LaGreca: Is sustainability in the outdoor industry an oxymoron? (column)
August 21, 2016
While it seemed from attending the outdoor industry's premier trade show, Outdoor Retailer (OR), in Salt Lake City this month that the entire outdoor industry is so green it has sprouted, a majority of attending companies may have grown a larger marketing budget than a green thumb.
To say that cotton is a natural fiber is a bit disingenuous. Not only is it among the most chemical and water intensive crop to produce, it is among the most harmful to manufacture. To say that any leading apparel manufacturing company focuses on its environmental impact as much as its bottom line is simply untrue. Though manufacturing of outdoor goods has certainly come a long ways from the days of unregulated garage manufacturing and live plucking of geese to make the first down jackets, the industry has not yet caught up with its own eco self-righteous promotion.
Without reservation, I can say that this industry has made great strides since I sold my first ski set up 7 years ago. Reducing the environmental harm of the jackets, footwear, camping and ski equipment that make up a majority of the industry has become as much a staple of advertising as drone footage of the great mountaineer, Ueli Steck once again scaling the Eiger. As targeted marketing conveys the impression of guilt-free consumerism to active millenials, keen on buying this year's colorway of their favorite down sweater, it is ever more relevant to recognize the impact of our recreational spending habits.
Spending on outdoor recreation approaches $650 billion each year — an amount greater than consumers spend on either gasoline or motor vehicles. $120.7 billion of this spending goes directly towards outdoor recreation product sales. Every one of those dollars represents a value created by long supply chains combining natural resources with fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals. Regardless of the advertising acrobatics used to convince us otherwise, those resources had to come from a piece of land, disturbed, then shipped and processed, resulting in effluent and waste. What companies have become especially adept at is reporting on the reduction in size of the footprint of their individual products achieved through improvements in sourcing, recycling and efficiency.
“It is up to us to keep the pressure on the outdoor industry to transition from a green advertisement to a reality of truly doing no unnecessary harm.”
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Those in the avante garde of sustainability, the well-known Patagonias of the industry, have brought into vogue the concept of "Doing well, by doing good." Patagonia, unlike any other in the outdoor industry, has pioneered a pathway to a near cultish brand loyalty through a combination of extremely functional, fashionable products and a brand story unparalleled in any industry. Though they continue to refuse to abide by standardized reporting guidelines, this company is more forthcoming with their environmental impacts than most. By speaking in terms of amount reduced of carbon and chemicals, improvements to standards and traceability in the supply chain however, Patagonia, like the rest of the industry, lets themselves off the hook for the baseline of impacts inherent in products made today.
The presence of a company's sustainability plan is its litmus test in the modern outdoor retail. Even Wal-Mart has stepped into the game, cofounding The Sustainable Apparel Coalition with Patagonia in 2009. Of the more than 1600 vendors at this summer OR in Salt Lake City, more than half made mention of their environmental awareness through signage at their booths or in their catalogues. Several companies have committed to working with bluesign to certify that chemicals, dyes and finishes are safe for the environment. Others focus on human rights, animal welfare, or carbon emisisons. The notion of sustainability was woven into the fabric of the very atmosphere at this event.
In the face of the simplified, earth-toned graphics depicting a happier planet, supply chains for products are much longer and more convoluted than we might expect. Looking at carbon emissions alone, almost nine pounds of C02 can be released with the production of a single cotton t-shirt. No one can dispute that controlling the carbon and chemical emissions, fair trade and animal welfare standards across the entire supply chain, from hundreds of raw material suppliers and contractors is a daunting task. The fact that so many companies are attempting to lessen the inherent damages of the products they sell is commendable. The successes of a few prominent brands in both improving their environmental footprint — all the while breaking sales records — is exciting for the companies and for us consumers with a guilty conscious.
What we need to remember with every purchase we make this year to improve our next outdoor venture is that every jacket, boot, bike and stove we buy has a history and a future. Corporate marketing makes it seem as though we have arrived in a new era, free from environmental consequence. Even with substantial improvements in product stewardship over the past decade, with the elimination of BPA, reduction in CO2 and implementation of new standards, we have not yet attained at an acceptable level of damage to our environment from the toys we used to engage with it. Consumers have driven this trend in the outdoor industry to do less harm. It is up to us to keep the pressure on the outdoor industry to transition from a green advertisement to a reality of truly doing no unnecessary harm.
Vote with your dollars. Check back for an outdoor industry sustainable buying guide.
David LaGreca is an independent environmental consultant, mountaineer and conservation writer, working in the outdoor industry in Colorado's Western Slope. He lives in Dillon.
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