Inside Outdoor Retailer

Breaking Trail: Judy Amabile

Sustainability is becoming impossible to ignore in the outdoor industry. In this series, Breaking Trail, we look to our industry leaders for guidance, inspiration, and best practices in sustainable business in the outdoor-product space. Here, Walden Hyde speaks with Judy Amabile, president and co-founder of Product Architects Inc./ Polar Bottle about the holistic approach to sustainability and the tough decisions a small business needs to make when balancing sustainability and profit.

Judy Amabile, President and Co-founder of Product Architects Inc./ Polar Bottle

Judy Amabile, President and Co-founder of Product Architects Inc./ Polar Bottle

What is your philosophy about sustainability?
Sustainability involves making a shift in the way you think about what you do. It makes you ask questions like, “How many resources am I using up? What impact do my actions have on other people?”

Everybody is focused on making money right now, but I think it’s important to take the long view. As customers, we all need to move towards buying for quality and paying for it appropriately. Everything has a cost. When companies cut corners to make cheap products, it hurts people and the planet.

I think this really shows up in the case of globalization. There are consequences to the planet and worker safety when companies choose to manufacture in factories that pay substandard wages and operate in countries that don’t have strong pollution regulations. We need to have a broader prospective.

How does this show up in your business? What are you doing that’s exceptionally important?
We’re interested in making a good product that is useful and lasts, and we don’t try to go after every dime in every transaction. Because we’re privately owned, we can choose to make these decisions without worrying about what investors would think.

Our BPA-free bottles are made in our facility in Boulder, Colorado, from locally sourced materials. This saves on the environmental cost of transportation. We design our bottles so that they last, and we hope people hang onto them for years. So if a customer ever breaks or loses a cap, we’ll send a new cap for free so that the bottle can still be used. And because we have such trust in the quality of our products, if one of our bottles ever leaks or is dysfunctional, we’ll replace it for free.

We’ve chosen to pay our employees a living wage —it’s unsustainable to not pay people a living wage. After two weeks on the job, our workers receive $12/hour and we cover our employees’ basic health insurance premiums. It might not be the most profit-centered decision, but it’s worth it. It’s hard to be a good employee if you can’t go to the doctor when you are sick.

A company needs to make money, but we can’t be too short-sighted about the impact of our business.

What motivates you to do this?
Robert [Heiberger] and I both came out of corporate America and decided that we wanted to run our company differently. . .we had the luxury of thinking about how to build integrity into the core of our business. We’ve also become more aware over the years.

What’s keeping you from doing more?
We need to balance what we want to do with what we can do while still staying competitive. We have to compete, so sometimes that requires us to accept lower profit margins. We have to make sure that we are meeting the needs of our customers. For instance, some customers want every bottle to be packaged in its own plastic bag, and others request that the shipments of bottles that we send to their warehouses be broken into smaller boxes so that they can send them to individual stores. These packing materials may seem excessive, but we need to make sure that we accommodate our customers’ needs.

Where would you like this to go in the next five years?
The outdoor industry should be a leader in holistic approach to sustainability—it’s both an environmental and human issue.

There should be more incentive for manufacturing in the US or wherever our end-users are. When companies do manufacture abroad, it should be centered around expertise instead of exploitation.
We all need to consider how to do business in a way that’s better for the planet and for people. That’s the way our industry needs to go.

About Product Architects Inc./Polar Bottle
Since 1994 Product Architects Inc./ Polar Bottle™ has manufactured and distributed the original insulated water bottles. The family-run company started out of a Boulder, Colorado garage with the Polar Bottle Sport™ — the first insulated water bottle on the market. At that time it had only one employee. Still based in Boulder, the company today employs close to 50 people and has expanded its product line with innovative insulated bottle designs, including the Polar Bottle Ergo™ and Polar Bottle Thermaluxe™.

About Judy Amabile
Judy Amabile is the President and Co-founder of Product Architects Inc./ Polar Bottle. When the company started, she personally traveled around Colorado selling the sport bottles to local bike shops. Since then, she has kept an active role in the company, helping oversee everything from accounting and finance to sales, marketing and production.

Judy is committed to family, sustainability and responsible business.  She is careful to source materials whenever possible from the United States and works hard to ensure she partners with environmentally conscious, ethical companies. Judy lives in Boulder with her dog and three sons. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, biking, skiing, traveling and spending time with her siblings, nieces and nephews (most of whom have at one point been employed at her company).

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