The Scandinavian transplant talks leaving his dream job to tackle the problem of single-use plastics
interview by The Field co-founder Graham Hiemstra
In the world of snowboarding few individuals have made as big of an impact as Jussi Oksanen. The Finnish born, Southern California transplant is a living legend. Over the course of his 17 year professional career Jussi made an Olympic appearance in Nagano as a teenager, won seven X-Games medals, filmed countless iconic video parts—including three with Robot Food, arguably the single most influential film series in modern snowboarding history—and in 2008 co-founded Mizu, maker of BPA-free reusable stainless steel water bottles, mugs, cups, and more aimed at combating the consumption of single-use plastics.
Even after Mizu began to take shape Jussi continued to work his ass off snowboarding for six more seasons, traveling the world to get shots five days a week, then flying home to be with his wife and two kids on the weekends.
Only in 2014 did he finally “retire” from professional snowboarding. Though the move brought Jussi not to the golf course but a desk chair, as he now heads up Mizu’s marketing team, pushing the brand's ethos of living an adventurous lifestyle while leaving nothing behind. Assisting in this misison is Mizu's sister non-profit Protecting Where We Play, a foundation tasked with providing free-to-use water stations in mountain resorts, beaches, skate parks, and other recreation zones.
With so much to do we caught up with Jussi to learn more about his experience in snowboarding, co-founding Mizu, and what we can do ourselves to help curb the consumption. Read on to get informed.
Was there was an “ah-ha” moment when you realized how severe the issue of single-use plastic products was, where you felt inspired to help do something about it?
Yeah, I think it was a few moments. One was when I moved to the States [in 2005] and we had a neighbor and this Arrow Head truck would come and drop pallets of these tiny plastic water bottles to her house all the time, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Then after a while, [I realized] she was ordering bottled water to her house every week. That was like, wow, this is totally crazy.
But I think it wasn’t until one of my trips up to Alaska, when we were driving in a couple of trucks and one crew, they were just drinking plastic water bottles the entire three day drive. And every time they drank a bottle, they threw it in the bed of the truck, like wedged in between the snowmobile and the cab. And by the time we got to Alaska, it was just a massive pile of plastic bottles.
That consumption really kind of hits you like, holy shit, like this doesn’t need to be here, you know. If you’d use reusable, you’d eliminate all of these. So it put it into perspective, like, let’s do something about this. And once you start doing some research, you realize how big the issue really is.
Do you feel like this absentminded consumption is uniquely American, or are you seeing this around the world too?
When I started traveling when I was like 16, 17, we didn’t really have plastic water bottles [in Finland]. It wasn’t a thing yet, you know. And then when I started spending a lot of time in America, it was definitely a new kind of trend that everybody was using massive amounts of plastic water bottles.
Now, it’s interesting because the trend I feel has totally changed. We were just at Outdoor Retailer trade show [in Utah] where I’d say 90% of people had some sort of reusable product. Then when we were at ISPO [trade show in Munich], it was maybe 1%, so it’s like completely flip flopped.
It’s like here, a reusable bottle has become sort of an everyday accessory, especially in California, which is a really cool trend. But it seems Europe has gone backward. They’re like following five or ten years behind America. That’s been surprising to me.
Mizu’s brand identity feels very refined. How important is design to the brand?
For me growing up, coming from Scandinavia, design was always very important, but it has to function as well.
So when we did our first bottle, we tested tons of bottles. I’m thinking how can we design a bottle that looks awesome, is clean, and has a certain modern look, but at the same time has a function. Like, the way our neck is built on the M8 and V8 helps water to flow smoothly—when you tilt it 45 degrees, it comes smoothly—unlike some of the bottles where that curve is a little bit more aggressive, and that can build pressure so when you’re drinking and you change the angle a little bit, tons of water floods out and all over you.
Can you tell us a bit about the cutlery set? Where did that idea come from?
Since we started the company, it’s always been a reusable mission, and so it was a kind of natural extension of that. But when we came out with the cutlery set, we didn’t really know what to expect, and it’s absolutely been amazing for us. We haven’t really marketed it that much, but the first batch sold out in less than a month. It was totally a surprise for us.
In 2014 you retired from professional snowboarding. How has the transition from full time snowboarder to a brand founder been?
Yeah, that’s the interesting one. It’s been kind of nice, to be honest. I was a pro 17 years, and the last five years of my career, I started getting pretty burned out. When you’ve done something for so long… my body was getting tired and I was just really ready to do something else.
I kind of have transferred the adventure side of it too—that was a big part of why I enjoyed snowboarding. Getting films and videos, that was kind of what we were after, but it was always about the adventure, and I’ve been able to kind of fill that gap now with us doing weekend missions—usually once a month I do some sort of adventure with friends or family.
So that was the biggest thing for me, to continue that. Because for me, for my mind, I need to get out.
"Be aware of all your actions. Little things go a long way."
Tell us about these weekend trips, these Mizu Missions.
Mizu’s mission, that’s sort of my personal mission that I’ve been pushing, and it’s really how Mizu was founded in the first place—having reusable solutions while out on adventures. So these missions are just our way to live our ethos; enjoy the journey, and leave nothing behind.
And most of our missions are more intangible—you don’t need to go heli-skiing in Alaska. You can pack your stuff, and your friends, and spend a couple hundred bucks and get some rad experiences, so [Mizu missions are] just our way of trying to encourage people to explore, but do it in the right way. Go out there and do some cool stuff, but don’t leave anything behind. It’s as simple as that.
Let's talk about the early 2000’s Robot Food days for a moment. The film trilogy was hugely influential, from the art direction and packaging, to the style of riding and the personalities. Do you remember at the time feeling that what you were doing was different?
Yeah, so it was interesting times. I started filming with standard films and it was probably one of the biggest lessons in my career that really put me in a track through to become a pro snowboarder. I mean, the work ethic was just incredible, and that kind of laid a foundation for me, and a lot of the other guys too.
But at the same time, we kind of felt like, okay, this is a really cool chapter in our lives, but we couldn’t really determine how we were seen as snowboarders because we were filming for someone else.
So after three years doing that, we all kind of felt the same, that we should just do our own movies—do what we want to do and express our snowboarding the way we want to. It was me, David Benedek, Chris Englesman, and Bobby [Meeks], Joni [Malmi], and Travis Parker. So that’s sort of where Robot Food came from.
We put together a plan and a lot of the creative stuff came from Travis. I think Travis has such an incredible mind, and for all the individuals, having that freedom to do whatever we wanted—that’s why the films were so real and authentic.
So wherever we went, we always went with 12 or 13 guys. That’s one big thing that was really different from any of the other videos I’ve ever done—we always traveled as a crew. We’d just go and travel the world. And we might have split into three different crews at the spot, but we were always together.
I think that’s why the whole project, the videos, have that kind of energy and feel, because we were in it together. We were having that experience as a crew.
Now looking forward, what’s to come in the near future from Mizu that you’re excited about?
Yeah, the big thing is a new initiative we’re launching in the Spring that’s a 15-day challenge to get people to go reusable. I always feel like our product is a vehicle for a bigger story, a vehicle for changing people’s habits permanently. If you do something 14 days in a row, you can create a new habit that becomes part of your life. We’re doing it right now for business to business, but we’ll be challenging all of our customers soon.
Also, part of that is figuring out how we can make going reusable easier. We still have a problem with not having filling stations available everywhere we go, so with our nonprofit, Protecting Where We Play, we’re starting to put these public water stations in places where we play.
It’s in line with what we’re doing with Mizu, it’s just really trying to really hammer home the bigger story and bigger mission behind it all. We know we can change the world with water stations, but if we start putting these in places, maybe other companies and people will start thinking they should start doing it as well. We just want to make people think about their actions, and hopefully be able to make more water stations, and make reusable easy.
What’s one thing we as individuals can start doing tomorrow to help make a positive impact on the world?
It’s really a simple thing, just being aware, challenging yourself to choose reusable over single use. You can do it for a couple days, two weeks, and count your footprint—count how many single use products you’ve saved—you’ll be blown away.
It’s not hard at all, it’s just an issue of integrating that habit into your lifestyle. Once you’ve done that, that’s it, you’re done. You’re not creating that footprint anymore.
It’s just being aware of all your actions. Little things go a long way.