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Do Ingredient Brands Still Matter & Could They Shape The Future Of The Outdoor Industry?

Today on THE ROCK FIGHT (an outdoor podcast that aims for the head) we're going deep on INGREDIENT BRANDS!

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Ingredient brands are material and textile manufacturers like Gore, Cordura, Polartec or Primaloft. Folks that actually make the materials and fabrics that brands use in order to craft the gear and apparel we all love to buy.

A history of innovations by ingredient brands have led to amazing breakthroughs in the outdoor space but it's been a long time since any innovation has really broken through. But perhaps there is a new frontier where ingredient brands can still make a difference. That's today on THE ROCK FIGHT.

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Episode Transcript

Colin (00:00)

Welcome to The Rock Fight where we speak our truth, slay sacred cows and sometimes agree to disagree. This is an outdoor podcast that aims for the head, I’m Colin True and today we’re going deep, deeeep, into how apparel gets made and those who want you to know that they’re the ones who make it, we’re talking about ingredient brands! Sexy!

Before we get to that have you joined the rock fight mailing list? If you do you’ll get our weekly newsletter news from the front that recaps everything from the RFU and has some goodies you can’t get anywhere else. Head to rock fight dot co to sign up…right now! Alright lets start the show.

A couple of weeks ago I saw a press release in one of the outdoor industry trade aggregators that I read daily about a new product from Thermore.  Thermore is a branded material maker from Italy who describe themselves as ‘insulation experts’.

They make insulation that you’d find inside a synthetic puffy coat and they’ve been doing that since 1972 and this press release detailed their new stretchy product.  I’d bet real money most of you listening to this have never heard of them.

Last week here on THE ROCK FIGHT when I gave you my thoughts on Cotopaxi  I gave you all a breakdown on how things get made. How brands don’t make things themselves, they coordinate the making of things.  And if you make jackets that are meant to keep you warm by sandwiching synthetic fill between two pieces of fabric aka a puffy jacket, Thermore would love for you to give them a call.

(still haven’t heard from anyone at Cotopaxi by the way, don’t forget, the door is always open),

So why am I talking about Thermore? Well because they describe themselves as an ingredient brand.  Much of what you buy from any apparel brand, outdoor or otherwise, is full of stuff made by generic textile and material manufacturers. I don’t use the word generic in a negative sense here.  There are a lot of companies out there who make great stuff and don’t slap a brand name on themselves.  But there are those, who feel what they do brings enough value to their brand partners and to consumers that they operate and promote themselves like a brand.

The ingredient brand you definitely know? Gore. If you buy a jacket or a pair of shoes and you notice it has a Gore-tex hang tag or a sewn-in little gore-tex label, that’s because that product was made using materials from WL Gore & Assoc.  

Other ingredient brands you’ve likely heard of include Primaloft, Cordura or Polartec. 

And there was a window where these ingredients really mattered.  You have to keep in mind that a lot of our high performing outdoor stuff has only been around for about 50 years.  Gore-Tex was invented in 1969. Modern dyeable cordura came about in 1977.  Polartec created synthetic fleece in 1981.  Primaloft came about in 1983. All of these things changed the game in some form going forward.

It’s only been since then that things have really taken off and while each of these ingredients can point to a heritage of innovation it didn’t take long for others to start making mostly good and cheaper alternatives to entice apparel brands with higher margins for their goods.  Over time the quality of brandless makers has caught up to the ingredients and these days everyone is pretty good at making stuff but ingredient brands will point to their track record of innovation as a differentiator.

Not long after Thermore put out their press release for their stretchy insulation Polartec put out a press release about their new sustainability based marketing campaign called Beyond Begins Today.  And both of these press releases from these two ingredient brands are a sign to me that the original ingredient brand era has come to a close.

Now as a reminder I used to work for Polartec. It’s been years since I was an employee there and while I still know some folks who work there I have no insider knowledge of this new campaign, their goals or even the state of their business.  When I was there Polartec had an entirely different owner than they do now so while my time there informs my opinions without a doubt, I can honestly say that these are simply that, my opinions.

The only ingredient brand over time that has truly proven they matter to consumers is Gore.  People know the name and they know that seeing Gore or Gore-tex means something.  They may not know what, but there is enough of a recognition that people will buy, sometimes to their own detriment, something labeled as containing Gore-tex.  

For the rest of ingredient brands, there has been a long running debate about whether the inclusion of their products was ever meaningful to consumers. Spoiler alert: it wasn't.

Yesterday on the show I had Wes Allen on who is a principal with sunlight sports, an independent specialty retailer in Cody, WY but who also spent over 9 years at REI and worked on the brand side of things as the national sales manager of Chaco in the mid 2000’s.  I asked him about ingredient brands. Do they matter and honestly did they ever matter. Because on paper it’s a pretty simple calculus right? If an ingredient brand wants to matter they should try to appeal to the consumer because if the consumer cares then the brand will do everything they can to do the things that will sell the most stuff, right?  Well, maybe not.

Wes’s response to my question was: the only ingredient brand that I am ever aware of having an impact is Gore-tex. For the brands and the retailers, we were always way more into ingredient brands than the consumer. So, did they matter? Yes. Did they matter to the people who actually were the end consumers? I don’t think so.  In 30 years of doing this - including managing big REI stores that did eight figures easily every year, I can count on my fingers the number of times customers asked me for something with an ingredient brand that wasn't Gore.

The only one who was willing to play the game the right way, has been Gore.  They saw themselves as a consumer brand first and charged head first into making products that were and are competitive with the brands that purchase their materials.  

But, as evidenced by these recent press releases by Thermore and Polartec, I’m not sure they got that memo.

In Polartec’s press release they talk about what they’re doing on the sustainability front and how their new campaign is designed to ‘raise awareness of the important global themes of sustainability, diversity and positive change’. They go on to say that Beyond Begins Today will feature multimedia content including things like short films to ‘underscore the underlying premise that the future is what we make it.’

All of that plays really well with the outdoor crowd and sounds like something you’d hear from most outdoor brands.  But that’s the problem.  Polartec isn’t an outdoor brand.  They’re a textile manufacturer who’s core competency lines up with outdoor brands. 

So what’s my point here? It’s that this is just another sign of our industry spinning its wheels.  Thermore can say ‘hey look at our stretchy insulation’ and Polartec can point to its good intentions but none of it matters.  Consumers aren’t going to demand any of it and actual apparel brands have more choices to source from than they ever have.

If there’s an overt blinking arrow pointing at the fact that our industry is operating from the retirement home this is it and there is a huge shift that is going to be thrust upon the outdoors that if the entrenched players aren’t careful they will not be ready for.  And that is the demand for true circular solutions and an embracing of natural fibers.

The ascent of synthetics in the outdoor industry was the same as the ascent of any new technology. We get all enamored with what this sparkling new thing can do that we don’t even accept that there could possibly be downsides until we’ve completely changed everything in our lives to be in support of it. Some of you may remember when SmartWool was this new thing that stood out in a sea of synthetic socks as an unproven crazy notion that anyone would choose wool. Turns out they were just ahead of the curve. 

Because there is a shift happening across the entire landscape of the outdoors. The first thing to change was the way we defined going outside.  These days anything outside is outdoor. The days of the hardcore outdoorsy person are pretty much over it's not just the backpackers or kayakers or climbers that are outdoor.  The city park dog walker is also outdoor. 

The next thing was outdoor media. Between the general shift in how we consume information and then Outside gobbling up every relevant adventure title only to neuter the shit out of them we’re in this lull between eras.  Trust me, a wave of new outdoor media outlets is on its way. 

The last domino to fall will be those with the most to lose and that’s the brands. For years brands have been clinging to the old way, the original way of operating.  Selling adventure on the back of gear and apparel that will perform in a way that will amaze you and your friends! But for the past few years it’s all been mostly marketing and greenwashing. 

Don’t believe me? Last week The Financial Times ran an article about the rise of performance apparel using natural fibers and materials.  This wasn’t some listicle found on a legacy outdoor website.  This was in the Financial Freaking Times.  They don’t care about making you feel good outside, they care about the financial and business implications of what they’re reporting on.

I’ve joked in the past about Cotton Kills being an antiquated phrase but turns out that it really is.  Perhaps the public attention on PFAS was the last straw but the world of synthetics is getting turned on its head through consumers asking for and trends favoring more natural materials.  

Will synthetics ever go away? No. Because they can’t. Their total dominion over the active world is at an end, but there are still use cases where synthetics make sense and a full switch to natural fibers would be unattainable.  What we need is to …wait for it… innovate.  Because yes we’ll need synthetics but we need them to not come from petroleum, to not be reliant on recyclables and to not shed microfibers.  

So to bring it all full circle, Ingredient brands will point to their reason for existing as innovation and leading the ways in which brands should be designing their products.  But the reality is that the cart has been driving the horse for a long time. The innovation we need isn’t to offer slightly better versions of existing products like stretch thermore or multimedia campaigns from a fabric maker like Polartec. 

Instead of playing towards what they think brands or consumers want or need they need to focus their innovation engines on new solutions. 

These makers define themselves on their history of creating breakthroughs and their incredible capabilities.  But you know, there was no billion dollar outdoor brand asking for waterproof/breathables or synthetic fleece back in the 1970’s.  All of this stuff was invented on the promise of upside and it led them all to have the ability to call themselves an ingredient brand. 

Well the needs we have now are bigger than ever.  The world needs to change again. The brands aren’t demanding it. So even if a consumer won’t recognize their eventual breakthrough, we sure could use some of that innovation.

So, what are they waiting for? 

Alright that’s the show for today. What are your thoughts on materials, fabrics, ingredients, apparel, circularity? I want to hear from you. Send an email to my rock fight at gmail dot com.

The rock fight is a production of rock fight llc. I’m Colin True. Thanks for listening.

And here to take us out, he’s on an mission to see what he’s been missing it’s chris demakes with the rock fight fight song. We’ll see you next time rock fighters.


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