POMOCA and SkinAlp: a real example of circularity

Circularity has increasingly become a widespread approach in recent years. Circular economy (CE) aims to a more sustainable economic system where all waste, by-products, and end-of-life products are constantly reused, remanufactured and/or recycled resulting in a closed-loop system that minimizes the use of resources and the production of waste, pollution, and carbon emissions. In this context, the collaboration between POMOCA and Skinalp represents the perfect example of circularity where the production scraps of one company are transformed into new products by the other.

Who are they? Let’s take a closer look!

POMOCA is a Swiss company and the world leading manufacturer of ski touring skins. Skinalp is an Italian company that produces fashion accessories from upcycled ski touring skins. Thanks to their collaboration all the skin production scraps from POMOCA are transformed into valuable fashion products (belts, bags, wallets and keyholders) by Skinalp which otherwise would be simply incinerated. Since 2016 Skinalp have upcycled around 295 kg of ski touring skins, equal to a surface of 240 m2 (345 pizzas). Hervé Domenighini (co-founder of Skinalp) and Josep Castellet (Group Head of Research and Innovation and General Manager of POMOCA) both agree that at the basis of their collaboration there is the respect for nature and the will to promote sustainability. In addition to this, Skinalp is also focused in promoting the made in Italy. Indeed, everything that is around Skinalp products, from the yarn to the cotton bags where the belts are wrapped, is made in Italy by local artisans.

I have interviewed Hervé and Josep to understand better the challenges of adopting this production concept. I have asked POMOCA and Skinalp to share their view on the CE topic, important aspect they had to consider before starting this project, and the challenges they need to face in the daily life of their companies to remain competitive.

How did Skinalp come up with the idea of reconverting production waste into valuable objects?

“The idea of reconverting production waste into valuable objects came up during a skitouring tour, when someone threw a skin and it glued around the pants of one of the co-founders, who said:

it could be a colorful belt!” — Skinalp

Skinalp started off by using recycled skins, but the quality of the product was not fully satisfying. When they contacted POMOCA to explore the possibility to use their leftovers or over-trimmed skins, it was apparently the perfect timing. Indeed, Josep says he had this idea in mind for a while, but could not find a suitable partner. Then, when contacted by Skinalp, Josep found out that they had his exact idea and already did some product. He got immediately excited and ready to support their collaboration.

What does circular economy mean to POMOCA?

Circular economy is for me a very ambitious word. It would mean that we leave no footprint and that all we make is reusable. For me it is a utopia that has to inspire us. Getting there is hard but getting close is feasible.” — POMOCA

Josep gives a very realistic view on what Circular Economy really means to big companies that, at the end of the day, have to find the right balance to remain competitive on the market. Still, in his opinion, CE should be more about the final (social) goals over the profit. Trying to promote sustainability should be a responsibility towards the future generations. POMOCA has no direct economic gain from the collaboration with Skinalp, though it benefits in terms of brand image. People are thinking more and more about ethic companies, creating a sort of social pressure that pushes in finding new responsible and sustainable approaches. CE is becoming a necessity for companies, something they have to do in the long term to ensure their very own existence: the survival instinct, as Josep likes to call it. Introducing sustainable approaches is always a matter of finding the right balance between cost and benefit. It’s a long term bet that involves giving up part of the short-term profits. In his interesting analysis Josep continues discussing another advantage of introducing CE: it is a learning process. Because of the increasing social demand to adopt a circular model, companies are doing small steps towards this implementation. Along the way, however, they develop new business models including Circular Economy from the beginning. This will simplify the linear-to-circular transition in the future, when CE will probably become mandatory.

What is the role of fundamental research to find sustainable alternatives and what could the scientific community do to contribute in including CE principles?

“One of the biggest challenges we are facing is to communicate to consumers how much Skinalp and its products are sustainable. We need impartial and simple indicators to describe the degree of circularity that a company and a product have. These indicators should take into account not only the manufacturing process but also the material supplying process.” — Skinalp

“The product development phase is the true moment where CE can be included. Once the product is made is simply too late for the most part of it. Scientific research and technology development are the key to provide the tools necessary for developers to create products with less impact. Corporate developers are too busy and do not have time to invest in this research. Hence, scientists have to give them the knowledge and the know-how that they can apply.” — POMOCA

Hervé and Josep raise interesting points. Skinalp points out how institutions and the scientific community should take the responsibility to define a simple and unified system of indicators to rate the level of circularity for products and companies. Rating the sustainability of products is essential for both consumers, to make informed decisions, and the company, to justify the extra cost of processing (recycling, upcycling, etc.). Such a rating system would also help institutions to highlight the more lagging sectors in terms of sustainability, so that they can be promoted.

POMOCA, instead, underlines how the product development phase is the real moment where Circular Economy can be included and where the real difference can be made. We can all agree with Josep when says that it requires less effort and is more cost-effective designing a product that considers CE from the very beginning rather than finding processes to recycle it.”

What can institutions do to promote and support companies?

“Companies need tools and knowhow. Institutions should propose solutions and eventually help them with financial support in the launching phase. If the initial cost is too high for a feasible business model, companies will not even consider the transition to CE.” — POMOCA

Institutions play a crucial role in facilitating the introduction of CE solutions for companies. Josep describes this process as a series of interconnected steps. A company needs time and help to learn how to be more circular, as it spends almost 90% of its time in producing and selling. Institutions should encourage synergies between companies and the scientific community in order to produce the necessary knowledge and technologies, and reduce companies’ learning time. Following is the investment for adopting the new solutions. The initial cost can be high, institutions can provide financial support to encourage more and more companies to adopt more sustainable approaches. The more CE examples there will be, the more experiences companies, the scientific community and institutions will gain, which will facilitate and affect future implementation, while creating and closing a cycle of steps. In this view, a self-improvement cycle would be created by this collaboration and it would contribute to reach the final breakthrough in the Circular Economy scenario.

Inspiring quotes:

“Circular Economy: getting there is hard, getting closed if feasible.” — POMOCA

“Changing the public opinion about the cost of upcycling is a difficult challenge” — Skinalp

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