From the moment we entered the halls of the Salt Palace (the convention center in Salt Lake City, Utah) and saw a giant inflatable mammoth hanging from the ceiling, until the moment we ended our day with a beer courtesy of Teva, we knew this was a different kind of conference. Don’t be fooled though, work is definitely being done at the Outdoor Retailer show. Almost every brand in the industry had a booth at this summer’s event. Retailers as large as REI and as small as Mountain Tools were in attendance, with many buyers making the entire year’s purchase at the show. As this was our first time attending Outdoor Retailer, we wanted to give our overall impressions, highlight trends within the industry, and talk a bit about corporate sustainability.
We’ve written about some of the products earlier in the week. Here’s a recap:
Patagonia finally released the P26 hiking boot it created for the Backpack Magazine Zero Impact challenge. We had a chance to speak with company co-founder and president Demetri “Coup” Coupounas about GoLite’s sustainability efforts, and see the new Tier 1 backpacks made in part from recycled materials. After wandering over to Lafuma/Millet, we saw their recycled packs and eco-friendly un-dyed climbing rope. Then, up on the second level of the Merrell booth, we learned what happened to the company’s NADA concept–we’ll give you a hint, it isn’t gone.
cause no unnecessary harm
What we haven’t yet mentioned is that there were plenty of companies who either had no sustainability initiatives, or did not articulate any to us during our time at Outdoor Retailer. When we spoke with the marketing manager of one prominent outdoor company, we were stunned at how little this representative could tell us about his company’s sustainability efforts. As he was searching for something to talk about, he told us that (and we’re paraphrasing) companies are just expected to be sustainable these days.
Forgive us if we won’t make that assumption. Even among those companies with strong sustainability initiatives, there is doubt about consumer dedication to environmentalism. As Coupounas, told us, “The great mass of consumers does not want to sacrifice performance or pay more for sustainable.”
And that might be the real take-away from Outdoor Retailer: Companies don’t yet feel that the payoff is there to be as sustainable as possible. After all, they are in the business of selling outdoor products, not saving the planet.
Even Patagonia, widely believed by consumers to be one of the most sustainable outdoor companies has a mission statement that acknowledges the fact that the current method of production causes harm to the environment. Patagonia representative Jessica Clayton explained their philosophy, “Make the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement a solution to the environmental crisis.”
In Patagonia’s mission statement the “cause no unnecessary harm” part is present because in order to make a product, some harm has to happen. These are companies that make outdoor products (mostly great products that we enjoy using), and at the end of the day they’re trying to sell you a jacket, or a shoe, or backpack.
One of the issues preventing companies from implementing greater sustainability initiatives is cost. Many of these companies are publicly held, and are therefore beholden to investors, to meeting margins, and to increasing the share price.
“We’re all in this business because we love the outdoors. The challenge in front of us is how to run a business, and do right by the environment,” said Bill Inman of Merrell when asked why companies in the industry don’t do more to be sustainable.
Together, Inman and Coupounas have captured the general business sentiment on sustainability efforts not only within their own industry, but also in that of the greater business community. Companies feel that the realities of the marketplace are such that they cannot afford to produce completely sustainable products. There are very few brands with customers who are willing and able to pay a premium for, and value, 100 percent green gear.
low hanging fruit: recycled plastics
However, our overall impression is that companies are, by and large, embracing sustainability in both product development and corporate initiatives. Perhaps there is a realization, even if just peripherally, that extracting resources from the earth to produce goods that are quickly consumed then buried in landfills is not a business practice that can continue forever.
We’re encouraged by what seemed to be a widespread use of recycled polyester or nylon in products at many booths. Now that the quality of these recycled materials is equal to that of virgin, many companies are spending the extra money to incorporate them into their offerings. We fully expect this trend to continue, especially as the prices for these recycled materials decreases.
Of course, sustainability isn’t limited to carbon footprints or just about using recycled materials. We keep asking what about the water, what about the pollution from dyeing apparel? Only a few brands are taking this question into consideration. Of course, it’s something all of us in the industry should look at given that the textile industry is a major water user and polluter.
In January when we return to Salt Lake City for the winter iteration of Outdoor Retailer, we hope to sit with many of these same companies to discuss just how to produce the best quality apparel, and minimize its environmental impact. After all, what good is outdoor apparel if there’s nowhere left to use it.