Industry voices: Innovation drives a sustainable future

By Frank Hugelmeyer

If the past two years taught us anything, it’s that change truly is a constant—you can adapt and innovate or be disrupted. When many Americans turned to outdoor recreation as an escape from the greatest social and socioeconomic shift of their lives, the boating industry fared well relative to the broader economy. Nonetheless, we’ve had to embrace change head-on, grappling with the world’s new realities: supply chain issues, geopolitical conflicts, and our rapidly evolving climate, to name a few.

Innovation will be the cornerstone of our industry in the coming years. New products will catalyze continued growth and usher in the next generation of boaters. As we’ve seen over the past several years, newcomers and seasoned captains alike will eagerly embrace new innovations and many of these advancements will be crucial to servicing future generations and increasing retention.

Strong consumer demand over the past two years bolstered the boating industry and pushed us to look to the future. As the world eases into its new normal, we are likely to see stabilization in sales across the industry. Inflation fears and supply chain woes make this year one to watch, though the industry outlook remains cautiously optimistic. January 2022 saw 12,000 unit sales of new powerboats, a 33% increase from two years prior before the pandemic emerged, and just shy of the 14,000 unit peak in January 2021.

As the war in Ukraine grips the world, most industries are already feeling a ripple effect. Given new trade restrictions on Russia, the global supply chain for steel and aluminum will likely become constrained; Russia is a net exporter of steel and one of the world’s top five exporters of aluminum. Further, as China grapples with Covid spikes, obtaining materials like semiconductors will pose a challenge.

Agility in reacting to our evolving world is essential, but so is proactive innovation. Our industry revolves around appreciation for the environment’s natural beauty and enjoyment of water sources that require special care and protection. Sustainability should be top of mind for all industries in the coming decades and for boating it is paramount. Today’s consumer and financial investor looks for industries and responsible companies to publicly report on how they are annually working towards a more sustainable future. At NMMA, we seek to align with society’s expectations and needs. Helping our member companies navigate and excel through change is an opportunity we see as fundamental to staving off existential threats that face the larger outdoor recreation community.

In specific, the industry’s carbon footprint requires careful attention and an honest conversation. Let’s start with the facts. First, the overall carbon footprint for recreational boating is a fraction of 1% of all global transportation emissions. Additionally, we’ve significantly improved the fuel efficiency of engines by more than 40% over the past 20 years, resulting in a more than 90% reduction in engine emissions.

The next stage of CO2 reductions will need to come from our industry’s own changemakers, as the hurdles for boating are unique. While the automotive industry has found success in electrification, the leap to EVs does not translate seamlessly for boating. Without a massive improvement in energy retention levels, electric marine propulsion technologies lack the range, infrastructure and affordability for many marine applications. And due to an EVs own high-carbon manufacturing footprint and finite battery lifespan, some EVs may have a greater CO2 footprint over their lifetime than equivalent internal combustion engines. Better EV battery technology, infrastructure and/or other next generation propulsion technologies are on the horizon and our industry’s innovators will strive to lead the way.

When it comes to sustainability, boats also have exceptionally long lifespans, particularly compared against today’s consumer landscape of planned obsolescence and perishable goods. However, there’s a prime opportunity for manufacturers to design for end-of-life and a greater focus on recycling where possible, like responsibly disposing of necessary materials and components, while educating our customers on the impact end-of-life improvements can have. To continue to head out on the waters for generations to come, this is but another factor to keep in mind while we ease into our new normal.

Looking to the future necessitates including everyone to share in outdoor recreation. Historically, our industry has underrepresented marginalized groups, and this has to change. Introducing and welcoming diverse communities to the joys of boating will ripple through families and generations, allowing a much-needed outlet for so many across the country. This emphasis cannot be understated, especially when viewed through the lens of sustainability and innovation, because it would double our market potential and place the boating industry at its strongest position in history.

For all the uncertainty in the headlines, we remain hopeful. The recreational boating industry maintains a laser focus on innovation to drive a sustainable future, an in-depth emphasis on adapting to the shifting economic and global headwinds, and an inclusive mindset sure to expand access and grow our vibrant community. 

Frank Hugelmeyer is the president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA).

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