While the sustainability of this physical product is considerable, the processes that make it and the lack of initiative by its producer counterbalance its environmental sustainability. This is, unfortunately, a plague in the sports industry. Riddell, as well as the NFL, has a long way to go in order to achieve progress in this sector. Investing in alternatives, generating innovative solutions, and thinking forward needs to be integrated into the methods that create football’s integral equipment. It starts with the helmet.
While most football helmets are made of traditional carbon steel, the bulk of Riddell’s Speedflex is made from HS4 (high strength spring stainless steel). This option is more flexible and light than the alternative and has become a preferred trait for football players as it allows quicker, seamless play style. This material is made from a variety of precious earth metals, including iron, nickel, chromium, molybdenum, and carbon. According to the Specialty Steel Industry of North America, this type of steel is actually as sustainable as can currently be. Due to corrosion-resistant properties highly recyclable content, the material used to construct the Speedflex helmet is actually at the forefront of alternative energy solutions. The same source also notes that this type of steel is “100% recyclable into the same product with no reduction in quality.” The one issue is that recycling the helmet involves a labor-intensive process and many users may just opt to throw the material out in the trash. Due to this, some sustainability points need to be deducted. Overall, considering that the main composition of the product is conducive to long-term life cycles and high reuse rates creates a sustainable nature for the product.
The process required to make the helmet’s structure involves the mining of many precious earth metals and energy-intensive production. According to Adolphus Gleekia of the Liberian Ministry of Lands, “mining of iron ore has copious negative impacts on the environment. As the mining method is usually open cast, it degrades natural landscapes, surface and groundwater, Flora and Fauna, as well as the ambient air quality within the mining area and its environs.” On top of this, chromium mining generates numerous toxic effects on air quality and human health. In some regions, such as Canada, certain chromium isotopes are even listed as toxic waste and must be treated before disposal. Nickel mining, also, can cause very serious impacts to local environments including changes to physical and chemical land, the release of toxic metals, damage to heritage, acid mine drainage, and more. The list goes on and on with mining, and more sustainable methods need to be implemented to make the industry environmentally friendly. At the very least, the product created from this is sustainable, but the ends aren’t necessarily justifying the means in this instance. When these initial processes are completed, the helmet and its materials must be created. This involves energy-intensive procedures of heat treatment, metal forming, carbon removal, and melting that relies on unclean energy. These methods are literally unsustainable, if new products or methods are explored the Riddell Speedflex may cease to exist. The continued usage of these helmets currently relies on an insubstantial recycling process and not the root of the issue.
As with many companies in the sports industry, Riddell has not made a considerable effort to align with sustainability or environmental initiative. While the company does partner with Carbon to promote sustainable design and innovation, this partnership seems to be just a fraction of the company’s mission. As just one of the company’s 18 published partnerships, it seems like the company is not forward-thinking in terms of environmentalism. It’s a true shame and something that we can see over and over again through sports. As such an influential sector, great power requires great responsibility. These NFL regulation helmets will simply run out of stock at the rate at which they are being produced. The mining of earth metals is detrimental to the environment and the company’s lack of a helmet recycling program leaves the product’s true sustainability in question. It really just comes down to initiative, and Riddell seems to be checking the boxes and completing the bare minimum to achieve “environmental stewardship.”