Nature re-entered the urban environment and imagination when the coronavirus pandemic saw a sudden fall in traffic, pollution and other economic activity. Many people discovered and enjoyed urban green space and the re-emergence of birdsong. But even before the lockdown, the basic desire to be in, and enjoy, nature was resulting in a rise in outdoor pursuits. Meeting people’s interest there is an equally growing number of outdoor equipment companies, several of whom are on the cutting edge of more sustainable business practices and the green, circular economy. They represent a test case for the business of rapid transition.
Outdoor activities such as hiking, climbing, mountain biking, skiing and snowboarding take increasingly large numbers of people into countryside, national parks and pristine areas of wilderness. Here, they see first hand – particularly over time if they visit regularly – the damage humans and human-made climate change causes to our natural environment. This may be why there is a distinct group of genuinely interesting, environmentally aware and socially active companies in the outdoor gear sector. The founders of these companies are people with a personal love of outdoor activities, who started trading or manufacturing to satisfy their own desire for equipment that fitted their own personal criteria and ethics. The models they chose to run their businesses range from the early coops focused on value and access for all, to the more recent variety of social enterprise models looking for sustainable products and ways of working. They now include B-Corps, which gives an accreditation that is widely recognised within what can be a confusing range of alternative business models. Altogether they comprise of pioneers testing new ways of doing business from which other sectors could learn to be more aligned with economic and ecological progress.
One of the earliest and best known is the US giant coop Recreational Equipment Inc (REI), which was started in 1938 by Lloyd and Mary Anderson as a coop for mountaineers. They had been forced to import an ice axe from Austria and thought others should have access to the best equipment locally too.The company remained small until its first employee, Jim Whittaker, who joined the coop in 1955, became the first American to climb Mount Everest in 1963, bringing huge publicity. Today, REI has 19 million members, 427 non-profit partners, and contributed $8.1 million to non-profits in 2019 from its $3.12 billion revenue. They claim to invest 70% of profits back into the outdoor community. North of the border, the Canadian Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC), named Canada’s Most Trusted Brand in 2019, was started by 4 campers in 1970 inspired by REI. It sells exclusively to members, who can buy a lifetime membership for $20. There are no sales commissions, which is unusual in North American retail, and the coop runs events from their outlets, from free or low-cost workshops to running races, bike meet-ups, festivals, gear swaps and club nights. They support local groups through a community program, and have donated more than $44 million since 1987.
Patagonia, formed in the US in 1985 by the self-made climber and entrepreneur, Yvon Chouinard, who had originally made climbing pitons, but stopped because he knew they were damaging the rocks of Yosemite. Today, the company pledges 1% of its sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment. They have awarded over $89 million in cash and in-kind donations to domestic and international grassroots environmental groups. In 2002, Yvon Chouinard aimed to encourage others to do the same with a new nonprofit called 1% for the Planet – an alliance of businesses and individuals that understand the necessity of protecting the natural environment. The company also operates in a genuinely unusual way, having no private offices, using a mostly vegetarian canteen and offering one of the first creches to staff.
In Europe, the first companies to focus on sustainability were mostly in ski wear and surfing. This has now spread into a wide range of equipment, clothing and shoes. Finisterre – now a B Corp – started in 2003 making fleeces for hardy British surfers in the southwest county of Devon. Named after a point on the famous radio shipping forecast, it has forged a path around functionality and sustainability, with local manufacturing and operational transparency. Finisterre has also played a role in restoring a British merino sheep breed, developed a garment bags that is water soluble, recyclable, biodegradable and break down harmlessly into non-toxic biomass in soil and sea, and designed a long length swimsuit for girls in countries where modesty laws or customs prevent them swimming. Vivo Barefoot is a UK firm making running shoes that specifically aim to connect people to nature by maximising their contact with the earth. They use product lifecycle analysis to look for efficiencies in design, materials selection and manufacturing processes to make more durable products from renewable sources. They aim to make shoes that create no waste, are free from any toxic substances and have no adverse impact on the environment.
From these early leads, new companies are taking the concept of circular manufacturing – one in which there is zero waste and all output is recycled and/or reused – such as the UK Isle of Wight-based firm Rapanui, which has developed an organic cotton clothing range made using renewable energy in an ethically accredited plant that can be sent back for recycling at the end of its life. The waste is made into paper for packaging using just water for processing and sunlight for drying. They offer custom print-to-order products for individuals and businesses, being keen to spread the technology they use. They want others to use their platform to launch their own independent brands.
These examples are interesting for rapid transition because they show that successful business can generate wealth, high quality employment and products that are sustainable – even within an otherwise destructive and wasteful economic system. The flexibility of business models means there are various ways they can be set up to respond to environmental criteria, personal ethics or concerns with social justice. They can also be fast to set up and relatively easy to replicate in other markets. Business models that do not depend on shareholder value for people who are removed from the business also tend to be more willing to sacrifice some level of profit for sustainability. Coops are a traditional way to ensure that not only are values steady and community based, but that social justice, fair trade and fair wages are also a given. Membership can also help to foster community and connections, spreading ideas into a wider society and generating shared learning. Some founder-based companies can become too ego-centric and precious, and lose their focus once the founder is no longer at the helm.
As the market becomes more sophisticated and there is a better understanding of true sustainability versus green-washing, there is also a growing opportunity not just to embed recycled materials or fairly traded products within our mainstream commercial world, but even to question over consumption itself. Patagonia for example, pushed back against the US Black Friday concept of shopping for bargains by closing their stores, urging people not to shop on that day, and donating any sales to environmental charities. Ironically, sales for the day topped $10 million – a win for the charities, but perhaps not for the earth’s resources. Of course those products could have replaced less sustainable purchases, but the double bind of asking a business to save the planet is clearly illustrated here. Patagonia runs a ground-breaking repair shop with 45 staff, which is a sizeable concern, but this remains a drop in the ocean of clothing waste.
Nevertheless, in the face of little regulation of waste and over consumption, these companies can sometimes become a proxy conscience for the commercial world and their brands have kudos and power – particularly for younger consumers. They prove that recycling and reuse can be built into a successful business model. Consumers respond favourably to stewardship and to ownership models that are seen as more responsible than other multinational corporations, although this is more true in some sectors than others. A UK report in 2019 on Ethical consumer spending showed it hit record levels, with the total market worth over £41bn. But clothing has the most ground to make up, with an annual spend in the UK of just £49.9m – less than the country’s weekly spend on women’s shoes, which is £62m.
Some organisations like Rerouted have taken a different position – not to make or sell their own products, but to make it easy to buy, sell or donate used outdoor gear. Rerouted hosts events across the US to make exchanging equipment more accessible and personable. They have a Mobile Gear Unit (MGU or “Magoo” for short) that travels the country partnering with local outdoor wilderness businesses to bring their online store into communities. This is obviously a huge market, as Facebook’s Outdoor Gear Exchange UK group alone has over 97,000 members buying and selling used equipment.
The growth of the outdoors movements developed from the early 18th Century romantics, such as British poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, who were famous for walking the hills of the Lake District and the Quantock Hills. Walking outside became a healthy pursuit for the well-to-do (though of course it was often the only transport for the poor majority) across Europe, who often made long walking tours of scenic routes. The British Romantics in turn influenced the American nature writers and thinkers Emerson and Thoreau, who are still considered fathers of the outdoor pursuit world today in North America. The Scottish-born American naturalist John Muir, founded the Sierra Club in 1892 and brought the world’s first National Parks into being – Yosemite and Sequoia. As Industrialisation brought polluted air, water and land to the UK in particular, multiple attempts were made from 1184-1932 to introduce a roam over wild land in England and Wales. The politically active Ramblers brought the attention of the wider public to the issue with a mass trespass on Kinder and a series of National Parks were declared after the Second World War.
In the last few decades, mount-biking, skiing and snowboarding, rock climbing, kayaking, rafting and surfing have become a rite of passage for large numbers of young people. Each activity developed its own creation myths, movement founders, equipment development and fashions, and product ranges – many with an awareness of their environmental impact. It is interesting that in a favourable comparison with the Olympics, the Extreme Sports competitions were taking sustainability seriously by 2004. An environmentally friendly skate park was built, the use of solar power was increased, bio-fuel was used in generators (10,000 gallons of diesel fuel was previously used), bio-degradable cups and utensils were introduced, and bio-degradable promotional handouts were printed on recycled paper. Mainstream and indoor sports are only now starting to catch up. A recent Rapid Transition report on sport has already contributed to this debate and generated significant interest.
Outdoor recreation is a fast growing part of the global North’s economy with an increasing market as people are remaining fitter for longer. A 2019 US federal report showed that the outdoor recreation economy grew by 3.9 percent in 2017, faster than the overall US economy’s growth rate of 2.4 percent. Given that the global pandemic has made people more nervous of meeting indoors and given many a new taste for outdoor life, it is likely that this sector will increase in popularity. As younger generations looking for ethical and sustainable brands, move into the market, both as consumers, employers and employees, more companies are likely to move in this direction, with a focus on traceability and circular production.
In some areas, the business location made a difference. The skiing industry has moved from being a sport of extreme privilege and style first to one that is focused at last on sustainability because their whole industry is under threat. Ski resorts rely on stable environmental conditions and pristine mountain landscapes for their success, which means the resort industry has a major stake in the effects of climate change. Some of the first people to talk about climate change in Europe were Alpine guides, climbers and skiers who began to see glaciers shrink and snow cover reduce in the 1990s. Traditional French mountain guides are having to diversify away from summer mountaineering into other activities as the terrain becomes more difficult to work. Snowcover has thinned, making rockfalls more common and certain routes impassable. Historical climbing guides going back over 145 years reveal the changes in detail to well trodden routes. For the past 10 years, a network of wireless sensors on the Matterhorn in the Alps has been streaming data on the condition of steep rock faces, permafrost and prevailing climate to an Austrian research group and revealing a fast rate of change.
Meanwhile, most ski resorts continue to use huge amounts of energy to create artificial snow and most people visiting the slopes fly there. A 2007 study found that 73% of an average ski resort’s carbon footprint is created by visitor journeys. By taking the train rather than flying to a ski resort, a visitor can slash their carbon footprint for the journey by up to 90%. The most recent vacuum ice makers use 80% less energy than previous snow machines, but they still use large quantities for water and can affect the local ecosystem by extending the snow cover unnaturally.