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How to make a skateboard more sustainable – An interview with Bertrand Trichet

If you read our article about how skateboards are produced, you already know about some of the problems: Long transportation routes, unsustainable forestry, environmentally harmful paints and adhesives. When Bertrand Trichet joined Element Skateboards he wanted to tackle those problems and make the skateboard production more sustainable. Now the new C.B.N. deck is ready and 43% less impactful on climate change. We asked Bertrand some questions and went into a rabbit hole…

Solo skateboard magazine Bertrand Trichet

Bertrand shot by Asier Fagoaga

First things first, how did the whole project start?

Element always had this connection between skateboarding and nature, with the tree logo and everything. When I came in I realised a lot of things have been done but there was not really a single strategy. And like a lot of people at my age, I read the book from Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia, that gave me a feeling on how to run a sustainable business. So we’ve put everybody from the company together, to see what we could do. Because no one from us – including me – is a specialist, we worked with an outside advisor company called Air Coop. They know all the rules and laws, which are ever changing. And they do this work because they really care about our planet. Modern hippies. That’s why they’re also not a company but a cooperation, where everybody owns a part of it. One of their specialist worked with us and we also looked at what was done before. For years Element had been using organic cotton and different certifications, but nothing unified in one main strategy. Apparel is quite easy because there are existing standards and it’s evolving. That industry is much more advanced than manufacturing skateboards. I mean, you have between 15 and 25 skateboard factories in the world and that’s it. Technology, research and development in this industry are really at the beginning. Then we started with a massive survey. They ask the factory a lot. How many electricity does this machine need? How many boards do you do per hour? We did a lifecycle analysis from the start of manufacturing the board to the end of its use, to see what is causing the most damage. How is the wood harvested, in which country and which mix of energies does this country use? Which ink is used to tint the plywood, how it’s produced etc. Imagine a big cake and then you remove first the cherry on top and go step by step from there. In the end you get big pie charts that show you where the pollution is coming from. And in the end we took a look at every component. You can see how much percent different parameters are affected by different factors and eventually change them accordingly to your goal. But the more detailed you get into it the more complicated it gets cause you face new problems.

And what was the next step?

Then we got the results, where the most pollution is coming from. For exemple a part of the pollution comes from the varnish. So we tackled this one first to see how we can make it better and we did this for all the components. We got to the point, where we thought maybe maple is not the solution, maybe bamboo is better because it grows faster. But what you have to realize is, sometimes you just transfer the pollution. Bamboo grows faster and needs less water but to put bamboo together, you need a fucking hardcore glue, which pollutes more than growing the trees in North America. Conclusion, this is the wrong way and it’s better to continue with maple but also make the glue better. What I didn’t know before is, when we talk of pollution, there are various pollutions (air/soil/water etc.) in our case, we’ve been focusing on the impact on climate change, which is related to CO2, global warming etc. But in the study, that’s one of six ways to look at it, because you also have pollution of water, acidification, use of fossil resources, use of mineral and metals and land use. You might find out that the solution you think of is bringing more issues somewhere else, and so it’s not a real solution. In the end it comes down to make some choices and that’s why it’s going to be a forever work in progress. So we searched what was the best of all available solutions to be the less impactful on our planet.

That sounds like a lot of work. How long did the process take?

We started three years ago to talk about it and it has been two years of really working on it, some stuff is trial and error. You think you have a solution but when you go to the factory you see that it works if you do one board but it doesn’t work in mass production. Or you find out, for example, that different veneer colors have a different impact.

Yeah, red lately got banned, right?

Yeah, the red one is the worst, sadly for us, cause the red is part of the Element identity. But we were like, ok, let’s avoid this one. But it’s tricky cause regarding board quality, there is some stuff you can measure, but when it comes to colors, it’s just personal taste. And also from a marketing standpoint, a blank board, with no graphic is not easy to sell. Of course we try to do anything to make the board nicer. But you’re gonna need more energy, you need more resources. But at some point, you also need to carry a message to it because that’s why people buy a certain brand. So that’s where we realized the process is ongoing and we know because of this study that there is room for improvement. For example, we work with a water based glue already, so there’s no solvent in it that comes from oil. But still there’s some additives to this glue to make it stronger, that are not so nice. They’re not super bad, but we know we can improve there. But by changing this so far, we didn’t get the same quality for the pop of the board and we didn’t want to compromise on quality.

"I’m not afraid to say that Element has been cutting trees for more than 30 years now, but I’m also happy to search for better ways."

Before we get deeper into the production, let’s take a quick look at the other end, the disposal. I never really thought that this could be a problem, but only because there’s grip tape on the board it’s complicated.

The study goes from the trees to the trash and the end life is super important and super hard to manage. Grip contains glass, which is okay, but 90% of the rest is coming from oil… Then there is glue in the board, there’s varnish, the graphics and wood. And there is no industrial process in place for this to be separated. It is a small industry and nobody did research on how to break a board into something we can reuse. So we looked at solutions and one basic one would be to remove the grip. Then you’d be able to grind the wood, mix it with other wood, glue it together and make chipboards. But we would need to create a process for the consumer to make it easy. For instance we heard of a grip that’s easy to remove if you heat it. And then it would have to be handled locally. Cause if all the collected boards have to be transported to another country to process them further you’re again only transferring the pollution. And it also depends on the country you’re living in cause recycling is handled differently everywhere. If you want to be good, you remove the grip and throw it in the right bin. But some places just bury the trash anyway. And this again takes a lot of research and development and we are not a huge tech company or whatever and it’s not our only priority as a brand. So it’ll be work in progress but we have a clearer view now of what we can do better.

It’s a really important topic and not much has been done so far. Dwindle changed some stuff, before they went down. Globe at some point had sustainable apparel, now you did this project. Skateboarders over the last years have been aware of different things and are trying to make the scene better and healthier. Why do you think sustainability wasn’t in the focus so far?

I have the feeling that consciousness in skateboarding is something that we kind of forget sometimes. It’s good to see it appearing with the mental health issues that have been tackled for the last years. But then there’s things like leaving trash on the spot or trashing someone’s front door doing slappies there, that’s really common. And I’ve been the kid, so I don’t blame anyone. But becoming an adult makes you realize: “Fuck, if I would be living here, I would be pissed”. I don’t mind if we do this to a big corporation. They’re kind of sucking our blood, so it’s ok. But if you fuck up someones property that they maybe worked for their whole life… I’ve been super happy seeing in some videos recently where people were repainting a rail after skating it. I guess marketing also has done a great job so nobody looks into this. Most of the time we are here to sell stuff and of course everybody wants to make you dream about skateboarding but in the end, it’s like oil/car companies: They want you to look at the freedom you get with your car, they don’t want you to look at drilling in the middle of the ocean. That’s also a shift of the role of Element as a brand. I’m not afraid to say that Element has been cutting trees for more than 30 years now, but I’m also happy to search for better ways.

It’s like this Enjoi ad: ”We kill trees and party”.

That’s a really good one. But there is this responsibility and consciousness about it sometimes, and it’s super hard to not make it sound as you’d give a lesson to anyone. Sometimes you look into the results of the study and it makes you depressed but a former boss once told me: “We’re still selling clothes and skateboards. We don’t sell drugs or weapons or oil. Getting people to skateboard is still a very okay goal”. And even this project is just a small thing to do, you have to start somewhere.

Element CBN Clement Legall 1

Leon Charo Tite with the C.B.N. board | Photo: Clément Le Gall

Sometimes results of studies are a bit abstract. Can you help putting it in relation?

First thing – and that’s really important – the study is made for and with HLC, the factory we use in Spain, in Europe, in the basque country, which is one of the harshest areas in terms of regulation for sustainability and treatment of waste. For other factories in Mexico or China you will need to check how they produce regarding source of electricity etc. So this study is specific to this factory, that’s the improvement for our board made there, which was already quite green compared to others, because of all the local regulations. But to give you an idea, the pollution that comes from the full life cycle of a new board is the equivalent of driving 30 km with a regular diesel car.

Being more sustainable is a noble goal but does ist also sell?

It’s hard skateboarding isn’t an easy business. For Element, a big percentage of the revenue is coming from apparel. So that was our first priority. And it was a plan that we started almost four years ago. The next spring/summer 2025 line now is considered sustainable at 95%. After Covid, it was a big increase of price of goods. We had to maintain the margins and look into how much it costs to produce, and for how much we can sell it. Because if the prices for the raw materials are 50% more expensive and at the same time we want to go to organic cotton, which is also 20% more expensive than the regular one, it would be 70% increase. We can’t put everything on the back of the consumer. Who’s gonna buy a Element T-shirt for 100 Euros? No one, let’s face it. So we have to find a way to still make a good margin but also have a good price. It’s all these choices to make it right for the market and for the planet. At some point you have to look at some of the product and decide if you continue producing it, because there is no way to make it good or sustainable at a good price. But it’s actually funny because some things are exactly the same price. Like the new varnish is not more expensive.

Were there some other results from the study that surprised you?

That the transport is just a little part of the pollution, even if you produce in China. Because those massive ships transport thousands and thousands of products. So the oil being burned for the single product is kinda low. On the other hand the big factories there running on oil or coal is a different thing. And let’s face it, we are proud of having clean energy in Europe, but still it’s atomic, we’re probably gonna pay the cost at some point. But I mean, China is on the path of being greener although sustainability is not that simple. If you build a damn you get endless green energy from a river. But maybe fish then can’t go from or back to the ocean anymore… Everything we do on earth has consequences. Although transport is not that big of a problem as we thought, this board is sold only in Europe. We’re not gonna sell this board in the US because it would be strange to ship it one more time across the ocean.

Let’s get back to the price, since skateboarding is a group of people that is chronically broke and loves free stuff. How do you get them to consume sustainable products, cause I guess overall they’ll be more expensive.

It’s true that for example the new shrink wrap we have is a few cents more expensive, but because we use less colors, the board stays at the same price as a regular board. The price of goods is very important and relative.

I want to talk about the things you changed for this board. Let’s start with the glue cause this is highly discussed. Some say, water based glue doesn’t give you the same pop and strength, other claim it can be even better than epoxy based glue. What did you find out?

HLC uses water based glue, but there is additives that are not so nice to make the bonding between the two plies stronger. And basically the factory explained to us that there is a test where they put two pieces of wood together and they measure how much strength you need to split them appart. And with the glue they have today, with the additives they put in there, they are at a certain level of strength, we can’t reach without the additives. We don’t want to compromise on the quality of the board but in the future we want to find better additives. But yes, there are differences between glues, I probably wouldn’t even feel how they affect my pop while skating to be honest. I’m not a picky person when it comes to my board. Brandon Westgate probably does, he skates a specific shape we made for him. But I wouldn’t compare my skating with Westgate’s skating. He does and feels stuff on his board I’ll never gonna do and feel. He’s on the highest level of skateboarding. I’m the most average.

I also heard stories of skaters wanting boards from a certain woodshop but if it’s not available at the moment and they get boards from another woodshop without them knowing, they don’t feel any difference.

Yeah, and also everybody skates different and has different needs. Asking for the best board brand is like asking for the best guitar brand. It depends on what you want to do with it.

Let’s get to the next one, the wood, which is the biggest component of a board.

So there’s two things in cutting trees. Some forests are managed like agriculture, it’s called silviculture. And some of them are certified FSC which is the “Forest Stewardship Council” that is supposed to follow rules that the forests are managed in a more/most sustainable way. I know standards have limits and there are ways to go around it. But getting FSC certified wood is the first thing you can do. It was quite a process for us because we had to make our factory and their wood provider get certified. It’s an ongoing process and so far we were kind of the first ones to do it in that way. Basically when trees get cut like they used to, there’s nothing alive anymore and then the new trees are seeded in lines because it’s easy to harvest. But the first storm, the first insect coming in, it kills everything and you lose biodiversity by having mono culture.

I recently read a study about FSC which says, it’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have so far and that, for example, the diversity of the animals in FSC certificated forests is way higher. But some are criticising that you have to pay for the label and that it feels like that if you pay for it, you’ll get it.

I agree, but I also understand that they need money to do what they do. Every standard is working like this. Every standard is made by the industry at some point, and has its limits.

"The more transparent everything is, the less shady stuff you’re going to be able to do."

And on to the veneers. In the first part of the article series we talked about that some people think, dyed veneers are stronger but that’s just a myth. It’s more like the opposite.

I’m quoting HLC here: “The dyed veneers get softer”. That’s why they limit the number of coloured plies in the board, just from a construction standpoint. Then the pigments, some of them are really bad for the environment because it’s a very small molecule and goes into the water and everywhere. But for some skaters the top ply colour is really important. Personally I don’t like the yellow for some reason because it’s too big of a contrast with the grip. So it’s a very aesthetic choice.

Talking about the aesthetic, you said that the graphics will have more colors and only this first board is limited to one color.

This Section CBN board will continue in this color. That’s our concept car, we want to keep improving on it. But the other board’s gonna get more colors for creative/marketing reasons.

Next point is shrink wrap. Isn’t that one easy to get rid of?

We also asked ourselves if we need this plastic. That’s the first thing your remove when you get the board. But yes, you need it because the boards are transported in boxes and if they rub against each other it’s damaging the graphic. And of course it keeps probably the moisture out of the wood. So we tried to make it better.

Is it see through?

Yes it is.

And also biodegradable?

Yes, you can compost it. But we learned through the process that there are even different ways of composting. This one goes in the compost thrash (which goes to compost factory) but you can’t compost it yet in your garden.

So was there anything for this board, like with the colors, that was not possible to improve yet?

It would be good to have wood that comes from Europe and doesn’t have to travel around the world. But the quality, the mechanical/technical features of the hard maple, are really hard to find somewhere else. And the second thing is the glue.

And besides making decks more sustainable, there are also trucks and wheels that are needed for a skateboard.

A life cycle analysis is between 10 to 20k Euros and takes a lot of time. Since we are a board producer, we focused on this. But I asked HLC and they’re working on something with wheels and recycled aluminum for trucks, which is already something. What I have on my radar is grip tape. It’s probably polluting more than the board itself, since 90% is coming from oil and as far as I know there are only grip factories in China.

What I think is great is that you don’t want all the knowledge you got exclusively for you. You’ll share it with everybody.

We said we launch 2024 but from 2025 on, everyone who works with HLC can do their boards the same way. It’s open for everyone. It’s ridiculous to develop all of this and to keep it only for us. I mean it’s only a few factories in the world and everybody is kinda doing the same thing everywhere. But a lot of board brands use HLC in Europe, which is also next door for our market, which also saves a lot of back and forth. And besides the wood, they source most of the other stuff in Europe, so it makes it also more sustainable in that way. That’s why I was saying that the result of the study works just for our board made in this factory, but I’m sure some principles work everywhere.

Will the study also go online?

Yes, it will be available on our website. The more transparent everything is, the less shady stuff you’re going to be able to do.

My last question is a bit off topic, but lately I was really surprised about how many people I met that doubted that the climate change is caused by humanity. What do you tell those people?

It’s crazy to believe that the planet ressources are infinite. For example, I’m doing a lot of outdoor sports and was surprised to read that 95% of forests in Europe are modified by humans. Even the forests we think are wild and pristine are not, and it was a bit of disappointing somehow to face that even these are somehow artificial. The pace we are losing animal and vegetal species has been the fastest ever in the history of humanity since it’s recorded. So something is happening, and it is happening fast. Yes, we are more people on Earth. So it’s logical that people are more impacted by any climate hazard, but climate hazards are more extreme and more frequent than before. You don’t want to see it or to make a connection. Fair enough. Keep burning the planet and we will all see what’s going to happen. But more simply, I would like my daughter to grow up the way I grew up, where access to nature is affordable. You can’t save everything, but it’s important to leave things in a better state than we took them. And to me, that’s a good goal for everyone. Because the next person who’s gonna come in that forest/beach/mountain might be your son, your daughter, your friend, your brother. If you come to a beach, you want it to be clean, right? So keep it clean if not making it cleaner.