Designing sustainable outdoor products

Oskar Zheren in ski clothing.

Oskar Zehren and his classmates will be the first-ever Oregon State University students to earn a bachelor’s degree in outdoor products when they graduate this spring. 

Based at Oregon State University-Cascades in Bend, the interdisciplinary outdoor products degree program, introduced in 2019, has given Zehren the knowledge to navigate all stages of outdoor product development, including conceptualization, design, manufacturing, and marketing.

“I really enjoy the design classes, and I think it’s also beneficial to learn about all the sectors of a business, focusing on marketing and sustainability,” Zehren said. “The well-roundedness of the degree is what I find to be most beneficial. It expands your knowledge of an outdoor company from top to bottom."

Indeed, the outdoor products program prepares students to be innovative industry leaders while emphasizing environmental sustainability, which is crucial to the field. It also provides students with practical experience beyond the classroom. For Zehren, who relishes both outdoor recreation and the technical aspects of design, undertaking the degree was a “no-brainer.”   

“I grew up in Portland, and outdoor recreation drew my attention when I was younger. I always wanted to go and explore the woods. It kind of started with camping and backpacking, and eventually, I picked up snowboarding. That’s actually what brought me out to Bend, Mount Bachelor,” he explained.

Zehren began his postsecondary education by taking foundational courses at Central Oregon Community College before Oregon State launched the outdoor products degree. By that point, he had grown to love living in Bend, and he enrolled in the program as soon as it launched.

“Whenever I was at home, not snowboarding or camping, I was researching gear; it’s fascinating to me,” Zehren said. “There’s an outdoor product design program in Utah that I was looking at, but I love Oregon, this beautiful state. It was a pretty easy choice.”

Notably, Oregon is home to some of the biggest outdoor industry brands; Bend hosts the headquarters of both Hydro Flask and Puffin Drinkwear. In fact, Zehren is working with Puffin for his capstone project, for which he is helping conduct a sustainability assessment created by Bluesign Technologies to recognize and recommend eco-conscious practices during product development.

“We’re looking at the materials used and the chemical components of all their products to show them what's going on in their supply chain, and, hopefully, to give them opportunities to become more sustainable,” Zehren said.

Puffin is not Zehren’s introduction to the field, however; he is also affiliated with Ride Snowboards as a brand subrepresentative to promote the company in the Pacific Northwest, where he interns with the regional brand representative to provide PNW snowboarders with gear and help them create social media content and video projects promoting Ride.

Further, he has been working at Tactics, a snowboard and skateboard shop in Bend, for the past five years. Working at Tactics has given him the chance to directly implement his classroom knowledge; he offers technical assistance to customers with a variety of outdoor sports and recreation interests and ability levels, maintaining industry knowledge of both hard goods and soft goods.

Zehren advises others who are contemplating Oregon State’s outdoor products degree to consider working at an outdoor recreation store for both the experience as well as networking opportunities with industry representatives. 

Zehren is determined to join an outdoors equipment manufacturer when he graduates, then bolster his industry knowledge further and, possibly, go into business for himself one day. Ultimately, his experience in the outdoor products program has motivated him to research, design, and sell more sustainable products.

“The goal is to just keep gaining as much experience as possible, especially on the sustainability side,” Zehren said. “Looking at bigger brands that are really focused on sustainability, Patagonia or Arc'teryx or anything like that. I want to gain as much knowledge as I can at a brand like that and then take that to a smaller brand or my own brand in the future.”

April 13, 2022