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Happy, healthy Mountain Gear wins ROTY honor

Mountain Gear remodeled its headquarters in 2005, and the resulting structure features abundant natural sunlight, a garden and composting facilities — plus happier and healthier employees. That’s one reason the Spokane Valley, Wash.-based company won SNEWS' Retailer of the Year for Sustainable Business.

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Who wouldn’t want to head into the office if beds of fresh veggies and sunshine streaming through the windows of a LEED Gold-certified building awaited?

Paul Fish said he established the garden and remodeled the Mountain Gear space with the goal of getting his employees happier, healthier and more motivated to come to work each morning. That’s part of the reason Mountain Gear won this year’s SNEWS-Backpacker Retailer of the Year Award for Sustainable Business.

“I think it really is a wonderful thing,” Fish said of his company’s ROTY win. “It recognizes the work that our team has done here. It’s really exciting.”

For Fish, keeping sustainability and the environment top of mind is essential to running a company.

“As a business owner in the outdoor industry, we all consider ourselves environmentalists and we all get involved in causes,” Fish explained “What I found is the things that are close to home make the biggest difference. We can have a huge impact not only on our employees, but on our customers and our communities.”

Since Fish remodeled the Spokane Valley, Wash. Mountain Gear headquarters in 2005, the company has participated in the Green Building Education Program, whereby Fish guides other companies looking to build or remodel a LEED-certified structure and operate a sustainable business.

Mountain Gear staff share how they repurposed construction materials and chose designs that increased natural lighting for employees. Plus, they educate others on sustainability practices, like supplying fresh filtered water for employees, who are encouraged to bring their own bottles rather than using up paper or Styrofoam cups. 

“Things that just made good common sense sustainably,” Fish said.

At the headquarters, employees are encouraged to commute via alternative forms of transportation, a program that has a near 80 percent participation rate. And in addition to that vegetable garden, there’s talk of adding some chickens to the Mountain Gear family.

“When you get things like the garden and sunlight in your workplace, people just work better because it makes it a happy healthy collaborative workplace,” Fish said. “We feel we’re doing what’s right. Sustainability is a business initiative, not just something you do on the side.”

Mountain Gear was founded about 30 years ago with Fish designing and hand-stitching one backpack. That first pack led to another, and eventually to the first Mountain Gear retail location.

Soon, the store moved into its current location, which has a climbing wall and an indoor pool. Now the newly remodeled building is home to Mountain Gear’s more than 100 employees, many of whom are experts in different fields, which allows them to teach courses to customers on everything from kayaking to layering clothing for optimal warmth. Many have climbed all seven summits and offer expertise in the climbing arena.

Fish said the company started with $3,000 and earned more than $30,000 in its first month. In its 30 years of existence, it’s profited during 27.

“I think that’s because of our commitment to growing markets rather than just trying to go out there and get business,” Fish said. A commitment to events, community and sustainability sets them apart as well. “I tell our vendors everybody is selling more or less the same stuff. What we do that’s different is we have a sustainable culture and a culture of being outdoors people with climbing backgrounds.”

Mountain Gear reaches beyond its store walls by sponsoring events. One of Fish’s favorites is the Red Rock Rendezvous climbing event in Las Vegas, Nev., now in its ninth year.

“I don’t know if it’s the largest climbing festival but I say it’s the best,” Fish said with a laugh. It’s not a competition, rather it’s a day of learning, eating and fun, he explained. It’s designed to get people interested in climbing and get people more interested in the outdoors. 

“I got into this business because I learned to climb in high school and it changed my life,” Fish said. “With this program, we can do a little bit of changing thousands of lives this year. Really our goal is to inspire people to turn outdoor activity into a lifetime passion and hopefully sell them stuff along the way.”

–Ana Trujillo