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The Outdoor Industry & Sustainability- So What?!

Today on THE ROCK FIGHT (an outdoor podcast that aims for the head) we take a deeper look at the Outdoor Industry's favorite topic, sustainability, and try to answer the question... So What?

What is the right answer to the stuff problem that we all agree that we have?

Do we change the habit of consumers? Do we expect brands to do the right thing and choose the environment over profits?

So far these seem to be the two solutions that everyone points to when discussing a more sustainable outdoor industry.

Today on the show, Colin reflects on what he's learned from two prior guests on THE ROCK FIGHT and what the so what of sustainability actually is.

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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 a little deeper on the topic of sustainability in the outdoor industry and ask the question, so what?

That’s coming up next but first some Rock Fight housekeeping!

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Alright, let’s start the show.

Last week here on THE ROCK FIGHT Barry McGeough, an outdoor industry veteran who has lead innovation teams at brands like The North Face, PVH and Wolverine, told me that making less stuff was not something that we should be pursuing as we look to find sustainable solutions to the environmental problems created by how we manufacture all the stuff we love to wear in our outdoor pursuits.

For a show like this one, which was founded on providing a forum for hot takes, this was a pretty hot take. More of a boulder throw than a rock throw.

Because a repeated mantra by me and many of my guests on THE ROCK FIGHT has been ‘make less stuff’ because that simple phrase sort of sums it all up.

The outdoor, sporting, active and fashion categories seem to be content to continue to flood the world with so much stuff that there aren’t enough people alive in the world to consume it all. So, saying ‘make less’ makes sense right?

Barry saying the opposite was met with some resistance in the rock fight army.  I received multiple messages taking issue with that stance and I admit, my gut reaction to this notion was definitely skepticism.  

But Barry’s explanation for why he believes this makes a ton of sense and lines up with something that former guest Ken Pucker told me when he came on the show in 2023. 

Consumers are not our path to a more sustainable or circular future. We, the stuff buying public, cannot be relied on to make good decisions. Want an example of what I’m talking about? Fine. I’ll turn the mirror on myself.

After years working in retail I started my corporate industry career working at Timberland in 2002. Timberland had become famous for their commitment to community service by committing 40 hours of paid time off to each employee to go towards working in our local community as well as their early early early stance on manufacturing with more sustainable practices.  

While I was there they launched a nutrition label detailing what was in their products and pioneered the CSR report.  Doing well and doing good was a common refrain and working there laid the foundation for how I viewed what a brand should be.

And then I worked another 15 years in the industry and learned the inner workings of many brands, saw the problems of manufacturing first hand and came to understand how I spent my money would reflect on me as a citizen of earth. 

I am in the 1% of understanding the right and wrong way to be a consumer. 

And yet, just two weeks ago, I bought a pair of socks with pictures of my face printed all over them, that I found through an instagram ad for my Mom for mothers day because it was super funny. The total price to do that?  $24 plus shipping. And I didn’t even hesitate. Not for a single second to make this purchase. I saw the ad, and thought that’s hilarious. My mom will love that and less than 90 seconds later it was done.

Maybe those socks are made incredibly responsibly and the process of applying 13 repeating pictures of the dumb selfie I uploaded is done by planting trees in the Amazon but I doubt it.  More likely is that the socks are made from polyester and churned out at an incredibly low price point, a reflection of the poor ingredients and the potentially low quality cut and sew operation that actually makes these things.  And let’s not forget the impact caused by shipping them from wherever they’re made to their final destination.  But goddammit, I wanted my mom to have a giggle for Mother’s Day and the ability to wear my face on her feet.  

This is why we’re always looking to brands to be better. Because most of us don’t want any guide rails in how we shop and those of us who know better still indulge often when we don’t intend to. So we put the pressure on brands to do better for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do.

And because brands like Timberland and Patagonia have set a standard, outdoor brands have largely played along at various levels of sincerity.  It ranges from “we will go out of business before doing something we find to be unethical in the way we make things” to “uh….yeah, sure, we do things sustainably. Did you see that one time when we used post-consumer cardboard in our hangtags?”. But because of the nature of outdoor apparel and gear, namely its need to last a long time, outdoor stuff generally does better than its more ‘every day use’ cousins in the fashion world.

And because those cousins, aka Fast Fashion, are more of the Cousin Eddie [COUSIN EDDIE QUOTE CLIP] variety the way they make things is pretty gross.  Any outdoor maker by comparison deserves an award instead of scrutiny.  And yet we continue to put the onus back on them to do things better.

But there is a baked in problem in this. At the most rudimentary level, company’s exist to make money.  Maybe there is an example that I can’t think of right now, but I can’t think of a single example of a company started with the idea being that they wouldn’t make money.

Brands are FOR PROFIT ENTERPRISES. That is priority numero uno because if it isn’t, then… you know, no more company.

So you can’t realistically put expectations on a brand or company, without understanding that any philanthropic endeavors or better practices that go against standard operating procedures can only be deployed after a positive P&L statement has been proven and established. 

And yet we do all of the time. Have you listened to this show? Because I certainly do. There is some public pressure for fashion brands to do better but we obsess over it in the outdoor space.  And that’s a problem that brands have created for themselves.

Because they know that we all want a clear conscience in what we buy. They know that we care about the wild places where we all recreate and that we want to support companies who say they do too. So they all got hooked on the sauce of highlighting anything that can paint them positively when it comes to being ‘green’. 

80% recycled content! Earth friendly! Climate neutral! A lot of buzzwords designed to keep us consuming and feeling good about spending our money. To anyone asking, yes, greenwashing happens in the outdoor industry all of the time.

Now there are also LOADS of examples of outdoor brands who probably overextend themselves to make things greener and better.  We operate in a very earnest space and with smaller brands who exist to fill a need and are independently owned you’d probably have a tough time finding a brand who doesn’t put doing the right thing at the number two slot of their corporate to do list. But my larger point here is that making money is in the number one slot.  

So we have consumers that can’t be trusted and brands that are obligated to put profits first. So what does that leave us with? Well we either need to wait around for enough profitable companies to find the greenest way to do things, make all of the right choices, make money from doing it and establish the new norm of making stuff, or because by all accounts we don’t have the time to wait for that to happen, we need to pass legit legislation and regulation to tell all the brands how they have to do it going forward. 

We actually have an example that is currently tearing up the outdoor topic charts that we can point to to see exactly what I’m talking about here.  That topic? PFAS!

We’ve known about the dangerous impacts of PFAS for a very long time. I’m not going to get into all of that here if you want a detailed accounting of the forever chemicals problem. You have plenty of resources that you can easily dig into including Meg Carney’s 10 part deep dive into all of it.  I’m not here to stand on Meg’s corner.

But what I will say is that outdoor brands have, for a very long time, been aware of the impact of PFAS. Both Patagonia and The North Face, for example, announced their intention to move on from forever chemicals back in 2015.

But there have always been ‘reasons’ not to just pull the plug and go for it. The biggest one, is that the alternatives just couldn’t match the performance expectations of modern outdoor consumers.  Patagonia even suggested in 2016 that removing PFAS waterproofing could result in bigger problems because “garments must be replaced more frequently”.  

Apparently everyone forgot that humans survived going outside for hundreds of thousands of years before Gore Tex was invented a scant 50 years ago.  

Then there are examples like Fjallraven who started working on phasing out PFAS in 2008, got them out of their tents and most of their products and finally got to say they were PFAS free in 2021. 

But step back for a second and look at how outdoor brands approached PFAS.  You have some who are clearly putting profits first and spinning some bullshit to protect them. You have others who are genuinely frozen in place and don’t know what to do because it’s complicated, they believe in the performance of their stuff and profits are at risk. And finally you have very few brands who said fuck it and did the right thing before they were forced to do it.

And being forced to do it is what ultimately ended up happening.  Legislation passed in Europe and in California has effectively banned PFAS and has caused a wave of ‘oh shit what do we do now’ panic at many apparel companies that will surely impact supply and demand for the next few selling seasons. 

One brand that should be ok? Fjallraven. They didn’t wait around to see how it would play out.  They did the right thing and have put themselves in a good position because of it. 

And that’s the point: everyone had the opportunity to be Fjallraven. Everyone had all the same insight and almost no one did the right thing. And now legislation has changed the game. 

You can get mad at the large amount of inaction,  but that’s because you’re in the privileged position of being a Monday morning quarterback.  Had you been sitting in the driver's seat of any of these brands in 2015, 16, or 17 I don’t think you can say that you wouldn’t have done the same thing that most brands did at that time, which was to keep the train on the tracks and profits hopefully growing.  

The ‘so what’ of sustainability is that there is really only one way to do things better, and that’s to change the rules of the game. And the brands know it. Because another thing that Ken Pucker told me last year was regarding the New York Fashion Act. A piece of legislation that if passed would require apparel makers that generate over $100m in revenue to improve transparency of their manufacturing methods, integrate science based targets to reduce greenhouse emissions and other climate friendly initiatives. Failure to comply would result in a penalty by the state of NY of up to 2% of the company’s annual revenue. So unless you decided you didn’t want your stuff to be sold in New York City, you’re going to comply.

Now if you take all of the greener than thou rhetoric we hear from the outdoor brands who love to tout their environmental practices you’d think they’d be supporting something like this, right? Well at the time I spoke to Ken in early 2023, you know how many outdoor brands were backing this bill? One. Just one brand.

Like I said, it’s tough to fault a for profit enterprise for doing what they were started to do: make money.  So if we want things to change, passing legislation is the way it’s going to happen.

I’ll continue to be vocal about the bullshit that brands try to get away with and supportive of the good decisions that they make. Neither are mutually exclusive.  I don’t think it’s hard to both praise Patagonia for the millions of dollars they give away each year in the name of protecting the natural world, a true leader in that regard, and also criticize them for tone deaf taglines like ‘fashion is none of our business’.  

But if there’s a lesson in any of this is that we are often browbeating consumers to buy less which is highly unlikely and browbeating brands to make less which is also highly unlikely. The path to real change is awareness (so share this podcast with someone please) and voting. And complaining about all of this stuff on social media of course.  We can’t ignore that fun thing that we all do. Because you know it’s been proven that uploading an instagram story about something we don’t like results in that thing going away in tiny increments.

But seriously, voting is really the only thing that has actually worked before and even in the weird disjointed state of American politics that we’re all navigating, it’s still the best and only proven way to get shit done.

Alright that’s the show for today. Please head to rock fight dot co and sign up for news from the front, rock fight’s newsletter and be sure to follow the rock fight wherever you are listening to this podcast!  We need more followers! Be part of the rock fight revolution!

The rock fight is a production of rock fight llc. I’m Colin True, thanks for listening. And here to take us out is the lead composer of all rock fight properties… it’s chris demakes. With the rock fight fight song. We’ll see you next time rock fighters.


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