GuestJanuary 4, 2024 AATCC Newsletter

How outdoor brands are prioritizing sustainability, measuring progress and communicating results.

Reliable performance is key in challenging outdoor environments.

Shared experiences and values across a wide range of outdoor activities have established a strong sense of community throughout the outdoor industries, transcending national frontiers. Allied to the evolution of awareness regarding threats to the natural environment, this community spirit has led to shared views and collective action. Many dynamic aspects of sustainability now feature strongly with engagement, transparency, and collaboration taking center stage, integrating corporate responsibility into new, holistic ways of doing business.

Performance and durability have long been the twin pillars of product evolution and remain key—boosted now by a multi-layered approach to design, development, production, and distribution that considers product impact in the round. Many brands have gone way beyond the low hanging fruit of using recycled materials to implement strategies that dig deep into the complex nature of sustainability. With no simple definition of the meaning of the term, the outdoor industry is moving forward on a broad front, adopting a wide range of approaches, with cooperation emerging as a key component of progress.

Last November, ISPO Munich, the world’s largest sports trade show, brought the outdoor industry and sustainability into sharp focus. As the global focal point of the outdoor sporting goods industries, the Sustainability Hub once again acted as a driver for progress. Marking another step forward, this year’s focus was on the circular economy—exploring durability, repairability, and waste prevention to transform the industry’s linear business model into a circular one. As well as the theoretical considerations explored, there was very much a practical, hands-on approach.

Sustainability has become a core theme for outdoor brands.

Sympatex and YKK demonstrated the key role played by ingredient brands when it comes to completing a product’s life cycle. Commenting on the brands’ collaboration on circularity in a capsule trade fair collection, Lisa Polk, Eco Design & Circular Expert at Sympatex, noted, “Mono-material, physical and emotional durability, multifunctionality, quality, participatory design, [synergistic] effects—there are numerous criteria that are necessary to establish a circular economy.”

Long-term champion of the value of circularity and a personal favorite for the passion about the natural world at its heart, Sweden-based Houdini Sportswear is a global outdoor company that promotes versatile minimalist styles and the importance of rigorous transparency. Commenting on its forthcoming, latest Planetary Boundaries Assessment, CEO Eva Karlsson said, “We are using world-leading science to evaluate all aspects of the impact our business has on our planet’s ecosystems. It is a very tangible way for us to improve and to show our love and respect for nature.”

Such commitment is not new. Over 30 years ago, German brand VAUDE launched an Eco-Log range that championed sustainability matters. It was way ahead of the market and society at the time, but that drive has been affirmed over the years, underpinned by a passionate drive for transparency and societal change. Its Green Shape initiative is a key strand in its long-term commitment to the complexity of sustainability matters. From transformation of the energy system, e-mobility, CO2 reductions, PFAS ban, textile recycling, and work-life balance, these elements in its recently released Sustainability Report illustrate the diversity of the cutting edge issues being addressed and progress being made. 

Brands put sustainability strategy and initiatives center stage in communicating values.

 At the time of its release, CEO Antje von Dewitz was clear about the need for clarity and transparency, “Some of these issues may not appear to be directly related to our products, but they’re crucial for the development of the planet and our lives. The Sustainability Report shows exactly where we stand along our journey, what we’ve achieved, and where we want to improve.”

 The awareness of such wider considerations spans the global outdoor market, driven in part by consumers but, substantially, by the values built into outdoor lifestyle brands. For example, regarding its latest Annual Impact Report, the website of the USA-based brand Outdoor Research notes, ‘Our responsibility extends to every aspect of our business, from nurturing supplier relationships and championing workers’ rights to sourcing sustainable materials and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion within our workforce. The report outlines our successes, challenges, and the ambitious environmental and social targets we’ve set for ourselves. We believe in transparency and want you to be part of our journey towards a more sustainable future.’

British brand Rab introduced the now popular Sustainability Breakfast to the UK’s Outdoor Trade Show a few years ago in order not only to raise awareness of issues but also, through discussion and debate, to foster collaboration between brands. Such collaboration between competitors has become a defining characteristic of the industry. By Autumn/Winter 2024, to foster transparency and honesty around the communication of CSR topics, Rab will include Material Facts information on all its products, providing details on the amount of recycled materials by weight, its fluorocarbon status, country of origin and percentage of renewable energy used in the manufacturing process. Debbie Read, Equip’s Head of Corporate Communications and CSR, was asked about the importance of sustainability criteria in Equip’s business plan. She said, Our CEO Matt Gowar stated in our Responsible Business Conduct Policy, ‘It’s our role as a business to influence change for the better.’ Sustainability is a decisive factor in every decision we take. By acting as a responsible business, we can have a positive impact on the lives of our employees, manufacturing partners, retail partners, consumers, and the communities where our products are made and used. Our sustainability criteria are interwoven throughout our business strategy and highlighted in our CSR agenda, which we refer to as our four pillars of sustainability.

Transparency and collaboration are key themes for Rab.

“Brands are competing to find unique and compelling ways of communicating the term ‘sustainability’. This doesn’t work, confuses the consumer, can be misleading or risks greenwashing. We firmly believe that being more accurate and transparent about a product’s sustainability data is something that the whole outdoor industry—and even beyond—should have an interest in. We deliberately created Material Facts as an unbranded tool in a simple black-and-white design so that other brands can also adopt the tables. We’re offering to share our approach and are inviting retailers and other brands to be part of this journey.”

Happily, strategies, actions, and leadership are not restricted to brand level. Outdoor trade bodies, such as the USA’s Outdoor Industry Association and the European Outdoor Group, not only help to set the sustainability agenda, offering tools for measuring progress, but also engage with governments, consumers, and other industries to effect national and international change. While cooperation has grown, commercial competition has been a positive driver in product development. Over the past 10-plus years, ingredient brands, such as Pertex, Sympatex, Polartec, Gore-Tex, 3M and PrimaLoft, have delivered a truly creative wave of fabric innovation and materials technology evolution, driven by reducing environmental impact and securing consumer support.

No consideration of environmental matters would be complete without referencing the impact, over many decades, of the iconic USA brand Patagonia in demonstrating leadership and clear communication in sustainability matters with an unwavering focus—‘We’re in business to save our home planet.’


About the Author

John Traynor worked in the outdoor industries on product development and marketing in the 1970s before becoming a freelance writer and editor, covering outdoor-related consumer and trade topics. After a hugely varied career, he’s now semi-retired, living in Northumberland, England and enjoying his freelance role as Editor at Large with the globally distributed B2B publication Outdoor i.

All images: © John Traynor

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