Features

True sustainability means less production

To become more sustainable, the outdoor industry should make less gear. But can brands battle their own bloat?


My gear closet is an embarrassment of riches, and I’m not the only one with an overabundance problem. When the outdoor industry last convened for Outdoor Retailer in Denver, its skis, snowboards, pants, boots, jackets, sleeping bags, backpacks, camping accessories, skis and boards, energy bars, coolers, beanies, and assorted stuff filled a half million square feet of space. That’s our collective gear closet. It spotlights a disturbing irony: For an industry that values non-consumptive experiences in nature, we sure do make and buy a staggering quantity of things.

Outdoor recreation is supposed to be the antithesis of materialism. Marketing photos depict hikers basking in nature’s glory, or climbers savoring the satisfaction of having achieved a seemingly impossible summit. Nature’s beauty and fulfillment are touted as this industry’s ultimate rewards, yet a steadily churning manufacturing machine has now flooded the market with more outdoor product than consumers have ever seen before.

The glut of SKUs seems more hypocritical than ever, as brands’ sustainability talk takes center stage. After all, most of an item’s environmental impact (up to 98 percent, according to OIA) comes from its production, rather than its distribution or end-of-life considerations. The United Nations Environment Programme calculates that the apparel industry produces 10 percent of annual global carbon emissions—more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined—and about 20 percent of wastewater worldwide comes from fabric dyeing and treatment. So simply swapping in recycled fabrics for virgin material makes little difference compared to the truly eco-friendly move: not making it at all.

But for both individuals and companies, it’s hard to pare down. I worry that I’ll miss one of my five pairs of ski poles; brands worry that streamlining product lines will torpedo profits. Yet a growing body of evidence suggests that companies can actually improve their earnings by limiting the number of products they produce. And when those revenues become weapons in the battle against climate change, the net gain for the environment may exceed the impact of production.

Addicted to new

“We’re not going to recycle our way out of this climate crisis,” says pro snowboarder and climate activist Jeremy Jones. He founded Protect Our Winters (POW) in 2007 to mobilize the snowsports community to battle climate change. Yet his gear company, Jones Snowboards, is launching its first-ever line of technical snowboarding apparel for Fall ’21. It begs the question: Does the world really need more waterproof/breathable jackets?

Yes, says Jones—if those jackets raise the bar on sustainable, durable construction and reduce the use of polluting materials. “I don’t think, whether we’re making snowboards or apparel, that we’re putting more product into the world,” he explains. After all, snowboarders will buy snowboards, whether Jones makes them or not. But if he can make a version that’s less dependent on plastics and pollutants, and lure consumers into buying that instead, Jones believes he can nudge the snowsports marketplace into more environmentally friendly habits. “We’ve continued to make cleaner and cleaner products,” he explains. “We take that evolution in our environmental impact as seriously as our progression in technical performance.”

Other companies justify production by measuring each item’s innovation value. “We will not bring product to market that is the same as what’s out there,” says Cam Brensinger, founder and CEO of NEMO (which has introduced truly novel designs for tents, hammocks, sleeping bags, and even camp chairs over the past 18 years).

Read more: An unfiltered opinion about overproduction in the outdoor industry

Andrew Gibbs-Dabney, founder of LIVSN apparel, also believes that only truly differentiating features—such as sustainable construction or technical innovations—justify creating new products. “The problem isn’t simply making things that are new,” says Gibbs-Dabney, who manufactures exactly one model of painstakingly designed pants. “It’s making a lot of low-effort products that don’t need to exist. Creating anything does harm to the environment, and that’s the biggest, ugliest pill we have to swallow. But if you can create something that fills a legitimate need, then that’s the right way to do it.”

And yet, admits Gibbs-Dabney, humans are obsessed with everything new. Nate Porter sees that in his specialty outdoor retail shop, Salida Mountain Sports in Colorado. Porter blames manufacturers, retailers, and the media (we confess to being complicit on p. 37) for fueling the outdoor industry’s habit of producing too much gear. “But ultimately, it comes down to the consumer,” he says, explaining that visitors to his shop routinely ask to see the latest and greatest. “We’ve trained the consumer to want new, new, new,” he observes.

The pandemic only seems to have spiked shoppers’ craving for consumer comforts, says Porter. So although he’s also observed a subset of less materialistic shoppers who prioritize gear’s durability and repairability, Porter worries that the “do more with less” movement may be a fad that ultimately fizzles.

Patagonia, however, has been working for years to grow the anti-consumerist movement into a groundswell. In 2011, the brand launched its watershed “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign, which included a full-page ad in The New York Times on Black Friday. Since then, the company has rolled out its Worn Wear program, which institutionalized its dedication to repairing damaged gear rather than replacing it with new (Patagonia now operates the largest outdoor apparel repair facility in North America). And on Black Friday 2020, Patagonia debuted a “Buy Less, Demand More” program that included adding an “option to buy used” button alongside each new item on patagonia.com.

Read more: Patagonia encourages shoppers to buy used gear

“This is a larger effort to have consumers take a moment and really think about whether they actually need a new item in their lives,” explains Patagonia spokesperson Corey Simpson. “Re-evaluating our relationship with consumption is a vital step in lowering the need to manufacture more and more new products each season.” And when shoppers do buy new gear, they should ask more from it. “Demand organic cotton, demand recycled materials, demand Fair Trade certification,” says Simpson. “We all know that there’s an environmental price to pay when new products are created, so demanding more from companies to do the least amount of harm when making their products is an important step in the long run.”

Other brands, such as REI and The North Face, have joined the effort to retrain consumers’ expectations, particularly by offering used gear in place of new. In 2018, The North Face launched its Renewed program of repaired gear sold through thenorthfacerenewed.com. The program also supports garment recycling and experiments in circular design. “Through our Renewed programs, we’re shifting from a traditional, linear model to a circular model where people share, resell, repair, and recycle clothing to keep it out of landfills and in the value chain,” explains The North Face spokesperson Kali Platt. So far, Renewed has diverted and processed more than 148,000 pounds of damaged textiles, and is seeing a “steady increase” in new customers, says Platt.

“A lot of consumer industries, including automakers, are now looking at circularity,” says Jessie Curry, sustainable business innovation manager for the Outdoor Industry Association. Thus, OIA anticipates promising growth in recommerce, which represents an alternative revenue stream that can help companies expand without upping their production of new gear. In time, says Curry, resale could help brands trim their production of new product. “As a business, it’s a big risk to cut down your current revenue stream without having another in mind to replace it with,” she says.

Less is more

And yet, counters Mountain Hardwear’s president Joe Vernachio, cutting back on product can be precisely what a company needs to boost revenue. Offering less can actually earn more.

When Vernachio took the helm at Mountain Hardwear nearly four years ago, he started hacking away at the company’s product lines, reducing styles and colors by some 20 percent each year. The brand now offers 60 percent fewer products—yet Mountain Hardwear was on track to grow it revenue by 50 percent until Covid-19 struck (even now, the company expects to exceed 2019 figures by a small margin).

“We decided that we didn’t need three options to do one thing,” says Vernachio. “Instead, we’re making one thing that’s perfect, by our standards. That’s forced us to be really serious about the things we do make. The design process has to get extremely refined, especially when you’re designing for factors like repairability.” Besides, Vernachio adds, a small array of compelling choices makes it easier for the consumer to make a purchase. “Sheena Iyengar [of Columbia Business School] did a study that’s always in the back of my mind, because it showed that having too many choices actually makes people less likely to buy something,” he says. (The study, “When Choice Is Demotivating,” was published in 2000 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology).

Chaco came to similar conclusions after paring down its 2020 product line by 40 percent—and watching earnings leap by 30 percent in Q3 2020 versus the prior year. “Companies think, ‘We’ll sell more if we have more,’ but it doesn’t work that way,” says Adam Garrett, Chaco’s vice president of product. “Having 17 colors of two sandals doesn’t equate to more sales.” Instead, consumers respond more positively to fewer decisions—and a clearer message into the brand’s core identity and values. “Cutting back has made our storytelling cleaner and more powerful,” says Lyndi Bell, Chaco’s marketing manager. “It’s really let us penetrate with what we actually feel we should be talking about.”

Therefore Chaco is not talking sneakers—one resurging athleisure trend that it won’t pursue unless it can offer its own, more compelling version. “Trend-hopping is what gets [companies] in trouble,” says Carrie Hill, Chaco’s design director, who adds that trying to hitch to every passing fad results in bloated product lines. “We’re coming back to the threads we never gave up on, to the things we’ve consistently done since the beginning—like durability, adjustability, and especially, arch support.”

An infographic about carbon in clothing
A breakdown from Outdoor Industry Association shows how much carbon is released into the atmosphere by various stages in clothing production.

Vernachio agrees that establishing a clear company identity can help to check excessive production. Trying to please everybody— such as sales reps that request shirtsleeves with and without thumb loops—is another recipe for overproduction. “From a business standpoint you think, ‘I don’t want to leave any of this opportunity on the table,’” says Vernachio. “But before long, your product line loses all its density, and people get so paralyzed by the choices that they won’t buy.”

That “analysis paralysis” also afflicts retail buyers, says Porter of Salida Mountain Sports. “Sometimes the catalogs are so thick and vast that it’s impossible, or very difficult, to hone in on what’s going to sell,” he says.

From retail to manufacturing, doing away with undifferentiated products can be good for business. And cutting back on manufacturing certainly results in less environmental harm—unless, that is, companies can use their revenues as a weapon against climate change.

Fighting big-money battles

For years, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard stubbornly limited his company’s growth. After all, unchecked production and the pursuit of money for money’s sake seemed, to him, to be the hallmarks of the very businesses that drove this planet into its current climate crisis. That’s how he explained his reticence about “biggering” to me one day in 2013, when I got to go fishing with him on Idaho’s Fall River.

But former Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario presented him with a different vision for the company’s potential: Chouinard could grow it and leverage that financial influence to lean on legislators and motivate people at all levels of society to take action against climate change. In other words, he could weaponize his profits and fight the climate’s foes with their favorite tool: money. “We have an obligation to fight climate change with whatever tools we have,” he told me in 2013. “I have a multimillion-dollar company. And you have your writing.” (Though I’d argue that Chouinard is beating me in that contest.)

Since then Patagonia has channeled its economic growth into Patagonia Action Works, funding grassroots groups that are seeking solutions to the environmental crisis. It also launched Tin Shed Ventures, a corporate venture capital fund that invests in startups that are developing eco-friendly solutions. Patagonia Films has spread the word about environmental causes and spurred conservation wins (“Blue Heart,” for example, helped in forestalling a hydropower development on one of Europe’s last remaining un-dammed rivers, the Vjosa in Albania). None of it would be possible without the revenue from gear that Patagonia makes and sells.

However, CEO Ryan Gellert acknowledges that even Patagonia isn’t immune to SKU bloat. “At times, we—like most apparel companies—are guilty of making multiple products for different sports where one can do the job,” says Gellert. He’s established concrete SKU-reduction goals for various apparel categories and intends to shift the company’s revenue streams toward used gear, rather than new. “We are working to scale our secondhand business, Worn Wear,” says Gellert. “Ultimately, we would be happy to see the sale of secondhand product ‘cannibalize’ sales from new product.” He intends to scale back the number of products that Patagonia produces as part of a broader reevaluation of its revenue streams. “Number one, [we will] make less product, just really get more done with less,” Gellert says. “Number two, [we will] continue to challenge ourselves to really push the envelope in the footprint of the product that we make and the footprint of everything we do.”

Read more: Tough is the new green

Yet Gellert also plans to continue to leverage Patagonia’s influence to fight the climate crisis, a business approach that’s gained followers among other outdoor companies. One of those converts is Jeremy Jones, who “weaponizes” Jones Snowboards profits to support the reforestation of a rainforest in Costa Rica through Association Community Carbon Trees, a nonprofit that’s planted thousands of trees in clear-cuts across the country.

Additional profit-mobilizing companies include United By Blue, which removes one pound of water-polluting trash for every product it sells, and Fjällräven, which in 2020 alone supported environmental improvement projects to the tune of more than $140,000. Funneling revenue into impactful climate action is one way to justify—one might say offset—the environmental consequences of producing gear in the first place. “Through POW, I’ve seen that the biggest limitation [on environmental activism] is a lack of financial resources,” says Jones. “So businesses that raise significant money for environmental causes do something very important.”

Indeed, curtailing gear production is one important strategy for reducing pollution and improving a brand’s sustainability scorecard, but it’s not the only way that gear companies can battle climate change. Developing sustainable manufacturing methods, switching to a circular production model that considers product repair and reuse, and dedicating profits to climate action are all worthwhile avenues—because they all solve for future needs.

Sure, companies could shut down production and quit the game, so to speak. But by remaining on the playing field with a tightly curated product line and an institutional dedication to battling climate change through all available outlets, gear manufacturers can make the gear we want now—while also reforming the systems we’ll need in the decades to come.