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Locally Made: Sewn on Solar

Employees at Organic Climbing’s facility in Philipsburg, Pa., sew bouldering pads, backpacks, bike bags, and chalk bags. Photo by Jarrod Bunk

Organic Climbing makes sustainable gear in Pennsylvania

“This whole roof is 5,000 square feet of them,” says Josh Helke, owner of Organic Climbing, as he looks up at the ceiling of the showroom, toward the solar panels basking in the sun above. “We average around 350-405 kilowatt hours a day. 8,000 a month.” The panels are responsible for one hundred percent of the power at the newly constructed, 17,000-square-foot workshop in Philipsburg, Pa. In November of 2018, Helke and the 22 employees of Organic Climbing and their second brand, Nittany Mountain Works, moved into the shop, and under the array adopted a new slogan, “Solar Sewn.”

Rural Pennsylvania may not be the first place that comes to mind when conjuring the headquarters of an internationally distributed gear maker pursuing cleaner solutions to the manufacturing process. The state is steeped in a heritage of extraction, and nowhere is this heritage more relevant than Organic Climbing’s facility, which sits atop reclaimed mining land, overlooking the Moshannon Creek Valley. Nevertheless, Helke and his company have been up to just that in their 15-year history, and since bringing the business to Philipsburg in 2009.

Helke started sewing crashpads in Wyoming in 2004 after working in the climbing industry as a designer and growing increasingly disappointed with the quality of finished products. He has built his business on producing gear that lasts, softgoods constructed of dense Cordura and ballistic nylons, 95 percent of which he attests are sourced within the U.S. Organic designs their bouldering pads, backpacks, bike bags, and chalk bags not only to be tough, streamlined, and repairable, but also in meticulously unique patterns, so that nearly zero of the diverse palette of fabric cut in their factory goes to waste. Looking for a sustainable path has always been in Helke’s business plan. So when Organic Climbing was awarded a two-percent loan from the Pennsylvania Industrial Development Association in 2017 to build a new home for the company, he knew the next move was running Organic on renewable energy.

Photo by Jarrod Bunk

“It feels good to show people it can be done,” says Helke. “You put in the labor for a solar panel once and it goes for 30 years. We’d like to keep adding solar as we can. We should be able to get another 2,000 square feet over the production area.”

Organic’s existing panels already exceed the 3,700-5,000 kilowatt hours needed to operate every month. The goal is to contribute more power to the state grid, for others to use in place of burning fuels that release additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere already containing an average of more than 410 parts per million.

Helke believes owning his company independently has allowed him to steer it in the direction of his ethics, rather than focusing heavily on profit margin. He acknowledges, though, there are still difficult issues to contest with, the toughest being the footprint of distribution. But Helke also believes transparency regarding the complete production process is important for consumers to see. 

“The full picture is it takes a lot of work, and a lot of money to do the right thing,” says Helke. “We’d probably make more if we weren’t devoted to that. But we are gluttons for punishment, and have our morals, and we will do what it takes to get there.” 

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