Today, outdoor brands that fail to address sustainability are a dying breed. But in the ’90s, such mission-focused work was largely uncharted territory. A few companies, most notably Patagonia, were exploring responsible manufacturing processes, but in the world of surf, skate and snow, environmentalism was all but an afterthought. It wasn’t until two young Venice, California-based surfers-turned-snowboarders founded Arbor in 1995 that the status quo began to shift.
In 1992, Chris Jensen was dating the daughter of a man who owned a large parcel of land on the outskirts of Haleakala National Park on the island of Maui. The landowner dreamt of restoring the forest on his property: He hoped to fence off the acacia koa trees and other local flora that were susceptible to invasive plants and feral pigs, plant new trees and eventually donate the area to the national park. To fund the effort, he asked Jensen for help selling prized koa hardwood on the mainland. Sensing a business opportunity, Jensen jumped at the chance, and he and fellow snowboarder Bob Carlson began removing fallen trees by helicopter, shipping them to California and selling them.
The business—which the duo called “Koalition”—as well-intentioned as it was, failed. “You would think everybody would want sustainably sourced woods, but not in the early ’90s—and people certainly weren’t going to pay more for it,” Carlson says.
The aspiring arborists learned from the failure—not just about koa wood, which would eventually grace their snowboards’ iconic topsheets, but about the economics of sustainability, too. “We learned that if you want to get people to participate in a sustainable product, you’ve got to really come in at the same price,” Carlson says. “It’s a tiebreaker. If the quality of the product is equal and the price is equal, people will buy the sustainable product all the time.”
But lest you think Koalition’s founders were exclusively nerding out on wood and their form of environmentalism, Carlson is quick to point out their extracurricular activities. “In our free time, we were snowboarding,” he says, which meant long commutes between the waves in Venice and the slopes of California’s Mammoth Mountain. On those pow-chasing pilgrimages, the seeds for Arbor were planted.
Environmentalists, Outsiders and Innovators
Snowboarding, in the early- to mid-’90s, was seen as a goldmine for gear makers. It was a boom time, a feeding frenzy. In 1995, for instance, Transworld Snowboarding’s Gear Guide famously included boards from more than 200 companies. Nonetheless, it dawned on Jensen and Carlson that most of these brands were following the same script.
“So much of the industry was focused on teenagers—14-year-olds, 15-year-olds,” Carlson says. “And the presentation of the boards and the graphics was all about that young crossover customer [from skateboarding]. We recognized that there really wasn’t anybody doing anything for people in their late teens, 20s and 30s, 40s and 50s.” Also notably: Many of these brands were ignoring the environment.
And so in 1995, Arbor was born with what Carlson describes as an aim to be the “first brand in traditional action sports focused on sustainability with an eye toward craftsmanship and quality.” After all, a board built to last stays out of the landfill.
Jensen and Carlson experimented with sustainable materials and techniques. They built Arbor’s snowboards and skateboards from wood sourced from farms (with the intention of avoiding deforestation); they adopted bamboo (a rapidly renewable material); they reduced the brand’s reliance on plastics with bioplastics and bioresins; and they used recycled steel edges. Finally, they covered their boards with Maui-sourced koa topsheets instead of plastic.
If any of these innovations don’t sound particularly remarkable, it’s because they’re par for the course in board construction these days. But—like the wood industry—the snowboard industry wasn’t ready for the conversation about sustainability at the time. “We were out there talking about wood topsheets and sustainability while the cool-guy brands were talking about graphics and team riders and fashion,” Carlson says. Snowboarding’s core wrote Arbor off as a “hippy” brand, he says, which Carlson emphatically disagrees with (“Arbor is an environmentalist brand,” he counters). “We saw the planet as our shared playground that needed to be protected so that we could continue to surf and skate and snowboard,” he adds.
It was around then, Carlson notes, that Arbor linked up with the co-op. “REI, at that time, in ’95, ’96, was already focused on the environment. It’s a place where our story about sustainability really resonated.” The partnership helped Arbor survive as the snowboard industry imploded: Hundreds of clamoring brands consolidated down to 25 or 30 as popularity for the sport waned.
Through ups and downs, Jensen and Carlson lead the collective from the front, always staying true to a vision of sustainability that doesn’t seem far-fetched today. “All of those things that we created back in the mid-’90s are now utilized in our competitors’ products, and I’m happy about it,” Carlson says. “One brand can’t do it alone. If the whole industry embraces sustainability, better alternative materials, better processes, that’s the only way we make a significant impact.”
Giving Back and Growing Tall
From the jump, Arbor funneled a portion of sales to reforestation efforts back where it all started: Hawaii. (According to Carlson, Arbor was one of the first action sports brands to create an environmental give-back program.)
Dubbed “Returning Roots,” Arbor’s give-back program focuses on planting koa trees in Hawaii. Carlson will go deep on the environmental reasons for reforesting in specifically tropical areas, but it’s the program’s cultural implications that seem to eclipse the rest.
“The first time a human ever slid sideways was on a surfboard in Hawaii a thousand years ago,” says Carlson, who also notes that early surfboards were carved from koa. “And if you surf sidewalk, if you surf swell, if you surf snow, there’s a real debt of gratitude owed to the Hawaiians. So this program gives back to those roots by putting money into the restoration of critical habitat that lies at the genesis of board sports.”
While that Maui landowner eventually fulfilled his dream of donating his parcel to Haleakala National Park, Arbor has since planted more than 300,000 koa trees, mostly in partnership with the Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative.
Sustainability alone doesn’t sell snowboards—they need to rip, too. To ensure Arbor boards perform on snow, Carlson taps ambassadors like snowboard legends Bryan “Guch” Iguchi and Marie-France Roy to offer product feedback. Both Guch and Roy have Arbor pro models (the Iguchi Pro and recently released Veda, respectively), and while they’re stoked on the caliber of their crafts, it’s clear that Arbor’s history of sustainability factored into their decisions to align with the brand.
“Arbor’s commitment to hold sustainability as an essential part of its business from day one of the operation 25 years ago is definitely something that I continue to admire,” Roy says. Just like sustainability can be a tiebreaker for the consumer picking between products, it can be the same for pro athletes seeking a home. And athletes who care about both product performance and sustainability, Carlson explains, are invaluable to Arbor.
Guch, who also has a pro model splitboard, has spent more and more time on the skin track in his Wyoming backyard over the last few years. Human-powered backcountry travel, he says, “has shown me a path to sustainability. The physical efforts on the skin track give me a chance to slow down, find focus and reflect on my values. It lifts my spirit and at the end of the day, I feel a deeper connection to our natural world and inspiration to take care of the land I find sacred.”
Today, Arbor is in much better shape than it was during those rocky years in the 1990s—partially because athletes and ambassadors like Guch and Roy, among many others, have lent their voices to Carlson’s cause. Not to mention, sustainability is simply more important to consumers these days. Regardless, Arbor isn’t just surviving anymore, it’s thriving, and it’s no longer seen as an industry outsider, either. It’s been a long journey to get here, and 25 years in, a celebration feels in order. “Some of the final pieces are starting to fall into place,” Carlson says proudly. “Our factory today is 100 percent solar powered.”
That said, Carlson is the first to admit that the quest for sustainability is a never-ending one. “There are no perfectly environmentally friendly snowboards,” he acknowledges—at least not yet. “There is still a heavy reliance on the running surface being plastic. We still ship stuff from a single source globally around the world. You have to be OK with progress, not perfection. But you have to keep your eye on perfection.”
“Perfection, to me, one day, is a snowboard that gives you 10 years of life. You can pass it on to somebody who is learning the sport and create participation by having it move through a few owners. But when it’s finally done, it can be cut up and buried locally, in natural conditions, and it will biodegrade and go back to the earth.”
A return, if you will, to its roots.
How Arbor survived the hard times and evolved into a collective of like-minded board riders that’s thriving today is the subject of the brand’s new film, Crossing the Grain. Catch the premiere here on February 4, 2021, at 6pm PST.
In conjunction with the film, Arbor is releasing limited-edition, 25-year anniversary skateboards and snowboards. Each one-of-a-kind deck is graced with a veneer from the last two koa trees sourced by co-founder Chris Jensen, who tragically passed away in 2018.
For more stories of brands doing good work, visit our Good Gear landing page.