, and finally recycled in a way that retains the materials at their highest possible value.

In the sports and outdoor equipment sector this has, so far, manifested in the development of informal second-hand and formal rental markets by businesses, individuals, and communities for products such as surfboards, skis, bikes and tennis rackets. This reduces waste, extends product lifespan, and improves accessibility to sport.

Some companies are also improving product durability by employing high-quality materials and innovative design strategies, thereby reducing the frequency of replacement through prolonged lifespan. Similarly, there has been a shift towards ‘sustainable’ and ‘natural’ materials in manufacturing. While this can, in some cases, reduce the environmental footprint of a product, tackling material choice alone fails to transform our linear way of using sports equipment.

What are the benefits to businesses?

Businesses in the sports and outdoor sector can benefit significantly from adopting circular economy practices for their equipment. They can enhance their brand’s reputation by differentiating themselves in the market, increase customer loyalty, and through using materials more efficiently, reduce costs and exposure to volatile supply chains. Businesses can also tap into additional revenue streams such as repair services, refurbished product sales, and subscription-based models.

What are the barriers to the adoption of circular practices?

The adoption of circular principles for sports and outdoor equipment faces several barriers. Increasing the reuse and recycling of products at end of life can be complicated due to the intricate nature of the composite materials used in sports and outdoor equipment. The individual components of a product often cannot be taken apart for recycling or remanufacturing due to the use of a resin which binds the product together and provides a protective coating for the fibreglass or carbon fibre layers.

There are also very few recycling facilities available across Europe. Plus, there may be logistical challenges to implementing a takeback scheme for reuse and recycling, such as establishing collection points (especially in the case of larger equipment), coordinating transportation, and incentivising customer participation.

Balancing circularity with product quality also poses an important dilemma, especially in competitive and potentially risky sports such as skiing or surfing, where performance and safety are paramount. An equipment designer wishing to use materials with lower upstream impacts, or to make the equipment easier to deconstruct for remanufacturing or recycling, must do so without compromising performance and safety and significant investment may be required to achieve a similar quality.

What can policymakers, industry, and individuals do to facilitate greater circularity?

To embed circularity in the sector, several changes are required. Investment in recycling technologies and innovative design is required to address the complexities associated with composite materials and strong REACH regulations are needed to avoid creating new barriers to reuse and recycling in the sector.

There could be a legal requirement for manufacturers and retailers to address waste in the sector, for example through extended producer responsibility, which is being applied to other sectors such as packaging and electrical equipment. Businesses and government could also incentivise reuse through the establishment of subsidised repair schemes, as implemented in some areas of Germany, Austria and France.

Nevertheless, customer behaviour remains a pivotal factor. There is a pressing need for enhanced education and awareness campaigns to foster sustainable consumption habits, address concerns around the quality of circular products, and drive demand for circular products and business models.

What are the next steps?

Circularity is not just a trend, but a vital step in conserving resources and sustaining the livelihoods of current and future generations. At Resource Futures, we have helped businesses in the sports and outdoor equipment sector on their journey to circularity. From opportunity assessments to market research and action plan development, we can guide you towards embracing circular practices that will not only benefit your business, but also pave the way for a more sustainable future.