Message to Outdoor: Climb “Mount Sustainability”

FriedrichshafenHarbor - 1

The harbor at Friedrichshafen, home of the Outdoor trade fair

Last week I had the honor of speaking to about a hundred CEOs and other top managers in the industry called “Outdoor” — that is, makers of clothing and equipment to go camping, climbing, hiking, mountaineering, or whatever strikes your fancy.

Now, you might think that companies in that branch already “get” sustainability, and indeed, many of them do. One of the world’s most iconic “sustainable brands,” Patagonia, is an Outdoor company. The organization that invited me to speak, European Outdoor Group, even has a sustainability and CSR manager ready to advise corporate members on knotty problems related to chemistry, sustainable production, worker wellbeing, and all the rest of this demanding agenda. (Her name is Pamela Ravasio, and she really knows her stuff.)

I’m particularly proud of our own clients (obviously) in that industry, the Fenix Outdoor group, which owns Fjällräven and other popular brands. We (AtKisson Group) partnered with our friends at the Sustainable Fashion Academy a few years ago to help Fenix advance its CSR work, which resulted in a wonderfully clear internal guidance document called The Fenix Way. In that document, you will also find the first formal adoption of my firm’s Sustainability Compass as a corporate platform for CSR work. (It helps that one of Fenix’s divisions, Brunton, makes compasses.)

There are other sterling leaders in this industry group, too. But to my mind — and I shared this view with the CEOs — the Outdoor industry could, and should, be doing a lot more.

Before I tell you what I think they should do, and why, consider these facts: the amount of time young people spend outdoors is plummeting (while screen-time rises). And the average age of people who hike and camp is going up. From a strictly business perspective, people in the Outdoor industry are looking at a seriously worrying future scenario: fewer and fewer new customers, and an aging, shrinking customer base. (The industry is not just standing idly by and watching this happen. Check out their social media campaign, Be Active Outdoor.)

sustainabilitycompass-design-600x600Now, “Nature” is just one-fourth of the sustainability challenge (on our Compass, it’s North). But it is a decidedly critical part. Without a healthy, functioning natural world, the human world would probably call it quits. Unless we moved out into space, as in the terrifying children’s movie Wall-E.

But unless people spend time in Nature, they will never really know it.

Which means they will not be motivated to take care of it.

Enter the Outdoor industry. From a pure business perspective, their job appears to be selling tents, boots, shirts, and climbing gear.

But from a strategic perspective, they have a different job: to get people to fall in love with the natural world.

Meanwhile, the health of that self-same natural world is currently under serious threat from climate change, loss of biodiversity, pollution, and poverty (desperately poor people have more important things on their mind than the integrity of national parks and species habitat). Not to mention the specter of increasing neglect driven by the above-named social, technological, and demographic trends (national park managers are also worried about these and related issues).

End result, if not much is done: less and less “natural world” for people to fall in love with.

Which, ergo, drops people in the Outdoor business smack dab into the heart of the sustainability business. (No sustainability = no business.)

So what should these companies do? My recommendations are simple, and they are all designed to create business benefits in addition to sustainability advances. In the Outdoor industry, these two things truly go hand in hand.

1. Set higher goals. One of the modern founders of sustainable business practice, Ray Anderson, talked about “climbing Mount Sustainability” — and going all the way to the top. He envisioned creating a completely sustainable company, one that gives back to nature, and to people, more than it takes out. A few Outdoor companies are also aiming to do that. (I was particularly impressed with the German company Vaude, whose CEO told me that their sustainability ambitions are currently hitting the boundaries of the technically possible.) But actually, they all should be climbing Mount Sustainability. The whole Outdoor sector could be a sustainability pioneer and leader, not just a few star companies. (Think about the impact that an industry-wide commitment to sustainability could make!)

2. Get more involved. Many Outdoor companies have relationships with an NGO or two, and many Outdoor leaders support conservation efforts. But there is so much more they could do! Consider the Mountain Partnership, a global effort to promote sustainable development in all the world’s poor and mountainous regions. Many of those regions play host to the hikers and climbers who patronize Outdoor companies. The Outdoor sector could more clearly engage with and support that and other similar efforts, e.g. by matching up companies with relevant and specific outdoor travel goals — and not just mountains. This would be especially timely, considering how the new UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are going to be calling on these companies, and everyone else, to really raise the bar on partnership and engagement.

3. Be more communicative. Finally, the Outdoor industry needs to get a whole lot better at telling its story. Many of the companies in that sector are small, which means they do not experience the same demands for transparency that big companies in apparel or sports often face. But unless they get a whole lot louder, and more compelling, they are not going to break the spell of iPads and smartphones and attract new, young climbers and campers. Setting high sustainability goals, and talking about what they are doing to reach those goals, can add some “oomph”, while synergizing beautifully with “normal” marketing messages — and helping these companies differentiate and stick out.

“Want to save the planet? So do we. But first, try climbing it.” (Happy to sell that idea, contact me if you want to buy it. Proceeds go to conservation efforts.)

These three actions, pursued intelligently, would not be new “costs” for these companies; they would be extremely wise investments in the future. They would help push sustainability forward, while also helping these companies tackle a business problem (a potentially shrinking market) that will only get more and more challenging. In this vision, raising the Outdoor sector’s bar on sustainability, and communicating loudly about it, would result in more people getting involved with the natural world, visiting it, advocating and acting for its health, while the companies themselves grew … and still reduced their environmental impact while improving their social impact. (Hey, if Unilever can aim for that, selling soap and deodorant, surely Outdoor companies can do the same selling sleeping bags and climbing boots.)

The day after my speech, I wandered into the giant Outdoor trade fair that was just getting under way, in Friedrichshafen, Germany. The sight of all those beautiful tents, backpacks, and fancy boots was inspiring. So were the not-infrequent information tablets explaining the “sustainable”, “recycled” and other qualities of some of the products.

But I look forward to a future fair, where virtually every product is similarly badged, and competes for buyers who demand not just the best — but also the most sustainable.

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