3D-printed gear, climate-friendly fabrics & 29 more ways tech is changing this business Bad Data: Is Our Industry Running on False Stats? Pattie Gonia on Gatekeeping, Wokeness & Cancel Culture
Welcome back to trade show season. Let’s do this face-to-face. Let’s walk the show floor. Let’s meet up in person. Let’s say hello with a fist bump. Let’s seal the deal with a handshake. Because it’s the human touch that makes our industry tick.
Now let’s get to work, together.
Wholesale B2B powered by the human connection.
I ss u e N o . 6 / S u m m e r
64 TECH HIGH
How 3D printing, drones, B2B platforms, and other tech breakthroughs are transforming the industry.
DON’T TRUST THE NUMBERS
IS THERE HOPE FOR THE BACKPACK TAX?
Why the much-maligned policy proposal just won’t die. BY CHRISTINE PETERSON
The outdoor industry’s data problem runs deep.
EXPEDITION OF HIS LIFE
Polar explorer Eric Larsen tackles his toughest challenge yet: cancer.
BY MARC PERUZZI
BACK FROM THE BRINK
FAIR PL AY
A viral video and GoFundMe campaign saved Slim Pickins Outfitters. What’s next?
Danger, inequity, starvation wages: There’s a better way to do athlete sponsorships.
BY ALEX TEMBL ADOR
B Y C O R E Y B U H AY
On the cover: I L L U S T R AT I O N B Y H A R R Y T E N N A N T
OUTSIDE BUSINESS JOURNAL
PHOTO BY COU RTE SY
B Y E L I S A B E T H K WA K-H E F F E R A N
HANG OUT OR HUNKER DOWN
Our revolutionary new Telos tent provides unmatched versatility, more space and superior ventilation.
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16 INDUSTRY BUZZ
More brands jump into the brick-and-mortar game.
CULTURE 32 FRESH VOICES
Meet a nonprofit leader, an environmental podcaster, a wheelchair advocate & an adventure photographer.
18 YOUR NEXT CUSTOMER Experts share how to reach out to BIPOC runners.
Here’s how we’re really doing on DEI. Hint: not great.
38 NINE TO FIVE
It’s time for employers to invest in mental health.
Post-pandemic, some brands stick with remote work.
Are new industry sustainability standards moving the needle?
57 THE TREND REPORT 1) Ditching plastic packaging 2) Embracing the air-permeable membrane 3) Battling waste (and winning)
Social media sensation Pattie Gonia opens up.
Is unlimited paid time off too good to be true?
40 THE CONVO
Take a peek at our techsaturated national parks.
Check out the season’s most-anticipated gear.
Private showrooms help reps make the sale.
Learn best practices for battling internet trolls.
46 OBJ 50
34 ROAD RULES
20 SHOW BIZ
Trade show sustainability hits a snag.
OUTSIDE BUSINESS JOURNAL
Props for a new play, green HQ, a beloved brand, and a queer employee resource group. Plus: love letter to a backpack.
06 EDITOR’S NOTE 10
PHOTOS BY (FROM LE FT) M ICHAE L CIAG LO; KAR E N WANG; COU RTE SY
A NEW LEAF
For so many reasons, the time feels right for a fresh start. That’s exactly what you’re holding in your hands.
our day-to-day business decisions, discovering that numbers do indeed sometimes lie (p. 79). And just to make sure you don’t hit tech overload, we also have some powerful, uplifting stories to inspire you. Alex Temblador spent a weekend shadowing the owners of Slim Pickins Outfitters, the beleaguered Black-owned specialty outfitter in Texas that has been given a second life thanks to the kindness of strangers (p. 84). And Deputy Editor Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan explores how fighting cancer is—and isn’t—like a polar expedition for Eric Larsen (p. 94). A special thanks to the many brands that stepped up and supported this, our sixth print issue. It’s our beefiest edition yet, and we’re inspired by your trust in us to bring you the outdoor industry stories that matter—and that you won’t find anywhere else. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback. Don’t hesitate to drop me a line at email@example.com.
Join us to #HikeUnited
Celebrate unity on the trails this summer. OBJ is a proud partner of #HikeUnited, an effort to unify the outdoor community on trails. Led
by Nicole Brown and Teresa Baker, founders of Women Who Hike and the In Solidarity Project, respectively, the idea is to bring together folks hoping to build a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive industry under one umbrella, cultivating community and kick-starting conversation. Join us by hitting any trail, any day during August. Go any distance, solo or with friends. Post a photo using #HikeUnited2021.
Kristin Hostetter Editorial Director
OUTSIDE BUSINESS JOURNAL
See you out there!
ILLUSTRATION BY (TOP) CSA IMAGES/ CSA IMAGES VIA GETTY IMAGES; COURTESY
lot has happened since we went to print with our last issue in January of this year. And it’s not just that we’re rounding the corner on the pandemic and starting to transition from all-Zoom-callsall-the-time to in-person meetings. (Can I hear a “Hallelujah!”?) For starters, we have a brand-new name. Back in March, The Voice and our digital companion, SNEWS, rebranded under one title that clearly reflects who we are and what we do. Once upon a time, SNEWS was aimed squarely at industry “insiders.” Today’s Outside Business Journal, part of the Outside family of brands, opens its arms to everyone in the outdoor community while staying true to our core mission: covering all facets of the business of being outside. But it’s not just about our name. Under the leadership of our new art director, Robert Sawyer, we’ve also given our magazine a big visual refresh, with a new style and personality. He’s also brought in a diverse team of talented illustrators to bring our stories to life. Speaking of stories, this issue is full of great ones. In keeping with our technology theme, Senior Editor Andrew Weaver took a deep dive into the simmering B2B platform war (p. 66). Marc Peruzzi peels back the curtain on the outdoor data that informs so many of
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“I’d been surrounded by the plastic problem for years, but never did a deep dive into it,” the Seattle freelance writer says. That was until he tackled “Plagued by Plastic” (p. 58). While looking into some brands’ creative solutions to reduce single-use plastics in their business operations, Krichko was surprised to learn that “compostable polybags are actually a very real and very viable thing.” Find more examples of Krichko’s recent work in The Ski Journal (where he’s also an editor), Overview, and ESPN.
“Ever since I started running, I’ve wanted to write about the sport’s diversity issue,” Lahud-Zahner says. He did just that in “Run for All” (p. 18), talking to shoe brands and leaders in the BIPOC running community about how to make the sport more inclusive. Reporting highlight: interviewing Sika Henry, a personal heroine, who just became the first professional African American female triathlete. Based in Oakland, California, he has also recently written for Oaklandside and Anti-Racism Daily.
Three words that describe your relationship with tech Cordial at best Next big project
Teaching a summer course at Northeastern University about the future of sports journalism and leading photography classes for middle schoolers at a Seattle Latinx community center
Favorite outdoor tech My Garmin Forerunner 235 running watch. Linking it to my Strava feels like I have my own digital exercise diary. Next big project
Training for a six-hour endurance race in Seattle. I ran it in 2019 and am returning this year for redemption. Plus, it’s near Halloween, so I get to race in a costume.
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This Louisville, Colorado, artist illustrated Outside Business Journal’s first backpage cartoon (p. 104). The toughest part for her? Nailing the outdoor industry dress code. According to her research, it’s “flannels, Patagonia pullovers, trucker hats, wool socks, and Chacos or Tevas.” Luce Kempney frequently works with the Colorado climbing community, designing competition T-shirts, gym logos, and a mural (for The Ice Coop drytooling gym in Boulder).
When reporting “Is It Finally Time for the Backpack Tax?” (p. 92), Laramie, Wyoming-based freelancer Peterson was surprised to realize that a similar tax on outdoor gear nearly passed Congress 20 years ago. The idea keeps resurfacing, and, “I was also a little surprised by how much the hunting and fishing community wants others to be part of paying for fish and wildlife conservation,”she says. She has recently contributed to Outdoor Life and National Geographic, and this past June, took over as president of the Outdoor Writers Association of America.
Did you go online on your last camping trip? Definitely. I had a deadline to record a quick voiceover for a video. I was chilling in my ENO hammock while recording it.
Favorite outdoor tech My SPOT. Carrying one makes me feel better about spending longer chunks in remote areas with a small child.
Next big project
I’ll be in an art festival with CRAFt, a collective celebrating artists in the BIPOC community on the Colorado Front Range. And practicing to be a DJ.
Backpack for a week with my husband and 5-year-old daughter where we have no cell service and little is expected of us other than fishing, camping, and staring at the stars.
PHOTOS BY (FROM LEFT) ZACH DOLEAC, TIM MENA, TYLER KEMPNEY, DONALD ROBINSON
Reimers, a freelancer in Jackson, Wyoming, jumped at the chance to investigate the latest in gear technology for our tech package (p. 64). “Who doesn’t like to imagine a montage of white-coated scientists making technological breakthroughs?” he says. His favorite innovation is a high-tech fabric from LifeLabs: “I really hate hot weather, so I’m excited to try a fabric being developed that can cool your body as much as 2 degrees just by wearing it.” Reimers has also contributed to Outside, Sierra, and The Ski Journal.
Dealing with social media drama is familiar territory for Reyes-Acosta. Well before she reported “Starving the Trolls” (p. 22) for this issue, she dealt with them in her role as a brand strategist. Reyes-Acosta is based in Southwest Colorado—“aka stolen Ute and Pueblo lands”—and also works as a freelance writer, mountain athlete, and advocate. Her work has recently appeared in Outdoor Retailer and on DirtbagDreams.com.
While working on the social media section of our technology package (p. 70), this Carbondale, Colorado-based freelancer was struck by the disconnect between outdoor recreationists and tech. “It almost feels like our industry still wants to emphasize technology as the antithesis to the outdoors rather than a tool to increase inclusion, education, and participation,” she says. Rochfort’s work has recently appeared in Red Bulletin, Sierra, Runner’s World, and The Washington Post.
Temblador felt a quick connection when she began profiling the Dawes family of Slim Pickins Outfitters for “This is Ours” (p. 84). “Early on, I shared with Jahmicah and Heather that I am Mixed Latinx—Mexican and white,” she says. “Since the couple are parents to Mixed children, we talked a lot about the experiences their children will face and what they’re doing to help their sons navigate their Mixed identity.” Find more of the Dallas writer’s recent work in Outside, Texas Monthly, National Geographic, and on page 77.
Favorite outdoor tech The MPOWERD Luci Inflatable Solar Lantern is the perfect piece of gear—effective, simple, elegant.
Next big project The OUTLIER f ilm series, which I’m producing and codirecting with Faith Briggs. Find us at @OutlierFilmSeries on Instagram.
Favorite outdoor tech I live and die by Asana to manage my workflow and deadlines. I’d be a mess without it.
Three words that describe your relationship with tech Informative, career, constant
Did you go online on your last camping trip?
Working on edits for my second novel, Half Outlaw.
Pull off my wedding
Run the Teton Crest Trail, tick peaks in three states, and embrace the alpine for all the lessons I’ll learn there.
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Definitely not. When we head out for weekends with our daughter, my husband and I both shut off our phones. That’s our time to spend together as a family, and we’re pretty passionate about disconnecting during those precious adventures.
Next big project
PHOTOS BY (FROM LEFT) DAVID AGNELLO, @NOTLOSTJUSTDISCOVERING, WILL ROCHFORT, SHELBIE MONKRES
How to put trolls in their place Trade show sustainability stalls
Branded retail is booming
PHOTO BY MICHAEL CIAGLO
1 BLOCK EAST:
Branded retail shops in Boulder, Colorado’s shopping district
BUSINESS / INDUSTRY BUZZ
A SHOP OF THEIR OWN A behind-the-scenes look at why outdoor brands are opening up new, in-person retail locations—even after the pandemic prompted a surge in online sales.
ast March, we all got really comfortable living life online. Even my three-year-old added “Zoom” to his vocabulary—and not in reference to trucks. As for all the online shopping we’d already been doing? We did a whole lot more of it. In fact, 2020 online spending was up 44 percent year over year, according to research organization Digital Commerce 360. And yet, this summer, many brands that have long succeeded in online, direct-to-consumer and partner-retailer sales (e.g., REI) are opening up new brick-and-mortar locations. Their reasoning: Having a physical location will increase brand awareness among new customers and garner further trust with current customers. Oh, and they hope the stores will do better than break even. Case in point: This summer, online giant Backcountry is putting its money where the customer is and opening two new retail locations in Park City, Utah, and Boulder, Colorado. The brand will rely on lessons from its 2019 pop-up presence in New York City—namely, that a store needs to offer more than just “one-and-done transactions,” says Chris Purkey, senior VP of customer experience and head of retail for Backcountry. To do that, the brick-and-mortar locations will have experts (dubbed Gearheads) on site to help customers plan trips, host events like film screenings, and organize volunteer service days with local nonprofits. Ultimately, retail locations will allow the brand to take a page from the indie gear shop playbook and add value in a way that a stand-alone website can’t. It’s about meeting customers where they are—and that’s omnichannel, Purkey explains. “In recent years, there’s been a convergence of retail models,” he says. “You’ve got pure-play, e-commerce retailers like us now launching into brick and mortar, and traditional retailers investing heavily in digital capabilities.”
Black Diamond, which has historically sold either direct to consumers or through partner retailers, is also slowly expanding its own retail presence. Since 2019, the brand has opened flagship locations in its hometown of Salt Lake City and nearby Park City, as well as in Big Sky, Montana. Black Diamond will
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open a store in Boulder, Colorado, this July, and has three others in the works. All of Black Diamond’s stores take an aesthetic approach to community integration: The Big Sky site features local tie-ins like Montana barnwood, and the Park City shop has a memorial to a hometown athlete. Says
PHOTO BY THOMAS WOODSON
By Courtney Holden
PHOTO BY THOMAS WOODSON
Black Diamond’s newest retail shop will open along Boulder, Colorado’s iconic Pearl Street mall.
Devin Gillette, Black Diamond’s director of retail, “It’s not the quick, plug-and-play retail store where you’ll walk in and it will be like, ‘Oh, it’s a Black Diamond store.’ It’s going to be like, ‘Wow, I really want to go see another store because they’re all so different and unique and match the community.’” While brands seem sincere in their desire to be a part of the surrounding communities, there’s considerable business strategy behind branded retail, too. Having a physical presence in an outdoor hub like Park City, Big Sky, or Boulder puts a brand front and center with outdoor-minded consumers. And custom retail shops allow brands to “tell their story from A to Z,” says Steve Stout, vice president of retail for brick-and-mortar veteran Fjällräven. Since 2010, Fjällräven has opened 33 North American retail locations. The sites serve as a vital, in-person touchpoint with the consumer, one that has allowed the Swedish brand to explain its origins, mission, and premium price point, Stout says. “Those questions have to be answered along the way, and you have a much better chance of doing that in your own brand store.” Brick and mortar has been part of Stio’s strategy from day one. The apparel brand opened its first retail location in 2012 in its hometown of Jackson, Wyoming, to coincide with its website launch and first catalog mailing. “I was a little nervous [that we would be perceived as] just another catalog company out there,” says Stio founder and CEO Steve Sullivan. After all, anyone can set up a website. Opening the retail store was a strategic move to establish legitimacy. “I think it added a lot of weight for a new, direct-to-consumer brand to have that,” Sullivan says. That proof of legitimacy is a vital step in building trust with consumers—especially when a brand is selling gear that lives literally depend on, Gillette says, referring to the climbing safety equipment Black Diamond is known for. “This really strong trust relationship comes naturally with having human interaction and connection. And what better way to do that than having a brick-and-mortar store that provides community engagement?” Community members welcome those efforts. “We’ve had such an explosion of interest in the outdoors and so many people going out who are totally new,” says Katie Massey, a Black Diamond fan, avid rock climber, and 10-year Boulder resident who frequently attends local retail events. She’s concerned about overuse of local trails and appreciates the kind of community that builds around
Top Players: Branded retail is booming. Here’s how some of the biggest players stack up.
1. Columbia 2. The North Face 3. Patagonia 4. Fjällräven 5. Moosejaw
126 stores 112 stores 36 stores 33 stores 11 stores
retail shops—even branded ones. “It helps spread the word about the right ethics outside,” she says. “[These stores] help people get into the outdoors in a responsible way.” Some local shops hope for a symbiotic relationship with their branded neighbors. Sally Gilman, owner of Boulder specialty climbing retailer Rock and Resole, says increased awareness of brands like Black Diamond just makes it more likely that her customers will recognize the brand in her store. She also points out that her shop may be better suited to serve local customers compared to the new stores on the tourist hub of Pearl Street. “We have different niches that serve the climbing community,” she says. “Truly, I want to have a spirit of collaboration.” Shelley Dunbar, owner of the iconic Boulder store Neptune Mountaineering, agrees that retailers on Pearl will cater more to out-of-towners. She adds, though, that the brands she carries could have provided her a courtesy heads-up that they’re moving to her neighborhood to allow her to adjust her orders. “It’s better for brands to be up-front and transparent ahead of time so that we can adapt,” Dunbar says. Cohabitating and, in some cases, collaborating with local shops offer additional benefits to brick-and-mortar branded stores. But the drawback? It’s expensive. Personnel and real estate cost a pretty penny, especially in prime locations like Pearl Street where lease rates can be so high that stores become more about marketing than moneymaking. In these cases, “if you break even, you’re stoked,” Sullivan says, though he’s quick to note Stio’s stores have always ended up in the black. As for the timing? The pandemic had some impact on Backcountry’s retail strategy, Purkey says, but it never left higher-ups hesitant. “If anything, because of quarantine, there’s pentup desire to create epic memories outside, to create human connection,” Purkey says. “We’re probably better positioned to do this, and do it in a way that will be received by our consumer positively, now more than ever.” SUMMER 2021
The author participating in the Carkeek 12-Hour trail race near Seattle in 2019.
RUN FOR ALL
BIPOC runners are a market poised for explosive growth. They just need the proper recognition and support. By Charlie Lahud-Zahner
fter graduating high school and starting college, it wasn’t immediately clear how I was supposed to stay fit. I’d suddenly transitioned from weekday soccer practices to an environment where exercise wasn’t required and cheesecake was a breakfast option. I was aware that running was an alternative to team sports, but like other Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) Americans, I was hesitant: Culturally and statistically speaking, running is a very white thing to do. I ended up turning to trail running—not because it felt any more inclusive than road running, but because it allowed me to stay competitive with myself and to explore more of the outdoors than I previously thought possible. From the San Francisco Presidio to Joaquin Miller Park in Oakland, the trails in and around the Bay Area are a wonder to behold—even if they lack melanin. The numbers illustrate what non-white runners already know: In a 2020 survey conducted by Running USA, which included
more than 4,500 respondents, 86 percent identified as white. Given that all a runner needs is a sturdy pair of shoes, you’d think the sport would have a relatively low barrier to entry. But when road running gained popularity in the 1960s, it was marketed to middle-class whites. This has created an environment where BIPOC runners are “othered,” and not just on the road. After all, modern trail running started as a niche offshoot to urban jogging. That only served to concentrate racial disparities. And the issue compounds: Because runners of color are comparatively rare, those who are interested in the sport are afraid of turning a corner and being viewed as a threat. According to the same Running USA survey, nearly 40 percent of Black runners reported feeling unsafe running in 2020. And we all know how Ahmaud Arbery was murdered while jogging that same year. “Our industry has a great deal of work to do,” says Dawna Stone, Running USA’s CEO. “It is simply not enough to say that ‘running
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is open to everyone.’ Many races and events have stopped their efforts at inclusivity with that statement in the past.” So how can brands and retailers make a meaningful outreach to BIPOC runners? For Tony Reed, who has run a marathon on all seven continents and cofounded the National Black Marathoners Association (NBMA), it all starts with representation. “People want to feel comfortable around the individuals with whom they’re working out—people gravitate toward people who look like them,” Reed says. More than any other trail brand, HOKA ONE ONE stands out to me as doing the most to support BIPOC athletes who are role models in their sport. HOKA’s roster includes athletes like Joseph Gray, one of the greatest trail runners of all time and an outspoken advocate for diversity in the sport, and Sika Henry, who became the first African American pro female triathlete in May. Wendy Yang, HOKA’s president, hopes diverse representation of contemporary successful endurance athletes will send more welcoming messages to young runners. “We’re conscious about the stories we tell and the image we project through our marketing,” she says. “We want to amplify diverse voices and stories in running so that more communities can see themselves participating in the sport.” Brands like Oiselle and Brooks are also taking steps to change running’s skewed demographics. Recently, Brooks sponsored the Black Girls Run eRACE Racism virtual competition. And, in June 2020, Oiselle brought on Alison Désir, founder of Harlem Run and Global Womxn Run Collective, as an athlete-adviser. Reed believes the rest of the industry needs to follow suit and strategically redirect marketing budgets toward minorities. Advertising races and products in Black media, such as Black Press USA, or sponsoring the NBMA, are definitive steps companies can take to reach out to Black runners. Despite making up only a small portion of the running population, non-whites comprise about 35 percent of the U.S. population. That’s a huge opportunity for growth. Arbery’s death reminds us that despite the sport’s potential, running remains an exclusive pastime. The industry can’t deny that BIPOC runners are seen more as a threat than as a part of the community. We want to run, we deserve to run safely, and we deserve to be included.
PHOTO BY GLENN TACHIYAMA
BUSINESS / YOUR NEXT CUSTOMER
TWO STEPS BACK
Trade shows are returning this summer, but for many, sustainability measures have been left behind. By Jason R. Sakurai
ike it or not, trade show sustainability programming is a luxury—at least in comparison to immediate human health needs. And this year, it’s yet another thing the pandemic has put on the back burner. Though Outdoor Retailer has announced its return this August, pandemic protocols are still evolving. That’s according to Marisa Nicholson, senior VP of Emerald, which owns the show. “The situation remains fluid as we reevaluate safety considerations for events at large indoor venues,” she said in a statement. “Bringing the show back—and back safely—is the focus.” Pre-pandemic, there was immense momentum across the trade show industry to reduce waste and become more sustainable, says Lia Colabello, managing principal at sustainability consultancy Planet+Purpose Solutions. At Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2019, the show eliminated aisle carpeting, nixed plastic bottles from concessions, and installed water refill stations around the venue. And a Plastic Impact Alliance (PIA) project (see sidebar, p. 59) diverted 6,000 sample cups from the landfill and created more than 170 in-booth water stations. This year, the PIA cup project has been rolled back, and show-goers likely won’t see any other new initatives from OR until after the pandemic ends. As we go to press, OR intends to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, requiring masking for unvaccinated individuals, says Lisa Ramsperger, show PR manager. That means disposable masks, as well as single-use food and beverage containers, since reusables could expose food service workers to Covid-19. At least the Colorado Convention Center’s recycling and composting receptacles should keep some of the waste out of landfills. And exhibitors can choose to use reusable cups during booth events. Finding venues with eco-friendly infrastructure—like composting receptacles—is
one avenue other shows are pursuing this year. When California gathering restrictions led Lodestone Events to relocate its Outside Adventure Expo, a consumer event for overlanders, it chose the Utah State Fairpark in Salt Lake City in part because the venue already had green initiatives in place, says Lodestone Marketing VP Jessica Kirchner. Those initiatives include energy-saving light fixtures, refillable water stations, and water-saving faucets and toilets. Similar to the Colorado Convention Center, the Fairpark also offers composting and compostable packaging and utensils, and is near public transportation. At Grassroots Connect, organizers plan to make their own changes this year: The event will shift from a trade show to a “buying and educational event” when it returns in November 2021, leaning more into the meetand-greet aspects of trade shows and less into
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booths and displays. The switch will have a tremendous environmental impact, says Rich Hill, Grassroots’s executive director. A smaller show means fewer airline flights, and nixing booth walls and most displays will reduce waste, he says. But for most shows, says Colabello, “Reducing impact is rarely as simple as it appears.” After all, successful sustainability initiatives rely on a network of partnerships that include the venue, show organizers, food and beverage and waste management vendors, and exhibitors. “With in-person trade shows roaring back, those goals are still there,” she explains. “But, understandably, an added layer of complexity with regards to regional health and safety regulations and disposable PPE may delay the more ambitious commitments to be single-use plastic free within the next few years.” The Big Gear Show (BGS), which will hold its inaugural event in August, always planned to be zero-waste within three years of opening— though it may not look like it this year, says BGS Trade Show Director Kenji Haroutunian, indicating the necessity of disposable food service wares. “But we’re still committed to our [three-year] goal,” he says. Even if shows do fall short of their sustainability targets, brands can still take steps to reduce waste. One example: OR’s Digital Market platform helps brands eliminate waste from throwaway printed materials and allows digital catalogs to be updated in real time, Ramsperger says. Brands can also use recycled and recyclable booth materials, like Nikwax has in the past, or buy carbon offsets for travel like The North Face. Right now, every little bit helps.
ILLUSTRATION BY ROBS & NATASHA_PANKINA / ISTOCK / GETTY IMAGES PLUS
BUSINESS / SHOW BIZ
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STARVING THE TROLLS When your social media account attracts a storm of negative comments, what’s the best way to respond? Brands, experts, and influencers weigh in. By Dani Reyes-Acosta
ing. Ping, ping, ping.” The notifications nagged until Naomi Grevemberg leaned over to find out exactly why her phone was blowing up at 8 p.m. on a Thursday—and felt her heart drop. Grevemberg is the founder of two platforms for BIPOC and underrepresented folx in the nomadic community: @diversify.vanlife on Instagram, and the podcast Nomads at the Intersections. The former had been trolled: Commenters were lashing out with unfounded complaints that Grevemberg’s BIPOC-centered platforms were alienating white vanlifers. Comments like these keep social media managers up at night, especially since trolling can quickly transform into an all-out cancel culture campaign. In my decade of experience as a brand and inclusivity consultant for both startups and Fortune 100 companies, I’ve learned that when trolls attack brands (and people), their violence-driven narrative creates an unsafe space for other followers. This can render even the best social campaigns ineffective or even counterproductive. But trolls are a part of today’s media and marketing landscape. As such, it’s essential to learn to cope with them. Tip #1: Remember that conversation can be beneficial. Engagement is a top priority for the algorithms that drive all social platforms,
says Amanda Baida, owner of digital marketing firm InnerSocial Marketing. Responding to comments, even negative ones, can increase your reach. Plus, not all negative comments constitute trolling. In fact, most comments deserve a response, Baida says. Tip #2: The trick is to respond the right way. Consider your brand’s style and voice, and how it usually manages public criticism. “When posting about social justice issues that matter to us, we get hundreds of comments,” says Mare Ruland, “gratitude consultant” for technical pee cloth brand Kula Cloth. “But a brand can [decide] what type of energy it wants to create in its social media spaces. And we choose to make our page a safe space [for our followers and fans].” For example, when Kula published a post calling attention to gun violence in America, the post was “trolled by right-wing, pro-gun men,” Ruland says. The team chose to immediately delete those comments. Tip #3: Brands should also create an action plan before trolling events occur. Baida
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recommends outlining policies for different categories of comments, including harassment, threats, customer complaints, and praise. Predetermined policies can help social media managers frame responses quickly and calmly in a crisis. Tip #4: Unless comments turn to name-calling, don’t delete them, says Kaya Lindsay, social media manager of stewardship organization Yosemite Facelift and a former assistant social media manager for Access Fund. This can signal that your brand is afraid to face hard topics head-on. Tip #5: Instead, “Respond clearly and directly without any nuance. Do not engage with other commenters unless they bring up additional information that hasn’t been addressed,” Lindsay recommends. To defuse a situation, she likes to answer questions in a neutral tone, reducing the likelihood for continued aggression by the troll. Baida says it’s also good practice for a brand to direct commenters to another resource on its website, such as an FAQ page, company policy, or blog when appropriate. Tip #6: And if the comments continue? It could be time for decisive action. Grevemberg, of @diversity.vanlife, regularly faces those kinds of persistent trolls, including overtly racist ones. “When comments become abusive or violent—i.e. name-calling, racial slurs, threats, etc.—it’s evident that positive, open dialogue is impossible,” Grevemberg says. “That’s when I delete the offending comments and/ or block the commenter.” As for the case of the white vanlifer troll? She did just that.
ILLUSTRATION BY SON OF ALAN
BUSINESS / MESSAGING
We’re Climate Neutral and aiming for Net Zero carbon emissions by 2030.
7,027 repairs and washes carried our in 2020. 98% of fabric used for SS21 Lowe Alpine packs was flourocarbon free.
In 2020, we became an official member of Fair Wear Foundation.
Our virgin down is 100% traceable and RDS certified.
We continue to look at ways to use up waste fabric and will expand our range of accessories made with fabric off-cuts.
Our Journey We’re applying the lessons learned in the outdoors to the serious challenges facing our world. From climate change and the pressure on precious natural resources, to fairness and opportunity for all. We aim higher, and we find a better way. Find out more at www.rab.equipment/rab-dna
BUSINESS / PIVOT
TEMPLES OF ZOOM In the wake of the pandemic, some brands are keeping their workplaces remote or hybrid remote. Here’s how to do it right. By Corey Buhay
REI announced that it was selling its Seattle headquarters, in part to enable the co-op to shift to a more distributed workplace model. While a cultural shift of this scale may be unprecedented, it’s important to remember that telework has existed since the early 1970s, says Laurel Farrer, CEO of Distribute Consulting, an international consulting service that specializes in flexible and remote workplaces. “A quarter-century ago, people were able to stay connected and aligned using just email. This is a poignant reminder that it’s not the tools that connect us, it’s how we use the tools,” she says. For its part, Cotopaxi has worked to stay ahead of the common downsides of remote work—burnout, isolation, and reduced employee bonding—by actively nurturing the company’s workplace culture and sense of community support. “We did our holiday party on Zoom, we run Innovation Tournaments on Zoom,” Smith says, referring to biannual contests in which employees team up to brainstorm new product ideas. “And with Slack we’ve seen a huge increase in the use of ‘fun’ channels like our ‘bar-kitchen-club channel,’ where we do trivia contests, tell tall tales, and just generally get folks together.” Going forward, the company plans to create regular opportunities for employees to gather both virtually and in person, like a monthly BBQ, regular virtual lunches
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#Officegoals: a few of Cotopaxi employees’ home workspaces
where Smith sits down with a rotating handful of team members, and monthly service and adventure activities. Smith says he’s open to hiring out of state and will consider the cost of living in prospective employees’ hometowns when it comes to making salary offers. But there are other details, like handling multistate taxes and health insurance, that Cotopaxi is still researching. Bret Farrer, Distribute’s business development director, recommends using a third-party service like Oyster or Remote.com, which stays on top of the rapidly changing laws in different states and countries. Those services cost $350 to $700 per month per employee. But that cost is “absolutely” worth having a limitless talent pool to pull from, as well as the increased productivity and employee satisfaction that remote work brings, Bret Farrer says. Indeed, Erickson says her loyalty and pride in her employer have only gone up since the pandemic. Plus, for an adventure travel brand, the policy just makes sense. “We are in business to move people to do good and inspire adventure,” Smith says. “And that starts with giving them the flexibility to just get out.”
PHOTOS (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT) BY TALIA HORNER, RICH DOXEY, CARIE BEHE
efore the Covid-19 pandemic, Cotopaxi CEO Davis Smith was skeptical about remote work. But after a year of huge growth despite lockdowns and shipping challenges, he began to change his tune. “We are a very flat company structurally, so it was not at all uncommon for an entrylevel employee and a member of our C-suite team to sit down informally and have lunch together,” he explains. Before the pandemic, Smith thought that organic mingling of employees was too important to lose. “But we learned that working from home really fits us well,” he says. In March of 2021, Cotopaxi put out an all-hands survey. A whopping 88 percent said both their productivity and work satisfaction were as good, if not better, than pre-pandemic. And 95 percent said they had good to great relationships with their teammates—all despite a year without face-to-face time. “Like anything, there was a little bit of an adjustment period,” says Cotopaxi Digital Marketing Specialist Annika Erickson, who had to learn new ways to hold herself accountable and stay productive. But once she did, she quickly realized how invaluable it was to have the flexibility to get her work done, exercise, and get outside on her own schedule. Ultimately, she says she’s more productive now than she ever was in an office. Shortly after sending out the survey, Smith announced that Cotopaxi would move forward with a remote-first strategy. The brand will keep its Salt Lake City headquarters, but coming into the office will be optional for employee teams that don’t have to physically touch or ship product on a day-to-day basis. Cotopaxi isn’t the only outdoor brand learning to embrace a more flexible work model. Nike recently announced that it would require employees to come back to work at its Beaverton, Oregon, headquarters, but only three days a week. Ditto for climbing brand Edelrid in Redmond, Oregon. And last year
We’re All In Introducing the next frontier in sustainable drinkware. Starting in Spring 2022, we will begin manufacturing our products using certified 90% post-consumer recycled 18/8 stainless steel. This monumental change will reduce our greenhouse gas emissions from stainless steel by 40%. We’re not stopping there, by 2023, 95% of our products will be made from our new recycled steel. Learn more at KleanKanteen.com/recycledsteel
Keep an eye out for this icon on packaging coming in 2022.
BUSINESS / NUMEROLOGY
Technology has become an all-encompassing fixture of our lives, even when it comes to outdoor recreation. Here’s a snapshot of how it’s shaping our national parks—for better or for worse. Miles of fiber optic cable installed in Grand Teton NP
Number of national park-related apps in the Apple App Store
Number of national parks (out of 63) that offer some kind of public Wi-Fi
Number of cell towers inside Yellowstone NP
With electric-vehicle chargers sprouting up in national parks, the electric-powered road trip could be right around the corner. Source: NPS # EV Chargers in National Parks
120 100 80 70
60 40 20 0
Four U.S. national parks are equipped with RECCO detectors,
radars used to find stranded recreationists from aircraft by picking up special tags in clothing or packs. Source: RECCO
Denali NP Lassen Volcanic NP Yellowstone NP Mt. Rainier NP
7 national parks were called out for improper installation or documentation of cell towers in a 2019 audit.
Source: U.S. DOE
Wolf Trap NP for the Performing Arts
Grand Teton NP
Death Valley NP
Annual number of drone flights ordered by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI)
...but Wi-Fi does help campers stay outside a few extra days. Source: KOA 8 52%
2020 Campers who “always” or “sometimes” work while camping
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5.0 4 3.7 2
0% Campers who “always” or “sometimes” use camping for an intentional digital detox
Total drones in the DOI’s fleet
Year the National Guard first used a drone for a search-and-rescue mission—in California’s El Dorado National Forest
Bring on the connectivity! Like it for safety reasons Prefer to completely unplug
THE RISE OF THE WORKING VACATION
Fewer North Americans are using camping to unplug...
Sources: National Guard, DOI
Current cell coverage in the U.S. (all carriers)
National parks are using drones to fight fires, find lost hikers, and more. (see p. 73).
Wi-Fi and cell service while camping: Yay or nay? We polled 272 industry pros.
0 2017 2018 2019 2020
Survey respondents who say they were able camp more because of Wi-Fi access
2017 2018 2019 2020 Additional days respondents camped due to tech access in campgrounds
MAP ILLUSTRATION BY JONPIC/ DIGITALVISION VECTORS VIA GETTY IMAGES | PHOTOS BY GAIA GPS AND FCC
CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?
There are over 100 cell towers in national parks. With coverage in 70 percent of the U.S., it’s getting easier to call for rescue—and harder to escape the outside world.
Knives Done Right.®
BUSINESS / FACE OFF
IS UNLIMITED VACATION TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE? Two gear makers with very different approaches to PTO square off.
Peter Dering, Founder and CEO at Peak Design
When people talk about unlimited paid time off (PTO), they start by asking what unlimited really means: Does everyone take vacation all the time? Or does no one take it because there’s no set amount and they’re afraid of asking too much? I would say the tone of that is really set by the founder—it has to come from the top down. Peak Design has offered unlimited PTO since our inception 10 years ago. We celebrate vacation here. I personally take a lot of time off—on average, I work about 35 hours per week. And on Slack, if someone posts that they’re out of the office for an hour or a half-day or whatever, I get on them. I tell them they don’t need to tell me every time they step out of the office because I don’t care. The most valuable gift I can give you as your employer is to make you feel like you’re your own person—and that means there’s no guilt associated with taking time off. There’s no micromanaging. The glue that holds this all together is trust. You have to hire the right people and have people who are committed to the team. And you have to trust those people to get their work done and take time off when they need it. At Peak Design, that’s certainly the case. We’ve never had an employee abuse the policy. We don’t track vacation days—again, avoiding micromanaging—but I’d say people at Peak Design work fewer hours and spend more time on vacation than the vast majority of companies. As for the business benefits? There’s only one employee who ever moved on from Peak Design that we didn’t want to. So retention is great. And it’s a competitive advantage for us in hiring. But overall, what’s good for employees is good for employers. And what could be a better goal than the health and well-being of your employees?
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LIMITED PTO IS BETTER FOR BUSINESS. Garett Mariano, Marketing Director at Big Agnes
Paid time off isn’t the whole picture. At Big Agnes, employees receive between five and 15 days of PTO based on their tenure. Having a defined number of days off makes it easier to push my employees to get out when they fall into a cycle of cranking hard at the office, and it gives employees the comfort of knowing they have allotted time that they’re entitled to and can plan around. From an employee’s perspective, it’s easier to say, “OK, I’ve got these ten days. It’s beautiful outside. I need to use them.” Employees also have personal and sick time and two days of “industry paid time” so they can volunteer or go to industry-related events. We also have a flexible work environment. Our location in Steamboat Springs is just steps from the river and trails, which means employees can really get after it before, during, and after work. This includes taking full advantage of powder mornings at Steamboat or the nearby backcountry. Our office closes at 1 p.m. on Fridays so staff can get going with their weekend plans. Big Agnes also recognizes that recreating and recovering can be expensive, so employees receive a $750 wellness benefit that they can put toward a ski pass, yoga classes, or other memberships. But ultimately, we do have a business to run, and our employees understand that we need to come together and get our jobs done to build the brand and a sustainable business. We have a work-hard, play-hard mentality.
PHOTOS BY COURTESY
DONE RIGHT, IT’S A DREAM.
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L E A R N M O R E A N D B E CO M E A M E M B E R N O W AT O U T S I D E O N L I N E .CO M /O U T S I D E P LU S
RE S TA R T
A DA P T
August 3-5, 2021 • Park City, Utah TheBigGearShow.com
CULTURE PHOTO BY MAXWELL POTH
Pattie Gonia opens up Getting real on race Protecting mental health SUMMER 2021
CULTURE / FRESH VOICES
Podcast host Amirio Freeman works to uplift the place of Blackness within a whitewashed history of land, agriculture, and food.
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In 2015, my 18-year-old son was wrongfully accused of murder. He was incarcerated for 10 excruciating months before the charges were dropped, and to this day, we live with the PTSD, anxiety, and depression that injustice caused. To keep from self-medicating with alcohol, I took up trail running, climbing, and hiking. Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, my only exposure to those activities was via visits to my grandparents’ cabin in the San Juan Mountains. Our few urban parks were often unsafe, and spending money on outdoor excursions wasn’t an option for my hardworking single mom. As an adult, getting into nature was what saved me—and I want others to experience that, too. I began leading the Outdoor Foundation in October 2020, motivated by a desire to make nature more accessible for all. I bring a systems change lens to the job, zeroing in on the root cause of issues to eliminate barriers. With a focus on equity, inclusion, and justice, I’m leveraging the foundation’s power to address systemic issues, helping more families to heal.
During childhood trips to South Carolina, I’d watch my Granddaddy William tend to his garden. He taught me that food offers nutrition and a portal to better understanding ourselves. He also taught me Black folks have always cultivated kinship with soil, water, and the rest of the more-than-human world. Through my environmental podcast Loam Listen, I host conversations with guests about how we might reunderstand the outdoors beyond recreation and reimagine ourselves—fighting climate disaster and other injustices in the process. As the founder of @beinggreenwhileblack, I visually archive the lives of Black farmers, climate advocates, and other trailblazers. And as an advocacy specialist for Feeding America, I’m helping create a food system that works for people and planet. Buoyed by granddaddy’s wisdom, I work to uplift the place of Blackness within a whitewashed history of land, agriculture, and food. My work is a love letter to all those who are looking back in order to move forward, collaborating in order to recenter the Earth.
I’m a wheelchair user with Athetoid cerebral palsy, a movement disorder, but that hasn’t stopped me from being active. At first, because of how I speak and how much help I need, I was hesitant to try new things. But I kept after it, and by the time I was named Ms. Wheelchair Colorado in 2010, I’d found both community and confidence. In 2019, I told Jeff Lockwood, founder of The Lockwood Foundation, that I wanted to go on a real hike. His nonprofit helps people with disabilities experience nature and last year, the foundation and some 90 volunteers assisted my climb of 14,439-foot Mt. Elbert. Using an adaptive TrailRider device, I became the first wheelchair user to summit a 14er. I’m now on the foundation’s board, where my responsibilities include fundraising, crafting social media posts, and vetting the foundation’s ideas. Every day, I get to help others with disabilities rethink what’s possible. Eventually, I’d like to see wheelchair users getting outdoors and hiking just as much as non-wheelchair users, confident in doing things their own way.
In high school, I bombed my first photography class—it wasn’t until I started shooting sports for the yearbook that I found my passion. On skiing, mountain biking, and camping trips with friends, I’d always have my camera. As a digital content specialist for Backcountry, I now film world-class athletes, explore the natural world, and work on initiatives like Breaking Trail, a new advocate sponsorship program (see p. 98). Despite my outwardly glamorous job, I still struggle with my identity. Growing up in Hawai’i, and later Utah, my family didn’t have much. My parents, Korean immigrants, juggled multiple jobs while going to school and learning English. Still, they somehow found the time to take me on countless road trips to national parks across the country. There are few industry people who look like me and sometimes I feel like an imposter. Despite helping to elevate the voices of other underrepresented groups, I’m just now speaking publically about my own race. Through my work, I hope future generations will be able to see themselves represented in the outdoors.
PHOTOS BY (FROM LEFT) LINCOLN MONDY; ANNIE QUICK PHOTOGRAPHY; LINCOLN MONDY; PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAYLYNN; BACKCOUNTRY.COM
STEPHANIE AMIRIO MAEZ FREEMAN
CULTURE / ROAD RULES
SHOW AND SELL
As sales reps return to in-person work, bespoke, private showrooms have become the new norm. By Kiran Herbert
hris Morissette always worked from home, but the pandemic still changed things. Without travel and trade shows, Morissette, the principal sales rep at Sespe Group—which represents brands like Cotopaxi and Petzl—found himself doing virtual showings from his garage in Ojai, California. In search of a viable long-term solution, he rented warehouse space in town and recruited a friend who does display work for Patagonia to retrofit it. “We built out this really cool, intimate showroom where I could do digital line showings and represent brands in a productive, professional way,” says Morissette, who has now upgraded to an even larger space. “I’ve found that brands and dealers both really appreciate the showroom—it’s helped out a lot with business.” For reps like Morissette and Justin Singer of Synergy Reps, who cover California, Arizona, Nevada, and Hawaii, the nuances of their region and variances in timing have made the national trade shows increasingly irrelevant. Singer set up his own Truckee, California, showroom last October, building a one-stop shop for his agency’s eight brands, including KÜHL and Kari Traa. “When you’re in a store, the buyer’s dis-
tracted, you’re cramming everything into a small room, customers are coming up and looking through samples—it’s not an ideal experience,” Singer says. “What takes two hours in a showroom can turn into eight hours in a store.” Across the country in Norfolk, Virginia, Brad Decker, president of Decker & Associates, moved into his 800-square-foot showroom as neighboring tenants were moving out. Though he initially intended the space to serve as a “Zoom room,” clients kept asking to visit in person. “People wanted to be able to see and feel the product, things you just can’t do virtually or through a catalog,” says Decker. “Some people would drive three hours to see us and we’d tag-team a day of showings with other reps in the area.” The Denver Merchandise Mart, opened in 1965, once offered similar appeal for buyers. Strictly B2B, the Denver Mart was a collection of disparate showrooms—many focused on the outdoor industry—located in an unattractive building off I-25. Most of the Denver Mart’s revenue came from hosting weekly trade shows, and in February of this year it shuttered for good. With its closing, Axel Geittmann, owner of SuperFluent Sales
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and Marketing, saw an opportunity. Geittmann, intent on launching a super-showroom, formed a steering committee with seven other local reps and reached out to developer Ken Gart, who had a vacant property in Lakewood, Colorado, a 15-minute drive from Denver. Within two months, the paperwork had been signed. “The Denver Mart served as a proof of concept for what we’re doing now,” says Geittmann, adding that national trade shows are increasingly about networking more than about doing business. “There’s nothing like it out there and we’re excited to create this permanent solution.” Known as the Outdoor Market Alliance, the 30,000-square-foot space will open in October 2021 with room to significantly expand, a likely scenario considering the buzz it’s already generating. Coworking company Thrive Workplace signed the showroom’s 10-year master lease, and everyone else—right now more than 25 outdoor sales agencies representing more than 175 brands—plan to sublease. There’s even talk of renting space in monthly increments, a more appealing option for smaller reps or those living farther afield. For Sanitas Sales Group’s Keith Reis, a member of the steering committee, being able to display a robust line in good light makes a big difference. “Good reps can make do in any environment and have for decades,” Reis says. “Showrooms simply elevate the experience and make for a more positive, distraction-free line review.” Reis acknowledges that for reps who are already hitting their goals, the showroom concept might hold less charm. And when it comes to educating and training retail staff, in-store visits will always be necessary. But like virtual initiatives, such as robust online customer portals or video check-ins, showrooms are a pandemic upshot that’s here to stay. As travel opens up, Morissette hopes to fly key dealers into Ojai for a more experiential buying experience, complete with a stay at the funky Airstream hotel down the street and climbing in nearby Wheeler Gorge. “That’s my long-term plan with the showroom,” says Morissette. “Do line showings, have people actually use the gear, and build relationships.”
PHOTO BY COURTESY
Sespe Group’s showroom in Ojai, California.
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CULTURE / UNFILTERED
DARE TO DO BETTER After more than a year of racial upset and DEI work, the outdoor industry still can’t get it right.
he United States of America is in the midst of a national reckoning. In a land predicated on the notion of “liberty and justice for all,” we have long struggled with the glaring contradiction that not all men and women are treated equally. Even those of us who work in the seemingly neutral professions surrounding adventure sports and environmental conservation are complicit in the perpetuation of cultural disparities, limiting access to public land and outdoor industry careers. In the last few years, things have improved, but the pace of progress is concerning. It was the 2020 shooting of Ahmaud Arbery—killed by three white men while jogging on a public street—that finally caught
the outdoor industry’s attention. As protests erupted over the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, companies and institutions across many industries scrambled to show solidarity. Suddenly, there was a sense of urgency among CEOs, human resource managers, and public relations professionals to do a better job of representing the full spectrum of humanity, particularly those who identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). The outdoor industry was no different, yet in many ways, we have a lot of work yet to do. With lofty promises, industry organizations large and small have signed The Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge, created by social activist Teresa Baker and outdoor con-
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sultant Chris Perkins to hold comYou don’t just panies accountable get to say, ‘Black to change. Other Lives Matter.’ You brands have signed people of color as don’t get to say sponsored athletes you care about or hired product this work and designers and merthen do nothing.” chandising experts to create culturally authentic styles and fashion options. Boards of directors are moving slowly to become more racially diverse, while individuals and affinity organizations, like Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, Native Womens Wilderness, and others are working to establish
ILLUSTRATION BY MALTE MUELLER, ARTIS777; ISTOCK / GETTY IMAGES PLUS
By James Edward Mills
ILLUSTRATION BY MALTE MUELLER, ARTIS777; ISTOCK / GETTY IMAGES PLUS
physical ability, or sexual orientation is not only welcome to participate but encouraged to succeed. It seems, however, we are allowing this moment to pass without making substantive changes. Each of the signatories of The Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge was asked to submit a report summarizing why the principles of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) at their respective organizations are important. They were also required to identify what they hoped to achieve over the next five years. “In December of 2020 we had 201 brands and companies sign the pledge,” says Baker. “Today we have 180. If they didn’t submit a report, we removed their ass. I don’t have time for games. You don’t just get to say, ‘Black Lives Matter.’ You don’t get to say you care about this work and then do nothing.” Herein lies my skepticism. Though not a particularly difficult task, 21 companies failed to even articulate their desire to achieve JEDI in their places of business. For those that did, their reports are public—and in most cases, they’re frustratingly vague and short on details. We can manage only what we can measure and guidelines for equitable compensation and thus, companies and institutions must have career advancement for BIPOC. That much a set of quantifiable goals. They must commit, for example, to increasing the number of is happening, and it’s exciting. Still, the industry can do much more. De- BIPOC employees by two percent over a set period of time. And to achieve a spite the fact that most of the goal like that, organizations need legal barriers to accessing the Few will likely to strategically plan for and ingreat outdoors have been lifted, vest financially in workplace diour trails, campgrounds, and realize that they versity, hiring consultants that companies remain overwhelm- only fail if they ingly white. Now, as we emerge give up on trying.” are well versed in what it takes to dismantle embedded systems of from a traumatic year stained by a global pandemic and defined by a social bias. And it’s important that these efforts are justice movement, we have another oppor- transparent to public scrutiny and demontunity to reconcile our values through our strate a willingness for company leadership way of doing business. We can work proac- to be held accountable if they fail. “No matter what happens, an organizatively to create an industry in which everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, tion must be willing to share where they
are and why they are or aren’t achieving their goals,” Perkins says. “The learning is so much more valuable for the community when companies highlight the places where they’re not quite there yet, rather than producing a report strictly full of successes.” Companies must boldly claim their intentions to change and work within the broader community to achieve the goals we all desire. They must do a better job of reaching out to every sector of the population so that no one is left out. Marketing managers must create campaigns and media collateral that are culturally relevant to specific ethnic groups and racial identities so that people from all walks of life can see themselves represented. They must build relationships with institutions of higher learning, like Historically Black Colleges and Universities, to attract a more diverse pool of job applicants. Professional organizations like the Greening Youth Foundation, for example, offer a suite of skills and expertise to make direct introductions to campus career advisors and alumni mentors who can help. Hire them! Organizations must also create training programs that encourage the cultural competency of management teams that can establish workplace environments that are safe and supportive for all. Regarding marketing and communications efforts, we can’t simply show more Black and brown faces in social media posts and campaigns. Diversity initiatives should be authentic to the experience of community brand ambassadors, and those ambassadors must be fairly compensated for their time and expertise—not paid in gear or media exposure (see p. 98). As we venture back into the outdoors fully vaccinated, I fear that as an industry, we’re already starting to forget the shame and heartache of the last year. Once this “Oh shit!” moment has passed, I sincerely doubt that most institutions will stick to the pledges they made, however vague, and will opt instead for paths of least resistance. Motivated by fear, I believe we’ll see many companies opt for safe choices rather than risk the social media fallout from making a mistake while doing the important work of JEDI. Few will likely realize that they only fail if they give up on trying. Some might insist that things are different now, that this time the outdoor industry has truly changed. I don’t believe it has. For those who disagree, I pose a simple challenge: Dare to do better and prove me wrong. SUMMER 2021
Leaders are beginning to prioritize employee mental health. It’s about time. By Georgina Miranda
n March 22, a young man with a gun walked into a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, and opened fire, killing 10 people. For Jenn Dice, president and CEO of People for Bikes, the tragedy affected her both personally and professionally. People for Bikes has been based in Boulder for more than two decades, and immediately, Dice knew she needed to support her team. “After the initial shock subsided, we offered five counseling sessions at no cost for our staff,” Dice says, adding that there had already been concern about employee burnout prior to the shooting. “People are working earlier mornings and later evenings, at times forgetting to take those critical breaks—this all takes a toll on mental health.” According to Spring Health, a mental health platform for employers, 76 percent of U.S. employees are currently experiencing worker burnout. At the same time, the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention has stated that anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide are on the rise. And a study by the American Heart Association found that a diagnosis of major depressive disorder was associated with an average of 27 lost work days annually per employee, costing employers $4,426 a year. Although the mental health crisis is not new, it’s only intensified with a global pandemic, shootings, natural disasters, and ongoing racial injustice. But while external factors have definitely played a role in this crisis, so have our jobs: The American Psychological Association names the workplace as the third-leading cause of stress. Bicycle Transit Systems, a national bikeshare operator, took an integrated approach to its employees’ well-being by hiring Carniesha Kwashie as chief equity and strategy officer in fall 2020. Her role is to ensure that the company’s organizational strategies are driven by equitable practices and frameworks, and mental well-being is a key part of the equation. While many of the Bicycle Transit’s wellness efforts are employee led—such as its monthly Coffee and Conversation series
and weekly yoga, meditation, and movement offerings—Kwashie has also leaned on external experts to work through traumatic events impacting their community. In October 2020, when Walter Wallace Jr. was fatally shot by a police officer in Philadelphia, where Bicycle Transit is headquartered, Kwashie brought in a Black, male mental health professional to help address and unpack what employees were going through, especially Black males. Data can also be helpful tools for addressing mental health issues in the workforce. Garmin Health, a division of the GPS technology company, has an extensive portfolio of wearable devices that can anonymously collect data around stress and health metrics. For example, if a company’s peak stress time coincides with a shift change, steps can be taken to modify the process and alleviate tension. For companies that want to understand the pain points impacting their people, investing in wearable technology (see p. 76) could be a game changer. While data can help employers develop customized solutions around mental health, it’s equally important to cultivate personal
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leadership. Lani Cooper, founder and CEO of Mobot, makers of a two-in-one foam roller water bottle, stresses the need for leaders to learn to “put your own oxygen mask on first.” In 2016, Cooper suffered a traumatic brain injury that left her trying to run Mobot while relearning to speak. While she presented as healthy, she was fighting a battle within. For Cooper, it was an important lesson. “I believe we can end the stigma around speaking up about mental health and normalize asking for help,” says Cooper, whose own recovery required extensive therapy, both traditional and holistic. “As CEO, I strive to listen and lead with compassion, and an open mind and heart.” During the pandemic, Cooper repurposed time from the canceled in-person wellness classes Mobot typically offers to allow for 30-minute virtual check-ins. Leaders can play a critical role in the mental health crisis by being vulnerable and creating space for these sorts of conversations. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, eight out of 10 workers with a mental health condition list shame and stigma as factors that prevent them from seeking care. Aside from investing in an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), employers can also promote mindfulness apps like Calm, included in some insurance plans, and Headspace, which developed a free “for work” collection specifically designed to reduce stress and burnout and increase focus. After all, studies show healthier employees are more resilient, engaged, and productive. But like most things health, it’s important to treat the cause, not the symptom.
For a complete mental health resource guide, visit outsidebusinessjournal .com/issues/education/mental-health.
ILLUSTRATION BY ROBS & XOCHICALCO, ST.ART/ ISTOCK / GETTY IMAGES PLUS
CULTURE / 9 TO 5
JOIN US THIS WINTER. JANUARY 26-28, 2022 | DENVER, CO outdoorretailer.com
CULTURE / THE CONVO
so why isn’t the environmental movement focused on embracing many forms diversity? Instead, nagate-keeps ture has been weaponpeople out of ized against queer peomovements.” ple for forever—I was told that my queerness was unnatural. These spaces are gate-kept to anyone who doesn’t fit this perfect little mold, and I’m not perfect. I’m in progress. At the end of the day, you’re still a cisgender white male. How do you reconcile your privilege, platform, and popularity with the industry you want to see?
A conversation with Wyn Wiley, aka Pattie Gonia. By Kiran Herbert
n 2018, on a four-day backpacking trip along the Continental Divide, Wyn Wiley put on a pair of black, knee-high boots with six-inch heels he’d packed on a whim. In the process of kicking up dirt and parading over societal assumptions, his alter ego, Pattie Gonia, was born. Post-trip, Wiley created a new Instagram account and uploaded clips from the trail. In less than a week, @pattiegonia had 12,000 followers. Today, she has more than 340,000. Pattie’s fearlessness, love of “Mother Natch,” and unequivocal joy soon attracted outdoor brands, forcing her to grapple with just what type of influencer she wanted to be. What’s emerged is an advocate with an innate business savvy, a no-bullshit brand of environmentalism, and a deep commitment to elevating marginalized voices in the outdoor space.
Wiley, 28, agreed to answer some of our spicier questions about privilege, cancel culture, and industry accountability. But it was Pattie who showed up on our Zoom call, dressed to the nines. And as you’ll see from the following conversation, Pattie means business. You’ve shared on Instagram how you didn’t feel welcome in the climate movement as a gay man. Why not?
Growing up, I experienced the climate movement as an extremely white, cisgendered, and straight space—gate-kept by one-uppery and perfection. I saw no leaders that were BIPOC or queer that showed me that it was a space that would welcome my efforts. Diversity wasn’t embraced at all. Nature shows us that diversity is important to any environment,
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What would you say is another industry gatekeeper?
This is going to be controversial, but wokeness in many forms—especially in woke language and woke culture—gate-keeps people out of movements. If you need to
PHOTOS BY KAREN WANG
DON’T DRAG ME DOWN
I started doing Pattie because I needed a form of self-expression that liberated me as a queer person and created queer community for others. I’m extremely grateful for the following that’s come of it and it’s not something I take lightly. My goal is to bust through that door for myself but to also hold it open and create opportunities for other people, including those with less privilege than myself. This often looks like me passing on an opportunity and suggesting someone else for it. As Wyn, I do hold a lot of privilege. I look like and talk like and feel familiar to people who hold a lot of power in this industry. I want to utilize the familiarity to ally not only the queer community but also other diverse communities in the outdoors. For years before Pattie was born, I did creative direction for brands like Disney and adidas, which is another form of privilege. Because I understand and can speak marketing language, I’ve been able to make space for other people. That initially looks like creating diverse relationships built on trust and authenticity. Then, I build on those relationships by using my platform and privilege to amplify, volunteer for, and fundraise for diverse organizations and nonprofits. In fact, that’s my main priority outside of supporting my immediate team. I know I am a Beyoncé, but more often than not my role is to be a Kelly, you know?
PHOTOS BY KAREN WANG
That allows me to support people with no questions asked. To me, brand partnerships are just that, partnerships. It’s not just a sponsored post, it’s actual community impact and support. That’s what I’m excited to lead brands toward because that’s what actually has return on investment and value.
know a hundred little right things to say or wrong things that will get you canceled before you even have a conversation, that’s not practical. I’m not saying we should be disrespectful, but I think there’s a delicate balance. We need to make accommodations for people and we need to always listen to feedback. But I think we also need to not be so worried about saying the right things all the time.
from taking their first steps forward. We all need to divest our energy from cancel culture and allow for systems that work on restorative justice.
How do you feel about cancel culture?
We need to demand accountability from I’ve been approached and I believe in Patagobrands, but we also need to realize that nia’s potential, but what they have presentbrands and capitalism aren’t ed is not a partnership that would going to save us. What’s going create impact. When Patagonia is I know I am a to save us is the outdoor comready to step into a partnership to munity at large. Every single Beyoncé, but more increase diversity in the outdoors time I have a sponsored con- often than not my far beyond the queer community, tent opportunity, I earmark 25 role is to be a Kelly, I’m ready and I’ll do my best to to 100 percent of it for a givemake it happen. But I’m just not back to a nonprofit. My team you know?” taking the crumbs—and I don’t keeps track of where everything goes so that mean from a dollar standpoint. I’ll be far we stand by our ethics and so that every more interested in working with Patagosponsored undertaking has a community nia when I I see diversity represented at a component to it. C-suite level, but they’re not there yet.
I feel exhausted when I hear the words “cancel culture.” Like any tool, it can be used for good, but it can also be used to cause harm, and I think it’s causing a lot of harm right now. Cancel culture is a social media guillotine and it doesn’t allow for actual transformation. In the outdoor space, it’s often used as a weapon from one marginalized community against another to laterally oppress. It also creates this fear mindset that can keep potential allies and brands
Social media can feel like an endless series of campaigns or superficial activism. How do you reconcile that with bringing about real change?
Why haven’t you worked with Patagonia yet?
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Paying respect to outdoor awesomeness. By Kiran Herbert
GREENING UP THE OFFICE While many companies are pivoting to long-term remote work (see p. 24), Nikwax has gone all in on a new eco-friendly office space. Located in Seattle, the building uses 100-percent renewable energy and features solar panels, sustainably harvested wood construction, and a rooftop succulent garden that captures rainwater runoff. Plus, the company has worked hard to eliminate its paper use. “Finding a building that not only aligned with our position as a leader in sustainability, but was also convenient for our staff was important,” says Brian Davidson, president of Nikwax North America. Crucially, the building’s central location in the Ballard neighborhood makes commuting by transit, foot, or bike easy—one employee even Rollerblades to work. To further discourage car use, Nikwax provides a daily stipend for those who forgo single-occupancy vehicles, as well as a company e-bike for running local errands. REVISITING THE N-WORD Last summer, Carolyn Finney, PhD, a storyteller and cultural geographer, wrote a brief essay imagining a conversation with John Muir. Finney “called Muir in’’ to explore the erasure of Black people from history, showcasing how our conversations around nature and environmental decision-making might look different if their voices had been included. Finney has since turned that essay into a one-woman performance piece: “The N-Word: Nature, Revisited.” At press time, Finney planned to workshop the performance on July 14 and 22 at the New York Botanical Gardens for crowds of around 50 people each. “My goal is to create an intimate, emotional space,” Finney says, noting that she’ll be encouraging feedback and conversation. “That’s where the real change happens.” The three-part reading will juxtapose Muir’s representations of nature with Finney’s familial history and current events, tying together themes of mobility, exploration, and accountability.
The author with her son and trusty Dana Design pack
LEADING WITH PRIDE Outside, the company to which this magazine belongs, has a new, exemplary employee resource group (ERG): Outside and Proud. With 58 members (roughly 10 percent of the company), the ERG is the brainchild of Maren Larsen, an associate editor at Outside, who wanted to maintain a safe, supportive space for queer employees internally while also having a sizable external impact. “For many of us, the creation of this space marked the first time we felt comfortable being out in the workplace,” Larsen says, noting that allies are also welcome to join. In just a few months, the group has established a social presence (@outsideandproud) and launched a Pride Month photo contest. It’s also used company DEI funding to provide editorial grants for queer stories across brands and to launch a line of merch, the profits from which will be reinvested in other LGTBQ+ initiatives. SAYING GOODBYE? In early June, VF Corporation announced it would close down legacy travel company Eagle Creek by 2022. Eagle Creek started as Eagle Creek Mountain Packs in 1975, which founders Steve and Nona Barker launched with just $2,500. Over the next three decades, the brand flourished and its homegrown, familial culture became legendary. VF’s decision to shutter Eagle Creek sent shock waves throughout the industry. The Barkers, who say they have no regrets about selling the brand to VF in 2007, received an outpouring of support. The couple fervently hope Eagle Creek will endure in the hands of new owners who understand its potential. “Travel is an integral part of outdoor,” says Steve Barker. “And, you know, we did pioneer that niche.”
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A few years after I moved to Boulder, Colorado, I started dating Sean. It was the beginning of an adventure-seeking partnership that well outlasted our romance. Early into our relationship, Sean gifted me a Dana Design Bomb Pack, black and purple with light-blue webbing. It was my first real backcountry pack. I used it for our many hut excursions, on our backpacking trip around Colorado’s Four Pass Loop—where we unintentionally added a fifth pass—and on countless ski outings, where we muddled together while learning to telemark. Four years ago, Sean died of a stroke. It guts me to think about it still. But my pack remains by my side, some 25 years on, having outlasted Dana Design itself. And it’s in good shape. I’ve since passed it along to my son, 14, who’s starting to use it on hut trips of his own. It’s now his turn to fill it with memories.
PHOTO BY COURTESY
By Cindy Hirschfeld
Sustainability standards Packaging waste Waterproof/breathable membranes
PHOTO BY JESSE ALBANESE
This season’s newest gear, ranked
GEAR / OBJ 50
By Patrice & Justin La Vigne
While some brands halted production completely in the last year due to pandemic supply chain delays, others went full steam ahead. One thing’s for sure: There are still plenty of exciting new products to be found. And the people have spoken. After sifting through 181 submissions, more than 100 staffers, retailers, gear testers, and outdoor enthusiasts (Outside+ members) ranked the top items on a scale from 1 to 10 (higher numbers equal higher stoke). We averaged those scores to bring you this ranked list of the 50 most-coveted products of the spring/summer ’22 season. DEMOCRACY RULES
We’ll be honest: Some of these rankings surprised us editors. But that’s what happens when you sample a cross section of retailers, consumers, and staffers. To provide some transparency on how the votes shook out, we’ve indicated the top three picks (according to average scores) among each voting group.
TIE FOR THIRD
(1) NEMO DAGGER OSMO 2P
(2) BIG AGNES LOST RANGER 3N1
(3) HOT BENTO
THE PROMISE NEMO sets a new bar in the world of eco-friendly tents.
THE PROMISE You don’t need a quiver of sleeping bags to cover all the seasons.
THE PROMISE It’s like having your own personal microwave on the go.
THE DEETS This two-person shelter is made of NEMO’s OSMO fabric, a polyester ripstop base coated with a laminate layer that eliminates the use of harmful fire-retardant chemical additives, while still keeping the tent flame resistant. The composite weave has high strength and water repellency, yet weighs only 3 pounds 2 ounces. A bonus “tub” in the corner of the vestibule keeps gear from getting wet.
THE DEETS Two down bags are better than one. This 650-fill Downtek system consists of an outer bag rated to 50°F (men’s comfort rating) and an optional insert rated to 35°F. Combined, they’ll keep you warm down to 15°F. It all adds up to a package that won’t weigh you down, at 2 pounds 13 ounces.
THE DEETS Fill the container at home with anything you like—from leftover spaghetti Bolognese to chicken soup—keep cool until you’re ready to eat, then press a button to heat up your meal in 15 minutes. At 2 pounds 4 ounces, this product requires no power cords or boiling water, just battery power.
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ALL PHOTOS BY COURTESY
(4) NEMO TENSOR INSULATED
(5) ALTRA MONT BLANC
(6) MSR LOWDOWN REMOTE STOVE ADAPTER
THE PROMISE This popular pad is now much warmer.
THE PROMISE This shoe offers superior traction in a lightweight package.
THE PROMISE Cook safer with any stove.
THE DEETS NEMO upped the R-value from 3.5 to 4.2 with a continuous TPU film to prevent convective heat loss. Meanwhile, the weight remained virtually the same—15 ounces. Three inches of waffle construction maintains the stability and weight distribution.
THE DEETS Altra’s brand-new foam midsole means each footfall feels like hitting a pillow. The upper is hyperbreathable, but it’s the outsole that inspires confidence. A combination of micro and macro lugs up to 3 mm deep respond to loose scree and slick boulders.
THE DEETS This 6.3-ounce accessory works with any standard canister stove (MSR says it has only tested it on its stoves) to convert it to a more stable cooker by separating the gas canister from the burner and creating a lower center of gravity. You can control the flame valve from about a foot away, instead of directly underneath it, affording better and safer flame control.
ALL PHOTOS BY COURTESY
GEAR / OBJ 50
(7) GREGORY BALTORO AND DEVA 65/60
(8) LEKI MAKALU FX CARBON
(9) MSR FREELITE SERIES 1P TENT
THE PROMISE A pair of classics get a makeover.
THE PROMISE The consumer becomes the engineer with this trekking pole.
THE PROMISE It’s a spacious refuge for the solo camper.
THE DEETS This year’s Baltoro and Deva have an all-new, patented FreeFloat suspension system with 3D mesh and a foam-free design that permits more airflow. Compared to previous models, there’s more adjustability in the torso, shoulder harnesses, back panel, and hipbelt for a more customizable fit. Other improvements include enlarged hipbelt pockets, an attachment system for a bear spray holster, and a reduced carbon footprint with 31 percent less plastic in each pack.
THE DEETS A patented technology allows the user to exchange parts on this three-section trekking pole. Switching the lower section from a carbon piece to an aluminum one transforms it into a more durable four-season pole in just three minutes. Should a section break, you can just swap that piece out rather than replace the entire pole, reducing landfill waste. Plus, a new handle design offers maximum comfort and grip.
THE DEETS Even with 20 square feet of livability and 39 inches of peak height, this tent’s packed weight is 1 pound 5 ounces, which is 9 ounces lighter than the previous model. The finer details include DAC aluminum poles, cable ports on all the storage pockets, and no-curve door zippers that are easy to open one-handed.
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(10) FJÄLLRÄVEN ABISKO TREKKING TIGHTS PRO
(11) JETBOIL STASH
(12) IGNIK FIRECAN
THE PROMISE No need to feel constricted in hiking tights.
THE PROMISE It’s the lightest Jetboil cooking system ever.
THE PROMISE Enjoy the irresistible glow of a campfire without the danger of a wildfire.
THE DEETS The adjustable drawstring waist and polyester fabric allow freedom of movement, while the seat and knee areas are reinforced with Cordura for abrasion resistance. Secure a few items on the go in the envelope-like leg pockets.
THE DEETS Jetboil’s latest portable backcountry cooking system weighs just 7.1 ounces, yet boils water in 2 minutes 30 seconds. All parts of the stove nest in the .8-liter pot for better packability than the older models.
THE DEETS Most wildfires start with human activity like campfires. With more burn bans in place, this propane-powered steel fire pit makes campfires safer, plus the mesh sides circulate generous heat output. It’s also the size of a toaster oven and weighs 10 pounds, making it ideal for basecamping. Foldable legs add to the portability.
(13) THERM-A-REST PARSEC 32
(14) MOUNTAINFLOW BIKE LUBE
(15) DYNAFIT SKY DNA SHOE
THE PROMISE Three-season sleeping comfort for just over a pound.
THE PROMISE Use plants, not petroleum, to grease your bike.
THE PROMISE There’s a new way to lace your shoes.
THE DEETS This bag’s 800-fill Nikwax Hydrophobic Down makes it warm enough for those 30°F nights, yet still lightweight at 1 pound 8 ounces. The 100-percent recycled shell and liner are soft to the touch, and anti-snag zippers make ins and outs frustration free.
THE DEETS This plant-based lube not only provides long-lasting slickness and reduces friction on bike chains, but it’s nontoxic and better for the planet.
THE DEETS A grommet-and-loop lacing system eliminates pinch points and fully supports the entire foot, while still keeping the toebox roomy for speedy descents. And thanks to this shoe’s 4 mm drop from heel to toe, trail runners can easily navigate demanding inclines and declines, but with a lower-impact stride.
GEAR / OBJ 50
(16) HIBEAR ALL-DAY ADVENTURE FLASK
(17) BIOLITE BASECHARGE 600
(18) DEUTER SPEED LITE 21
THE PROMISE It’s the Swiss Army knife of insulated bottles.
THE PROMISE More off-the-grid juice for those modern-day electronics.
THE PROMISE Fast and light does not mean featureless.
THE DEETS Serve up the bevvie of your choice by swapping the components of this 32-ounce insulated bottle. A filter lets you infuse your water with cucumbers, a special lid makes pourover coffee, and a strainer enables cocktails over ice. Each bottle highlights a different artist. The wide mouth means easy cleaning without a bottle brush.
THE DEETS This 600-watt portable power station accommodates an array of devices, including a laptop, with multiple USB ports and DC sockets. Plug it in or attach it to a solar panel (sold separately) for recharging. At 15 pounds, it’s ideal for a basecamp office. For even more power, upgrade to the 1500-watt version.
THE DEETS This 21-liter pack weighs only 15 ounces, yet it’s full of surprises. The waist belt is detachable for lighter loads, there are multiple stretch and zippered pockets, and the pack is hydration compatible.
(19) DEEP APPAREL ECO SERIES MARLIN SUNSHIRT (M’S) (20) MAMMUT AENERGY WINDBREAKER
(21) OPINEL NO. 12 EXPLORE TICK REMOVER
THE PROMISE This shirt protects you and Mother Earth.
THE PROMISE Weaving two layers into one creates a comfortable microclimate.
THE PROMISE This knife is made for tick territory.
THE DEETS This layer may have started as 16 plastic bottles, but we think it’s current form—a quick-drying, antimicrobial polyester longsleeved shirt with UPF 50 sun protection—is a major improvement.
THE DEETS This lightweight jacket repels wind and water with its outer Pertex Equilibrium nylon fabric layer, while the inner layer uses finer yarns to create a denier gradient that mechanically moves moisture away from the body. Thanks to elasticized fabric inserts on the forearms, a cinchable hem, and a helmet-compatible hood, the fit is optimal.
THE DEETS Opinel’s No. 12 Explore contains a 4-inch steel blade that makes quick work of most camp chores, but this new version includes a tick remover. A plastic, wider-than-normal tweezer pulls out from the handle to pluck out ticks. There are three extra tools, including a whistle.
(22) OSPREY UNLTD ANTI-GRAVITY 64
(23) OUTDOOR RESEARCH HELIUM ASCENTSHELL JACKET (24) RUMPL NATIONAL PARKS ORIGINAL PUFFY BLANKET
THE PROMISE This could be the most comfortable pack ever.
THE PROMISE A new fabric combination delivers a more breathable and waterproof shell.
THE PROMISE Wrap yourself in your favorite national park.
THE DEETS Osprey has partnered with 3D-printing firm Carbon to bring a brand-new technology to backpacks (see p. 74). A latticework of elastomeric polyurethane creates a springy- yet-grippy lumbar pad that conforms to any lower back shape. Not only does it promise a more precise fit, but an updated adjustment system allows the user to fine-tune the harness and shoulder straps on the fly. But ouch: the price.
THE DEETS The update to the Helium Ascent comes from an exclusive collaboration with Pertex. The three-layer Pertex fabric has a 30-denier face and diamond-shaped filaments that lock together, increasing tear strength and abrasion resistance. The shell also has a very high waterproof rating of 15K. Even with the added durability, the jacket only weighs 11.5 ounces.
THE DEETS Made of recycled polyester, this blanket blurs the lines between indoor style and outdoor performance. The exterior has a DWR finish for stain and water resistance to protect the pretty designs that spotlight iconic national parks, such as Glacier, Denali, Grand Teton, and Olympic.
(25) MUSTANG SURVIVAL MIT 150 CONVERTIBLE PFD (26) HYDRO FLASK TANDEM COOLER CUP
(27) KAHTOOLA RENAGAITER
THE PROMISE This is the least bulky personal floatation device you ever did see.
THE PROMISE Have your second drink ready to go with this tandem cooler.
THE PROMISE This gaiter’s durable strap has a thousand-mile guarantee.
THE DEETS Pull the tab to auto-inflate this life vest or or just blow into the mouthpiece. Alternatively, water will trigger automatic inflation if you are unable to pull the tab for whatever reason. The minimalist membrane-inflatable technology separates the film from the nylon shell fabric for more comfort, and the inflation provides 38 pounds of buoyancy—more than three times what an average adult needs to float.
THE DEETS Keep two 12-ounce cans ice-cold and locked in place with this two-story, double-wall stainless steel cooler cup. Finish your first drink, then open the next one without even getting up from your camp chair. The flexible collar seals in the cold and keeps cans from jiggling.
THE DEETS One of the biggest failure points of a gaiter is the instep strap. That’s why this one— made from TPU—tucks into the lugs of any shoe or boot, and is rounded to deflect rather than get caught on terrain features. The DWR-coated nylon/polyurethane gaiter zips up over hiking shoes (it comes in two sizes) and seals out dirt, debris, and precipitation thanks to a drawcord, toggle lock, and lace hook.
GEAR / OBJ 50
28 30 33
(28) HOKA ONE ONE ZINAL
(29) SHEFLY APPAREL SUMMER HIKING PANT (W’S) (30) OMNIA STOVETOP OVEN
THE PROMISE Travel like a gecko: fast, light, and nimble.
THE PROMISE These pants make bathroom breaks easier for women on the go.
THE PROMISE Vanlifers and car campers now have a portable oven option.
THE DEETS At 8.5 ounces per shoe (m’s), this sneaker is featherlight. Not only does the Vibram outsole have maximum traction, but EVA foam layers in the midsole create durable, responsive cushioning.
THE DEETS No more dropping trou and exposing yourself to the elements. These pants unzip at the crotch for quick and easy pee breaks. The pants also feature four-way-stretch, anti-pilling, anti-snagging material with UPF sun protection and five pockets. Roll them up into capris and secure with snaps.
THE DEETS New to the U.S. market, the Omnia is a lightweight (1 pound 1 ounce) cooking system that works with any burner or heat source to make bread, baked ziti, or chocolate chip cookies. The stainless steel base directs heat upward, while the lid sends it back to create a cocoon of heat.
(31) HELLY HANSEN ODIN PRO SHIELD JACKET
(32) NORRØNA PACLITE GORE-TEX PANTS
(33) COSTA SANTIAGO
THE PROMISE This fleece crosses over into the waterproof category.
THE PROMISE You’ll opt for these svelte shell pants even when it’s not raining.
THE DEETS Designed for shifting mountain conditions, this layer pairs DWR-treated nylon with a gridded interior fleece to create a watertight fabric with breathability, stretch, and abrasion resistance. Zippered pockets, elastic sleeves, and an adjustable hood make this fleece even more versatile.
THE DEETS Gore-Tex fabric guarantees complete wind- and waterproofness while dots on the interior lining create higher friction and keep the fabric off the skin. The bottom leg portion is three-layer Gore-Tex with a 30-denier face fabric for increased durability. Other elements include side zippers for ventilation and a bootlace hook.
THE PROMISE Fishing line takes 600 years to break down. Costa gives it new life in these sunglasses.
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THE DEETS Costa collects fishing nets from the coast of Santiago, Chile, and turns them into polarized shades. Not only are they sustainable, but they’re also big on comfort with rubber grips on the nose and arms, side shields, and vented nose pads.
(34) ORTOVOX VALBON PANTS
(35) OBOZ LENA MID (W’S)
(36) HILLSOUND EQUIPMENT PACKSTACK PRO
THE PROMISE Climb comfortably with an ergonomic fit.
THE PROMISE These lifestyle boots deliver a dose of vintage style.
THE DEETS With their wide thighs, shaped knees, and tapered ankle cuffs, plus their blend of organic cotton, hemp, and merino wool, these climbing pants are both comfortable and long lasting. The three strategically placed pockets jive with a climbing harness, and the Tasmanian merino wool inside the waistband prevents chafed hips.
THE DEETS The midcut boots slip on easily thanks to the stretchy knit upper, while the long laces tighten for support around the ankle. There’s also a story to tell behind the shoe, as its namesake is a famous gender activist from the early 1900s, Lena Mattausch.
THE PROMISE These pack accessories mean wet socks will never touch snacks in the backcountry.
(37) YOUER GET AFTER IT SKORT (W’S)
(38) SCARPA GOLDEN GATE ATR
(39) KOKATAT WKNDR
THE PROMISE Go hike, run, or hang in these shorts.
THE PROMISE Run on a cloud, no matter the terrain.
THE PROMISE This life vest is designed for the higher seats in modern kayaks.
THE DEETS Hiking skorts are the best of both worlds—they offer equal parts protection and good looks. This mid-rise skort is made of recycled poly with a touch of spandex for stretch, and a roomy gusset.
THE DEETS Using a combination of both medium- and low-density EVA foam, the Golden Gate provides strategically placed impact absorption and energy rebound in the heel and forefoot. A breathable mesh outer keeps it lightweight (10.2 ounces per shoe for m’s size 42).
THE DEETS The thin foam back panel accommodates higher seat backs for a comfortable paddling excursion. Between the adjustable padding on the shoulders, the sculpted front foam that wraps around the torso, and the side adjustments, this PFD provides a safe and precise fit. Two pockets warm hands in between strokes and casting the reel.
THE DEETS Designed to stack neatly inside any pack, these waterproof, crescent-shaped chambers help separate wet from dry and smelly from clean. The curved back edge cradles hydration reservoirs, so there’s no dead space in your bag.
GEAR / OBJ 50
(40) CRAFTY WEKA BAR
(41) BRIDGER HIGHLINE HELMET
(42) SUPERFEET ADAPT RUN
$2.40 (1.4-ounce bar)/$3.99 (2.6-ounce bar)
THE PROMISE These bite-sized bars are packed with big flavor and nutrients.
THE PROMISE Year-round and multisport protection can exist in one helmet.
THE PROMISE These insoles make running more comfortable.
THE DEETS Full of nuts, oats, seeds, and New Zealand’s famous Manuka honey, this dense bar may be no bigger than a bar of soap, but it delivers 6 grams of protein, 190 calories, and 7 grams of fiber. Of the four flavors, the tester favorites are berry beetroot and orange date.
THE DEETS Thanks to patent-pending technology in the outer shell, users can alter this helmet’s ventilation and utility from bike commuting to mountain biking to snow sports. The whole ABS shell is interchangeable, while the bike brim and ear pads are removable, allowing the helmet to match the season and sport.
THE DEETS Dual foam layers provide a cradle for the heel and cushioning in the forefoot. The angulation in the heel area dispenses vibrations and lessens force during the foot strike for more natural shock absorption.
(43) SALEWA WILDFIRE 2
(44) CHACO CANYONLAND (W’S)
(45) DAHLGREN LEGACY SOCK
THE PROMISE This shoe takes you from the approach to the top of the climb.
THE PROMISE Go from land to lake to land again, all in the same shoe.
THE DEETS A highly ventilated mesh upper and a sticky rubber outsole make the Wildfire 2 agile yet tough. And by tightening the toebox, you can convert this shoe from hiking to climbing mode. A built-in stretch gaiter keeps out debris during technical approaches.
THE DEETS With a mesh upper, polyester lacing, removable arch support, and nonabsorbent foam, this shoe is built for wet conditions. Synthetic toe overlays and a rubber outsole give it grip on slippery terrain. And at less than 10 ounces per pair, they’re packable.
THE PROMISE Dahlgren, a beloved sock company of yore, is aiming to make a comeback with the Legacy.
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THE DEETS Alpaca, merino wool, and nylon fibers in the toe and heel area translate to high absorption and fewer holes, while polyester, nylon, and spandex elsewhere provide evaporation and wicking.
(46) NITE IZE HOOKLOCK LOCKING BUNGEE
(47) MOUNTAIN HARDWEAR TRAIL SENDER SHORTS
THE PROMISE Avoid the “ouch” of bungee cord snaps.
THE PROMISE These polyester shorts will become a go-to in your summer wardrobe.
THE DEETS This bungee cord locks back onto itself for security, so it won’t break or whip back at you. There’s a steel hook that connects to the cord to prevent potential injuries, but you can also fasten it to grommets, D-rings, or other small openings.
THE DEETS The drawcord waist keeps these shorts adjustable and comfortable for everything from dayhiking to trail running. Two hand pockets and a zippered thigh pocket carry a snack or phone. The polyester fabric ensures abrasion resistance all season long.
(49) REAL FOOD BAR ESPRESSO CHIP
(50) BENCHMADE 535BK-4 BUGOUT
THE PROMISE Get your afternoon espresso shot in a protein bar.
THE PROMISE This updated blade is ready for rugged environs.
THE DEETS Real Food turns imperfect produce— kale, sweet potato, and cauliflower—into this, a vegan, soy-, dairy-, and gluten-free bar with 15 grams of plant protein, 10 grams of prebiotic fiber, 7 grams of natural sugar, and 12 grams of carbs. The full shot of espresso (65 mg of caffeine) in each bar will deliver that extra boost of energy.
THE DEETS The newest edition of the Bugout is made with M390 blade steel, which offers durability and corrosion resistance. The aircraft-grade aluminum handle is engraved with a sunbeam line that is not only artsy, but also improves grip and functionality.
(48) RAWLOGY WELLENERGY COLD SOAK BLUEBERRY LEMON ZEST $6 (single serving)/$20 (4-pack) THE PROMISE Everyone loves dessert for breakfast. THE DEETS Rolled oats mixed with cashew milk, lemon, and blueberries sure sounds better than plain oatmeal. All you need to do is soak the mixture in water (in its sealable bag) before bed to enjoy this unique cold cereal dish for breakfast. It’s packed with 417 calories, 20 grams of fat, 46 grams of carbs, and 13 grams of protein to supply all-day energy on the trail.
Calling All Retailers Want to join our voting team and help us decide which products to feature in the next round of OBJ 50? Just send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
GREEN NEW WORLD
The outdoor industry is doubling down on sustainability tools and standards to measure and mitigate its environmental impact. Is it working? By Jacob Baynham
ourteen years ago, about 60 representatives from outdoor brands piled into a hotel conference room in Boulder, Colorado, to talk about establishing a sustainability standard for the outdoor industry. At the time, companies could make wild claims about sustainability without ever being held to account. Kevin Myette was there, then as director of product integrity for REI. “We were not speaking the same language,” he recalls. “It was like we were from different planets.” The group lacked common definitions and consensus on where to focus for the greatest impact. But they rolled up their sleeves and created the Eco Index, which has since been renamed the Higg Index. The Index, which is now managed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), has grown into a sophisticated toolbox that can assess the water use, carbon emissions, and labor conditions throughout a company’s supply network. Today more than 500 brands use the Higg Index and more than 13,000 production facilities around the world report their sustainability footprint through one of its modules. “We can’t manage what we don’t measure,” says Ammi Borenstein, CEO of Snaplinc Consulting, “and the Higg Index is the best ruler we have.” In May, SAC announced a new transparency program in which brands will disclose a scorecard ranking the sustainability of their materials. Columbia, Norrøna, and Salomon are early participants. Ratings for manufacturing and corporate responsibility will be added by 2023. By 2025, SAC aims to have all members—currently more than 250 brands—participating so that consumers can evaluate products the same way they compare granola bars on a supermarket shelf. “That’s the holy grail,” says Borenstein, who advises brands on sustainability. “There’s no judgment, just like on a nutrition label.”
Presenting consumers with socially and environmentally vetted goods was the inspiration behind REI’s Product Impact Standards, a set of requirements for the products it sells. If the Higg Index is a thermometer telling a brand how cold it is outside, REI’s standards are like its mother telling it to put on a coat and hat. REI decided that all products containing problematic chemicals like BPA, flame retardants, and oxybenzone were out. Vendors would be required to create a manufacturing code of conduct to uphold environmental and fair labor practices. Down and wool would have to be ethically sourced, and carbon footprint assessments and reduction plans were required. Last year REI’s standards got an update: New requirements include diversity and inclusion in marketing and safeguards against cultural appropriation. Three years in, REI’s more than 1,000 brand partners are still scrambling to be more socially and environmentally conscious. “For brands that were on the fence as to whether or not this was important, they’re
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off,” says Myette, who now directs global brand services for BLUESIGN. “REI has set a bar. People could argue it’s not high enough, but it’s been positive for the entire industry.” Complying with the standards can be burdensome for small to midsize companies with diverse product lines. By 2030, a brand selling down, wool, and synthetics would need to be certified several times over—an expensive and arduous process. REI’s manager of product sustainability, Greg Gausewitz, acknowledges some brands, already buffeted by the pandemic, wish they had more resources to invest in sustainability and inclusion. But he says REI is ready to collaborate with each brand to help them meet the new standards. “Change takes time,” Gausewitz says. “We hope to set an example that other industries can follow.” Borenstein says REI’s new requirements have spurred industry-wide changes on a scale rarely seen without regulation and legislation. Brand responses have been meaningful and far reaching. A sampling: Outdoor Research joined the BLUESIGN system and became a member of OIA’s Climate Action Corps. Big Agnes has committed to using 100-percent renewable energy for its U.S. facilities and started using solution dyeing for some of its tent models—a process that saves energy and water. Selk’bag, a small Chilean company that makes insulated bodysuits, joined 1% for the Planet and began using postconsumer recycled materials. “The REI standards are moving our industry forward in a way that wasn’t happening before,” Borenstein says. “It was happening in pieces, and some brands were way out front. But to move the whole industry forward? It takes a company like REI to do that.”
ILLUSTRATION BY SON OF ALAN
GEAR / ECOFRONT
Ditching plastic packaging |
Air-permeable membranes |
2021 TREND REPORT
PHOTO BY H. ARMSTRONG ROBERTS/ RETROFILE RF/GETTY IMAGES
GEAR / TREND REPORT
GEAR / TREND REPORT
After testing Vela’s paper bags over several seasons—and loving the results— prAna decided to switch. By August, prAna’s packaging will be 100-percent plastic free.
PLAGUED BY PLASTIC The outdoor industry is tackling its plastic packaging problem, one polybag at a time. By Kade Krichko
wo years ago, Florian Palluel hit a crossroads. His employer, the France-based company Picture Organic Clothing, had emerged as a sustainability-driven player in the outdoor industry, building technical snow and surf apparel from recycled and organic materials while maintaining a minimal carbon footprint. The company had even secured B Corp certification, a status reserved for businesses that meet the highest standard of social and environmental performance. But, as Picture’s newly elected sustainability manager, Palluel had found a significant crack in his company’s green exterior. “We were honestly not that good on packaging,” he says. Like many companies in the outdoor space, Picture relied heavily on plastic polybags to protect its products in transit. For Palluel, it was a harsh realization that Picture, despite its sustainability efforts, was actually contributing to one of the industry’s stickiest problems. He began to research packaging alterna-
tives, contacting larger outdoor companies like prAna and tentree that were already on their own sustainable-packaging journeys. Both had opted to roll-pack their soft goods, then pack multiples into a large master polybag instead of individually wrapping them, which helped each company drastically reduce single-use plastic waste in its packaging. But roll-packing requires human intervention, training, and tends to cut into efficiency—and therefore profit—which is why it’s not more widely adopted. In 2018, REI released its Product Impact Standards (p. 56), challenging outdoor companies to step up their sustainability efforts across the board, or be left out of REI storefronts. For Picture, the call to action couldn’t have been louder. Within a year the company had its own system in place, combining the roll-pack method with a third-party package reuse company. So far, the brand has reduced its polybag use by 53 percent, while removing 425,000 polybags from its supply chain. Pal-
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luel acknowledges that there’s still plenty of work left to do. “When you want to remove polybags, it can’t be done overnight,” Palluel says. “It’s a process.” For prAna, that process has been over a decade in the making. The clothing company first pledged to eliminate polybags back in 2010 and estimates that it has taken over 20 million plastic bags out of the supply chain during that time, according to prAna Director of Sustainability Rachel Lincoln. Still, the company has since realized that its individual impact isn’t enough to curb the problem—it needed to get other brands on board. “We should be sharing our secret sauce with other brands wanting to make the switch to responsible packaging,” Lincoln says. Collaboration Is Key Driven by that desire, prAna started the Responsible Packaging Movement (RPM) in August 2020. RPM offers members edu-
PHOTOS COURTESY OF PRANA
cational resources like how-to guides and a live speaker series to help brands like Picture start their own shifts toward sustainable packaging. There are currently 77 brands that have joined RPM from the outdoor industry and beyond. RPM isn’t the only show in town. The Plastic Impact Alliance (PIA) launched in 2019 after Kristin Hostetter (editorial director of Outside Business Journal) wrote an editor’s note about the outdoor industry’s plastic waste problem at Outdoor Retailer. The letter sparked so much interest that she decided to form a coalition of brands to share ideas and bring about change. The PIA currently has more than 400 members—companies across the outdoor industry dedicated to eliminating plastic waste from their businesses. Last summer, PIA members exhibiting at Outdoor Retailer hosted 170 water stations around the show floor and found reusable solutions for their in-booth show events, nixing untold plastic bottles from the show floor. And a new, private PIA LinkedIn forum serves as a place where members can collaborate, share, and brainstorm solutions. “Water bottles and cups at trade shows were the low-hanging fruit,” Hostetter says. “Packaging—and in particular polybags—is much harder to eliminate. But the problem is real. Retailers have sent me photos of mountains of polybags they get saddled with every time a shipment comes in.” PIA member NEMO recently launched an innovative partnership with DAC (also a member), dubbed the 100K Polybag Elimination Project, to replace the polybags that encase tent poles with reusable REPREVE fabric ones. Both companies are hoping the initiative takes off—Big Agnes, Hilleberg, and REI are already in talks with DAC. Next up for NEMO is tackling the larger polybags used to ship sleeping bags. There are plenty of other brands reimagining the way goods travel. Picture has teamed up with Finnish shipping company RePack to help recapture packaging from consumers instead of tossing more garbage into landfills. Picture buys the packaging from RePack and provides postage for consumers to send empty packages back to RePack, where it is sold back to Picture, essentially “closing the loop” and using far less energy than traditional recycling, says Palluel. Toad&Co has been using a similar reusable shipping bag (LimeLoop) since 2018. But an even bigger challenge lies beyond direct-to-consumer shipping. After all, most
product reaches the U.S. wrapped in polybags from manufacturing centers in Asia and Europe. “We told our factory in Turkey that if the bigger brands like prAna can make the shift away from plastic packaging, there’s no reason for Picture not to do it as well,” Palluel says. And it worked.
by over 400 environmental advocacy groups. Congress is set to vote on it later this year. “We are definitely headed in the right direction,” Lincoln says. “Both brands and manufacturers want this change—unraveling the system will just take time.”
Raising the Bar The industry-wide accountability established by RPM and PIA is proving to be a powerful driver of change, but the outdoor industry is also targeting change at the legislative level. PrAna and other outdoor brands have begun working with 5 Gyres—a nonprofit dedicated to ending global plastic pollution—to demand legal action. The nonprofit helped introduce the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 in Congress, an act that forces companies producing plastics to either develop sustainable end-of-life solutions for plastics or turn away from them altogether. The act didn’t pass in 2020, but was reintroduced in 2021 backed
Join the Plastic Impact Alliance. You’ll get access to a private LinkedIn forum where members share ideas, solutions, and challenges. tinyurl.com/jointhePIA
Roll-packing, a system pioneered by prAna, is catching on among other apparel makers.
GEAR / TREND REPORT
Polartec’s NeoShell and eVent took the hardshell scene by storm more than a decade ago—only to be outshone by proprietary versions of the same stuff. Can these brands mount a comeback?
nce upon a time, Gore-Tex dominated the waterproof/breathable membrane landscape. Until, that is, upstarts eVent and Polartec’s NeoShell hit the market. These waterproof membranes promised superior breathability by permitting the passage of air (membranes that are vapor permeable, like Gore-Tex, do not). Fast-forward to today, and air-permeable membranes are everywhere. The North Face, Helly Hansen, and Outdoor Research have all jumped on the air-perm bandwagon within the last few years by developing proprietary formulas. These brands join early adopters such as Flylow, Strafe, and Westcomb, which embraced the original air-permeable technologies when they debuted. EVent gained traction among outdoor brands in 2008, and the first NeoShell garments hit the market in 2011.
Yet the recent surge of new air-perm membranes has largely overshadowed the branded options that got the party started in the first place. Flylow, Marmot, and Strafe no longer use NeoShell. REI, Rab, and Mountain Hardwear have stopped using eVent (which Mountain Hardwear marketed as DryQ Elite). That’s surprising, given the stacks of performance accolades that eVent and NeoShell collected over the years from outdoor publications. Cycling pubs raved about the debut rainwear made with eVent, and Westcomb earned Backpacker’s 2012 Editors’ Choice Snow Award for its women’s Fuse LT Jacket and men’s Shift Hoody, which used NeoShell (and still do). “Companies like Polartec and eVent know these air-permeable fabrics are the way of the future and are bringing to the market more and more waterproof, breath-
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able outerwear,” Strafe declared in 2016 on its company blog. But since that heyday, Schoeller has entered the air-perm market with aerobrane (used in Strafe’s Cham Jacket), and outerwear companies have developed their own air-permeable layups, such as Futurelight from The North Face and The Perm from Flylow. NeoShell “started with a splash, but ultimately, never reached its potential,” acknowledges Polartec president Steve Layton. Production difficulty is partly to blame. “All phases of the process are challenging,” he says of making the electrospun polyurethane membrane, which is composed of a mesh of microscopic fibers and the many air pockets between them. “Our supplier ran into some serious issues that kept us from taking it mainstream.”
PHOTO BY NINJA KRAMER / EYEEM VIA GETTY IMAGES
By Kelly Bastone
PHOTO BY NINJA KRAMER / EYEEM VIA GETTY IMAGES
Worldwide, only a handful of factories have the capability to produce electrospun, air-permeable membranes (and one membrane factory in Korea burned down in 2018, which didn’t help matters). Polartec had to iron out the production kinks of a brandnew technology; once it did, it became easier for factories to produce spin-offs for other brands. There were additional hangups with NeoShell, says Flylow cofounder and owner Dan Abrams. “NeoShell maxes out at 10K waterproofness, which I personally know to be sufficient, but it doesn’t sell as well as 20K,” he says. After searching in vain for a 20K air-permeable membrane that could stretch, Abrams worked with Denver-based manufacturer Intuitive Fabrics to develop a proprietary formula that met his specs. “Polartec was the middleman between us and the fabric mill,” Abrams says. Eliminating the intermediary has allowed Flylow to address design and production problems more quickly. It’s also expanded the array of available fabric options. “With NeoShell, you had a limited number of fabric choices, so it was pretty likely that you’d see the same fabrics being used by different [outerwear] companies,” he says. “Going proprietary, I
can have anything under the sun, so I can actually innovate.” Strafe also took a hiatus from NeoShell; its line now includes eVent, aerobrane, and a proprietary air-permeable blend called Recon Elite 3L. Outdoor Research developed its proprietary AscentShell out of a similar desire to exploit a broader range of fabrics. Another advantage of going proprietary is cost savings, says Alex Lauver, the brand’s director of commercial innovation. “Everyone needs to make their profit, so the costs are higher [with a branded membrane], which directly impacts the end consumer,” he explains. “Our vertical supply chain allowed us access to the exact same membrane at ‘wholesale pricing’—if you want to think of it like that— with the ability to experiment and tweak.” Such pricing advantages let Outdoor Research sell its most premium AscentShell jacket (the Skyward II) for $350. But its pinnacle hardshell, the Archangel Jacket, uses a Gore-Tex Pro membrane—and costs $699. Lauver says that AscentShell and Gore-Tex play well together, because they offer consumers a choice. “Do you care about extreme comfort? Or extreme weather protection?” he asks. However, Abrams maintains that folding Gore-Tex into a mixed lineup of membranes isn’t an easy feat. “As a licensing partner, Gore-Tex wants exclusivity,” he explains. “My
“The recent surge in air-perm membranes has largely overshadowed the branded options that got the party started in the first place.”
understanding is that it needs to be your topend offering. That may mean you can’t also offer NeoShell, or you can’t offer air-perm as your most premium product.” For now, The North Face (which didn’t respond to requests for comment) appears to have decided not to play the Gore-Tex game. In the fall of 2019, the brand released its own electrospun membrane. Futurelight is air permeable like NeoShell, but also zonable, which allows for variations in breathability across a single garment. Thus The North Face is pushing air-permeable technology into new heights of functionality—something that some apparel brands feel that NeoShell has failed to do. The North Face also put unprecedented
marketing power behind its air-permeable option when it launched. Consequently, this behemoth’s entry into the air-perm competition “has actually helped us, because it validates the story we’ve been telling for almost a decade,” says Zach Hayes of Strafe. And consumers don’t seem to be picky about which air-permeable membrane brands use. Flylow’s Abrams says he didn’t see any dip in sales after switching from NeoShell to the proprietary Perm. “Retailers apparently didn’t care, because they have to educate consumers about everything that isn’t Gore-Tex” anyway, he says. “It doesn’t matter if they’re explaining NeoShell or our proprietary version.” Another name in the “not Gore-Tex” slush pile is eVent, which is typically an air-permeable version of the ePTFE membrane favored by Gore-Tex (eVent’s current spectrum of membranes also includes non-ePTFE materials). The brand has encountered its own set of challenges. Unlike NeoShell, eVent has always enjoyed a strong supply chain, says Chad Kelly, eVent’s president. But eVent was hobbled by lackluster backing from its former parent companies (BHA, General Electric, Clarcor, and Parker Hannifin). “We have always been an adjacent business within an industrial filtration company, where we were never really the focus of investment and resources,” Kelly explains. But that’s changing. In June 2020, textile specialist Performax Pro bought eVent and is already supercharging the membrane’s applications, Kelly says. Now, eVent offers 15 air-permeable membranes that fit a range of applications, from pinnacle products to entry-level models. One of those membranes even features sustainability cred: At the January 2020 Outdoor Retailer show, eVent debuted a bio-based membrane made of castor beans that are converted into a nylon resin that’s recyclable and biodegradable. The first garments to use eVent BIO will hit the market in fall 2022 (eVent declined to name its partner brands). Polartec also claims to be caching ammunition for a NeoShell comeback. According to Layton, Polartec has developed a sustainability innovation for NeoShell that will be unveiled this November. “We’ll be pushing really cool things that are in the works,” he promises. “Imitation is the highest form of flattery. But it forces us to innovate and to ask, ‘What’s the next problem we can solve?’” Will it be enough to lure brands back to Polartec and eVent? Time will tell. SUMMER 2021
GEAR / TREND REPORT Circularity
WASTE NOT, WANT NOT
More brands are reducing waste by selling used and upcycled gear. It’s good for the environment, but it’s also good for the bottom line. By Jacob Baynham
ne day last summer, Anne Wiper, Smartwool’s vice president of product innovation, found herself in her kitchen, jamming old socks into her Cuisinart. On average, a garbage truck’s worth of textiles is thrown away every second, and Wiper knew that socks are one of the most discarded items. She wanted to see what would happen if she blended some up. What would the consistency be? Could they be repurposed into something new? Dozens of outdoor brands have been exploring creative ways to keep their gear out of landfills, either by upcycling scrap material into new items or by collecting, repairing, and reselling used products. “There’s business value and environmental value,” says Amy Horton, senior director for sustainable business innovation at Outdoor Industry Association. “The outdoor industry is in a unique position for reuse. We make gear that’s meant to last a long time and stand up to quite a bit of wear and tear.” The concept of upcycled outdoor gear goes back at least to 2009, when JanSport launched a collection of backpacks made from the scraps of old packs returned under warranty. Since its founding in 2014, Cotopaxi has made scrap materials part of its aesthetic. In 2019, Patagonia launched its ReCrafted program, making new products from remnants of its old clothes. This spring, NEMO introduced the Chipper, a foldable seat cushion made of foam scraps reclaimed from its sleeping pad production, and Fjällräven announced a collection called Samlaren (Swedish for “gatherer”), which uses surplus fabric to make funky, multitoned jackets, backpacks, and totes. The trend is gaining traction in tech, too. In March, a British sustainable design company called Gomi launched a portable speaker made from the repurposed battery cells of Lime e-bikes. “It’s great to see all of these brands piloting ways to reclaim materials and remanu-
facture them into something else,” Horton says. “But to really scale it throughout the industry you have to think about whole new business models that allow you to grow without being dependent on making new stuff from new materials.” And that’s precisely what many outdoor companies are trying to do. No brand has turned upcycling into a cash cow as of yet, and the collections are typically small, niche, and short-lived. But the potential is there: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that $100 billion worth of textile fibers are thrown away each year. Upcycled products can also appeal to a broader customer base— Fjällräven’s Samlaren collection, for example, is sold at retailers like Nordstrom and Urban Outfitters. This pursuit of circularity—where a prod-
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uct is kept in use for as long as possible and then recycled—is accelerating in the outdoor industry. In 2019, the resale market grew 25 times faster than traditional retail, according to GlobalData Retail. Younger consumers are especially drawn to secondhand stuff. Traditional retailers like REI have vast inventories of used gear, and third-party vendors like Trove and The Renewal Workshop help brands refurbish and resell their used apparel and gear. “Each one of our products has a footprint,” says Corey Simpson, communications manager for Patagonia, which launched its Worn Wear program in 2017. “We want you to buy it for the right reasons, care for it, repair it when needed, and give it back to us at the end of its life for recycling.” In May, Arc’teryx announced its ReBird platform to sell used, repaired, and upcycled gear. “It’s a growth opportunity,” says Katie Wilson, Arc’teryx’s senior manager for social and environmental sustainability. “And it’s legitimately good for the environment as well. I hope we can transform ourselves into a business that does more good the more we grow.” As for Wiper’s blended-up socks, turns out they make great stuffing. Smartwool collected tens of thousands of old socks and will use them to make dog beds it will sell come fall. It’s the pilot program of the brand’s sustainability road map that envisions 100 percent circularity by 2030. “This is just the beginning,” says Alicia Chin, Smartwool’s senior manager of sustainability and social impact. “We want to spin old socks into new yarn to make beanies, gloves, and even new socks.” Sometimes moving forward looks like going around in a circle.
PHOTO BY COURTESY
Arc’teryx’s Stowe Windshell ReBird is made from endof-the-roll fabric swatches that would otherwise go to waste.
PRODUCTS, BRANDS, AND SERVICES YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT
What if you could instantly transform your everyday glasses into prescription sunglasses? Enter EyKuver—the most useful eyewear accessory to keep outdoor lovers moving, even if you forget your primary prescription sunglasses. Our tinted UV films are portable, affordable, and disposable to help keep you and your eyes outside and protected.
We think creatively about how to communicate in a busy digital world. That doesn’t always mean winning an award; it might be acquiring the top search engine result for a target customer keyword. Or running a large affiliate media campaign to support a product launch. Or all of the above (plus a few awards). Regardless of strategy, we’ll make your brand noticed.
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At Meteorite PR, we believe in the outdoors, sustainability, and the gear used to pursue nature’s best experiences. We pride ourselves on being product and lifestyle experts to our core. Brand builders with a passion for PR, you never know what we’ve got up our sleeve. meteoritepr.com #MeteoritePR
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Join the 400+ outdoor brands committed to eliminating single-use plastic from their businesses. And now, you can gain access to our members-only LinkedIn group where members can collaborate and share. Learn more and join today at: tinyurl.com/jointhePIA
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31 WAYS IS TRANSFORMING OUR INDUSTRY The world of outdoor business sure feels a long way from Silicon Valley. But make no mistake: Technology has become the backbone of the industry, guiding everything from the way we run our businesses and communicate with each other to how we design new gear and battle climate change. Are you up to speed?
ILLUSTRATION BY ROBS / IMAGES OF OUR LIVES / THE IMAGE BANK; GETTY IMAGES
BATTLE OF THE B2Bs As the world gets used to doing more business online, B2B e-commerce providers are sparring for market leadership in the outdoor industry. Dozens of brands have yet to choose a platform. Welcome to open season.
n Cody, Wyoming, there’s a little gear shop called Sunlight Sports that sits right at the center of town—loved and frequented by locals since 1971. It houses about 8,000 square feet of retail space but feels even cozier than that, a neighborhood shop by any definition. It’s the kind of place where, browsing the aisles and picking through the gear, you might find yourself thinking, “Hell, I could run an outdoor store. How hard could it be?” Air that thought to owner Wes Allen and he may chuckle as he walks you to the shop computer. There on the desktop, he keeps an Excel document that has gained almost mythic status among some members of the outdoor retail community. He might even pat you sympathetically on the shoulder as he opens the file, watching your jaw drop. The document is a list of passwords—111 of them—each corresponding to a different B2B wholesale portal Allen uses to place inventory orders with brands. Somehow, in the year 2021, it requires more than nine dozen B2Bs to run a single gear shop in the middle of Wyoming. In our industry, the absurdity of that predicament isn’t an anomaly. It’s the standard. “Wes’s list represents something fairly common,” says Rich Hill, executive director at Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, the nation’s largest association of independent outdoor retailers. “Obviously, something is very wrong here.” 66 O U T S I D E B U S I N E S S J O U R N A L
If you don’t work in retail, it’s possible you’ve never interacted with a B2B, but it’s not hard to picture how they operate. You find the products you want to order for your store, key in some details, and click “buy.” The business model is equally simple. In general, brands pay to use these systems, while retailers access them for free. Much like the fantasy of running a gear shop, though, it’s a lot more complicated under the hood. Right now, there’s a race going on in the outdoor industry. B2Bs are still in their infancy, but it’s obvious—as Allen’s 111 passwords prove—that they’re widely used and will factor critically into the future of outdoor retail. The market now is chaotic. You have small, boutique B2B companies serving a brand here and a brand there. You have massive platforms, funded by multimillion-dollar corporations, representing companies like Patagonia and The North Face. And you have some vendors with their own proprietary B2Bs, further muddying the waters. It’s a frustrating potpourri of overlapping technologies, nearly unmanageable for most shops, ripe for a good old-fashioned rollup. Good news, retailers: We may be on the brink of one.
HOW B2BS CAME TO BE The history of B2Bs is long, full of mergers, and probably too wonky for the tastes of most. But it’s critical to understanding where we are today. In the outdoor industry, the B2B market started in 2000,
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By Andrew Weaver
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when a firm called CenterStone Technologies got off the ground in Denver. CenterStone’s product catered mainly to apparel and footwear companies, and it enjoyed plenty of early success. The tech was sensible, eliminating much of the headache of faxing paper order sheets, which was business as usual at the time; outdoor brands and retailers were quick to adopt it. Over the next 20 years, CenterStone inspired competitors in the space. In 2003, another player cropped up, PlumRiver Technologies, which started to nab market share quickly. CenterStone responded by expanding in 2005, launching a new platform called iVendix. In 2009, another challenger entered the scene, Elastic Suite. Then the acquisitions started. PlumRiver jumped first. The company bought Elastic in 2016 and CenterStone in 2018, increasing its market share exponentially. In 2020, sensing the need for consolidation, PlumRiver went all in on Elastic, elevating it as the business’s flagship product. Less than a year later, in January 2021, Emerald—the public parent company of Outdoor Retailer—bought PlumRiver for $34 million, throwing the weight of its roughly $400 million market cap behind Elastic’s technology. Twenty-one years after CenterStone kicked the whole thing off, a behemoth was born. But not the only behemoth. Over in the fashion and big-box retail world, another company called NuORDER was founded in 2011. The software exploded in that sector, onboarding some 3,000 brands and more than 100,000 retailers—including icons like Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue—in 10 years. This June, the Canadian software firm Lightspeed POS bought NuORDER for $425 million. Here’s where things get interesting. Last year, NuORDER formed a partnership with Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, working directly with the group to become the B2B of choice for some of the most influential indie outdoor shops in the country. Executive Director Hill says the reason for choosing NuORDER was simple: “Elastic is much harder for buyers. It’s infuriating. NuORDER is the exact opposite—they built a system for retailers.” Early this year, Outdoor Retailer rolled out a proprietary buying tool called Digital Market built on Elastic’s technology. Because Elastic has been present in one form or another in the outdoor space for two decades, it has some of the industry’s biggest brands already on board: Patagonia, The North Face, CamelBak, Fjällräven, Icebreaker, KÜHL, Mountain Hardwear, Outdoor Research, Smartwool, Timberland, and Rab are all users. So, in the outdoor industry’s battle of the B2Bs, two heavyweight contenders have emerged.
MORE THAN ONE WAY TO SELL A COAT Elastic and NuORDER aren’t the only players in the space, of course, but they’re the titans poised for direct competition in the coming
CenterStone Technologies founded
PlumRiver Technologies founded
CenterStone launches iVendix
Elastic Suite founded
years. Each business is now flush with cash, and each has a major partner in the industry: Emerald/Outdoor Retailer behind Elastic, Grassroots behind NuORDER. So what’s the difference between these products, really? The platforms diverge in several key ways, but the biggest is probably this: Elastic siloes its B2B by brand, while NuORDER doesn’t. Elastic is too cumbersome for retailers, NuORDER argues, because you can’t place orders from multiple vendors at the same time, or see your multibrand assortment on one screen. If you want to order from Rab and Smith Optics, say, you have to open two browser tabs, navigate to rab.elasticsuite.com and smithoptics.elasticsuite.com, log into each B2B separately, and complete two discrete order-writing processes. (A large chunk of Wes Allen’s 111 passwords are logins for different Elastic portals.) NuORDER functions more like a walled garden, with all brands and retailers logging into the same central platform. NuORDER CEO Heath Wells sees Elastic’s segmentation as a cardinal sin. “You can’t have disparate experiences,” he says. “You need to have one central platform and network if you’re going to think about the retailer in general.” It’s a view widely shared by retailers themselves, for obvious reasons. “In a perfect world, retailers would have one login for all the vendors we do business with and see everything in one place,” says Todd Frank, owner of The Trail Head, a shop with two locations in Missoula, Montana. “We’d be able to ask questions like, ‘What was our down jacket buy across all vendors this season? How many pairs of size-32 black pants do we have coming from all our brands?’ Being able to step back from your buy and look at everything you’ve ordered in one place—that’s the biggest advantage for us.” Elastic, on the other hand, argues that siloing allows for a more powerful product on the brand side. According to CEO Josh Reddin, Elastic’s product is designed to integrate deeply into brands’ enterprise resource planning systems—the software companies use to manage core business functions like accounting, manufacturing, and marketing. “With our enterprise business, we’re heavily integrated into these massive, multibillion-dollar manufacturers’ daily processes,” says Reddin. This provides Elastic with data to better understand its clients’ supply chains, operations, warehousing logistics, and more, Reddin says, which—at least in theory—makes for a better product. NuORDER’s response, amplified through its partners at Grassroots, is to reiterate that Elastic’s customization hurts retailers. As Allen of Sunlight Sports puts it, “Elastic’s pitch to brands is that you can customize your B2B. But when brands do that, you end up with a bunch of different layouts that are just dissimilar enough to cause problems. You have to spend a few minutes relearning each system every time you log in.”
PlumRiver acquires Elastic
PlumRiver acquires CenterStone and iVendix
PlumRiver makes Elastic its flagship platform
Emerald acquires PlumRiver Lightspeed POS acquires NuORDER
CONSIDER THE RETAILER So, to recap: two big products, two approaches to the technology, and a fragmented market. Who’s going to win this thing? Will one company eventually gobble up enough market share to become the industry’s de facto standard, or will the battle—and retailers’ technological headache—continue indefinitely? The short answer is, it’s too soon to tell. The battle of the B2Bs, at this point, is anyone’s game. Right now, Elastic is clearly ahead in user adoption. Because its business is built on legacy systems dating back 20 years—all of which targeted the outdoor industry from the get-go—it’s had a massive head start onboarding the big players. It’s hard to overstate the importance of that advantage. Once a few big brands have selected a platform, they’re unlikely to switch without good reason. A crowded market is primarily the retailer’s problem, after all. As Allen at Sunlight Sports says, “When a brand chooses a platform, we, as retailers, are forced to follow.” (Neither platform agreed to share its total number of brand partners for this article.) It’s a point of assurance and pride for Elastic. “We have who we have,” says Reddin. “[These brands] are never going to leave—knock on wood. And so the retailer will always be using our tool, no matter what. When you have that leg up from an adoption and standardization standpoint, that’s a big win.”
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On the other side of the equation, NuORDER has more money behind it and invests heavily in product development. And plenty of brands are still up for grabs. Alex Kutches, vice president of sales and marketing at Mystery Ranch, says his company recently signed on with NuORDER because it found the platform’s frontend functionality and user experience a better fit. “We felt good about the integration process,” he says. “This is the first season we’ve had a B2B solution, and honestly it came down to the wire between NuORDER and Elastic.” Perhaps all this is beside the point. The plight of giant corporations duking it out to dominate a crowded market isn’t all that compelling when you get right down to it. It’s the stories on the ground that matter: the small-business owners logging onto their shop computers and trembling at the sight of 111 browser tabs open simultaneously. The B2B companies know this, too. Both Elastic and NuORDER insist that they care deeply about retailers. They work for both sides, they say. “Someone’s got to solve the retailer’s side,” says Wells. “That’s what we’re on a mission to do. We see this as a two-sided equation. Both need to win.” Reddin echoes the sentiment. “If we want to communicate with our retailers digitally, we can’t have them using 15 different platforms,” he says. Given this general outlook at Elastic and NuORDER, there’s another question at play here—more cynical, but worth asking. Both companies are built on the premise that one platform, if it’s constructed well and reaches a critical mass of users, can solve the needs of brands and retailers simultaneously. It’s certainly an elegant idea. But is it realistic? The user-experience philosophy of most B2Bs (including these two) ignores the reality that brands and retailers don’t have equivalent pull in platform selection. Yes, these products profess to serve both sides equally, but the fact remains that even hundreds of retailers collectively campaigning for the standardization of one platform may not be enough to convince the big brands to use it, too. On the other hand, as soon as a company like Patagonia or The North Face digs in its heels and says “We’re using this one”—even with no explanation as to why—retailers are forced to follow. (Both Patagonia and The North Face declined to comment on their reasons for choosing Elastic. Arc’teryx, one of NuORDER’s biggest brands in the outdoor space, also declined a request for comment.) If it turns out, then, that no single platform ever succeeds in monopolizing the industry (a very real possibility), retailers may always be at a disadvantage without some kind of third-party solution to fix the problem—a software, say, to organize and manage data from disparate B2Bs in a uniform way. Up in Michigan, another company called Envoy B2B is working on just such a product. Jon Faber, the CEO of Envoy, has directed his team to build a
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Elastic, meanwhile, maintains that NuORDER’s vision of uniformity—the “everything in one place” approach—isn’t just unrealistic, it’s impossible to realize fully. “This open-marketplace concept that NuORDER tries to execute falls apart when you start talking about the biggest brands in the industry,” says Reddin. “Patagonia and The North Face will never share a cart in a B2B system, ever. These larger companies have tight product segmentation. If you think about a brand like The North Face, sold in places as disparate as Macy’s, REI, and specialty shops, they want to make sure their retailers are carrying unique product mixes. That means they need to control what products different retailers see, what pricing terms and discounts are offered—that kind of thing. That’s why, with certain manufacturers, we have to create that gated experience.”
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“retailer-centric” platform under the umbrella of a new company called BrandKeep. After interviewing more than 250 retailers across the U.S., Faber and his team have concluded that, right now, retailers’ biggest pain point isn’t the labor associated with placing orders through multiple B2Bs. “The primary challenge is organization,” Faber says. The only way to manage all the B2B systems productively is with another system designed to keep everything in one place. To that end, BrandKeep, a cloud-based platform, won’t focus on order writing; instead, Faber and his team have dubbed their new tool a “vendor relationship management” system, which they’re calling the first of its kind. More like a digital filing cabinet, it will allow retailers to manually organize their B2B links, order deadlines, MAP policies, seasonal workbooks, price lists, and all the rest in one place. Brands will also be able to participate in the platform, providing verified information to retailers. Gabe Maier, former vice president at Grassroots, is leading the project. It will be available as soon as this year for some users, though the team at Envoy hasn’t released an official timeline. “The retailer’s world has become more and more fragmented as brands continue to adopt digital solutions,” says Maier. “We believe [the problem] can only be solved by building a platform that puts the retailer in the driver’s seat from day one.” Maybe, or maybe not. Frank at The Trail Head says that, in general, B2B management products strike him as “margin vampires”— so-called solutions, usually subscription-based, that eat away at retailers’ bottom lines. “Could I hire someone half-time, pay them to manage my B2Bs for me, and come out ahead?” he says. “More technology isn’t necessarily the solution to bad technology.” For retailers who find themselves particularly affected by the hyper-fragmented state of the market and do want to manage the problem themselves, however, it might be just the lifeline they need.
THE DAYS AHEAD It’s worth noting that not everyone is sold on the idea of B2Bs in the first place. As with any technology, there are bound to be skeptics. Some predict, pessimistically, that B2Bs will sound the death knell for trade shows and independent sales reps, but those fears are probably overblown. Though it’s tempting to read Emerald’s (i.e. Outdoor Retailer’s) investment in Elastic as a hedge against potential trade show declines, OR show director Marisa Nicholson is quick to emphasize her organization’s position on the new Digital Market buying tool. “I don’t see it as replacing the trade show,” she says. “I see it as the evolution of how we’re doing business. It doesn’t change the reason you’re coming to OR. Ultimately it just provides a more efficient sales tool.” Ditto on the rep side. As Phil Flamand, a three-decade industry
rep and owner of the agency Flamand Sports, which represents brands such as prAna and Thule, points out, it’s natural for folks in his position to worry about this kind of thing. “You start to think, if this becomes too good, they’re not going to need me anymore,” he says. “But the fact is, we now have a better pulse on retailers’ businesses because of these tools.” In the coming years, the conversation is much more likely to pivot to issues like data privacy. “Any investor in a publicly traded company in our industry would be interested in getting their hands on preseason sales data,” Hill at Grassroots says. As B2Bs continue to add brands and retailers to their client lists, the opportunity to monetize data from those businesses will only grow. It’s a concern that’s painfully present for many retailers. “There’s too much money at stake here not to think there’s a data play going on,” says Frank at The Trail Head. “The big fear every retailer has is that this data will be weaponized against us.” If B2Bs start selling sales data to brands (especially the ones with direct-to-consumer channels) as well as online marketplaces, he says, “it will destroy the secret sauce we have as individual store owners trying to compete.” For now, Grassroots has a written agreement with NuORDER that the latter won’t sell preseason order data from any Grassroots retailers. Reddin, over at Elastic, makes a similar promise. “It never has been, and never will be, a short- or long-term objective to use our clients’ sell-in data for anything other than providing an intuitive interface that allows for informed and predictive buy recommendations,” he says. Elastic doesn’t currently include language in its contracts that binds the company to this promise, but Reddin says he’s in the process of writing it in. Still, looking to the future, it’s a concern both brands and retailers would do well to keep an eye on. User agreements and company policies can change. All of this to say: We’ll see what happens. The race is underway, and it’s not showing any signs of slowing. On the B2B side, spirits are high. Reddin says he believes 90 percent of outdoor brands will be using Elastic by the end of 2022. NuORDER, meanwhile, is currently investing millions in its partnership with Grassroots. “We think the B2B market is just getting started,” says Wells, adding for the record that he doesn’t like the word “battle” to describe what’s going on. “It’s a big market,” he says. “We all keep each other honest.” Back in Cody, Wyoming, though, Allen doesn’t anticipate his 111-password list shrinking anytime soon. “There’s reason to believe retailers will not be the downstream beneficiaries of these systems,” he says. “It’s the standard with any online service: If you don’t pay for it, you’re the product.” SUMMER 2021
TECH IS...CONNECTING US By Heather Balogh Rochfort
When I co-founded WildKind , a virtual community to help parents get outside with their kids, a digital component wasn’t on my radar. My partner and I just wanted to provide guidance for families hoping to tackle outdoor adventures. We envisioned baby backpacking trips and mom-only bikepacking excursions—not laptops and virtual community forums. But we dug into the data, and the numbers didn’t lie: Digital subscriptions are booming. We realized the power of the internet was twofold: It reached more families than we ever could with in-person-only instruction, and it allowed time-starved parents to consume the information in the small respites between bath time and lights out. This was confirmed when we launched in August 2020 and acquired 300 new members within two weeks, all eager to pay $99 per year to capitalize on virtual skiing and camping courses, members-only discounts from various outdoor brands, a digital forum, and discussion panels. For their part, partner brands like Merrell and The North Face were excited to collaborate, since it gives them name recognition with an audience willing to spend a little money to get outside. We’re not the only business to make the leap into digital memberships over the past year. Run to the Finish founder Amanda Brooks launched the Online Running Club in June 2020: More than 500 members pay $18 per month to gain virtual access to running coaches, workout programs, drills, and community. “It’s an easy way to bring people together and help them get the support they need,” Brooks says. She also notes that membership is a successful entry point into her brand, which also sells products like books, T-shirts, and individual coaching. “They join at this affordable monthly rate, get to know me, and start asking what else is available. It’s enhanced the connection with my community, making them true fans.” And in outdoor media, Outside (Outside Business Journal’s parent company) launched its Outside+ membership earlier this year, which features perks like exclusive content across its publications, online education courses, a personalized feed, and access to Gaia GPS for navigation, all for $99 per year. According to Gartner, a global IT research and advisory firm, digital memberships are a top trend, particularly subscription services: The firm predicts that by 2023, nearly 75 percent of direct-to-consumer businesses will offer one. Outdoor brands largely haven’t jumped on board yet, but Ralph Lauren provides an example of what this might look like: Its membership (starting at $125 per month), which launched last year, allows users to select items for a “dream wardrobe” subscription box that includes four items for rent or purchase. 70 O U T S I D E B U S I N E S S J O U R N A L
ARE YOU IN THE CLUB(HOUSE)? Launched in March 2020 , Clubhouse is the latest in social media apps designed to emphasize real-time conversation via live audio content—no images, no curated feed, and no website. Users can pop into live chat rooms to listen to a variety of discussions as well as request to participate in the conversation. According to Arial Macrae, marketing manager of Roam Media Inc., an adventure club that produces videos and mini-documentaries and boasts founding members like Jimmy Chin and Sasha DiGiulian, this is the crux of the platform: “It opens the doors and gives fans access to your brand’s conversations and gives people the opportunity to speak up and be a part of it,” she says. During the winter months, Roam hosted a weekly chat room highlighting a number of outdoor industry topics, from photography with Chris Burkhard to a series of panelists sharing their outdoor career stories. Since Clubhouse is all live content, the commitment is minimal. “Pro endurance biker Rebecca Rusch joined a room while she was actively on a training ride,” Macrae laughs. Unlike a podcast, Clubhouse allows brand consumers to actually participate with the people behind the logo and ask them real-time questions. In short, the interaction puts a friendly voice to the brand name. While initially only available on iPhone, this invite-only app recently opened to Android users in May 2021, garnering a million new sign-ups within two weeks. It’s still relatively small with 10 million total users, but it’s growing quickly. Thought leaders and brands who welcome one-on-one conversations with consumers are most likely to benefit from the app, so experts suggest that people in leadership create their own accounts rather than hosting from their business name. “There’s a lot of potential there,” Macrae says. “This type of direct access to a brand gives a personal touch you can’t find on other platforms.”
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THE RISE OF DIGITAL MEMBERSHIPS
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THE INSTA-SUCCESS FORMULA According to Kami York-Feirn , marketing manager for apparel brand Wild Rye, there are three core tenants to a successful business Instagram account: a consistent posting schedule, a relatable caption with a strong call to action (like an audience question), and video/reels content to appease the Instagram algorithms. York-Feirn looked at some of the most popular posts so far this year from three industry accounts to help us understand what other factors can get people liking, sharing, and commenting.
PATAGONIA Why It Worked: Environmental topic + short video + controversy
Why It Worked: Fun hashtags + relatable caption + Monday post (one of the brand’s best days for engagement)
Why It Worked: Relatable story + request for shares in the caption + relatable photo to encourage conversation and boost visibility with the algorithm
Get to know each other through virtual introductions, auto-scheduled “coffee dates” between team members, and even a CEO lottery that randomly selects one person for a chat with the boss.
SLACK BETTER You know Slack.
You love (okay, or maybe hate) Slack. But are you Slacking to your fullest potential? These three integrations take your work collaboration to the next level.
Never forget a team birthday or meeting with this all-inclusive calendar that hosts your entire team’s events from within Slack.
Give your coworkers a nod for a job well done via the only virtual currency that matters: tacos. Everyone gets five virtual tacos to award per day, and the app tracks a team leaderboard for extra motivation. SUMMER 2021
TECH IS...SAVING THE PLANET By Tracy Ross
MAPS TO THE RESCUE
NAVIGATING CLIMATE CHANGE heat waves, wildfires, floods: We’re already living with the effects of a changing climate. Last year, Gaia GPS (owned by Outside Business Journal’s parent company) introduced several free map layers that aim to help people deal with fire-related issues. Two wildfire maps give precise, real-time info about where fires are currently burning, based on NASA satellite heat detection data that’s fact-checked with firefighters on the ground. Two more maps depict current and predicted air quality based on info from the Enviromental Protection Agency’s AirNow program, which draws from several monitoring organizations to show where pollutants in the air pose a health hazard. Learn more at bit.ly/navigate-climate-change.
UNLOCKING PUBLIC LANDS In January, President Biden announced his “30 x 30” vision to conserve at least 30 percent of U.S. lands and freshwater and 30 percent of U.S. ocean areas by 2030. One priority: boost outdoor recreation by encouraging the voluntary conservation of private land through which bordering public lands can be accessed. That offers the opportunity not only to protect a larger area of contiguous wildlife habitat, but also to open the door to public lands that may be difficult or impossible to reach. The mapping app onX, which launched to give hunters a simple way to see whose land they were on, has been collecting data on these public-private intersections for more than a decade. So far, the team has identified some 16.4 million acres in 22 states that are currently inaccessible to the public because of surrounding private land. This info funnels into the hands of local, state, and federal land managers, who are using it to identify possible easements with the end goal of creating more access to public lands for all.
SHARING THE IMMIGRATION STORY
BUILDING URBAN PARKS The Trust For Public Lands (TPL) knows we have a critical green-space equity problem in our country, with studies showing that some 100 million of us—including 28 million kids— lack access to local parks within walking distance. So TPL used 20 years’ worth of data to create ParkServe.org, an interactive map that shows exactly where green space is most needed in American cities. TPL also helps cities look for funding for park construction. And one of the best benefits, says Lisa Hwang, TPL’s managing director of strategy and innovation, is that anyone can join in the process of designing or creating a new neighborhood park.
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“‘Storytelling has always been a powerful tool for social movements, and conservation is no different,” says Christian La Mont, program and communications manager for Latino Outdoors. This past March, the nonprofit partnered with The National Audubon Society for a yearlong project called Mapping Migraciones. It weaves the Latino community’s migration and immigration stories together with the migratory paths of birds, combining the two into an interactive map that ties humans and nature together into an ongoing narrative. Click on a bird—say, a Swainson’s Thrush— and see its migratory path from Central America to as far north as Canada. Then click on the name of a person, and see how he made his journey along the same route. “The interactive map shows that migration is not only nuanced and natural, but also beautiful,” says La Mont. Check in throughout the year as the map grows to include more birds, migration patterns, and people’s stories at audubon.org/ mapping-migraciones.
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Four ways new mapping programs protect public lands, wildlife, and people.
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LIFELINES FOR FIREFIGHTERS Wildland firefighters have one of the most dangerous jobs in the outdoors. But new developments are making their task a little safer—as evidenced by the tech used by a Montrose, Colorado, Helitack crew while fighting the 2018 Tabeguache Fire in the Uncompahgre National Forest.
Lack of connectivity and limited sight lines in steep canyons makes firefighting in the area extremely dangerous. But each crew member wore a 2.8-ounce goTenna Pro X tracking device, which shares location info among teams of firefighters via a broadcasting process called meshing.
Tracking devices pair to any phone using an app like ATAK. Firefighters can then use their phones to navigate to safety, tell tankers where to drop retardant, and report back to management teams. Fire Incident management teams can then pair location info with the data service Cornea to get real-time maps showing the location of crew members, retardant drops, and the most dangerous parts of a fire. Cornea also collects and fuses data about fuels, weather, topography, watersheds, and the probability of fire spread from multiple sources.
The Upside of Drones
1. Surveying heron populations under thick forest canopies in England
Drones get a bad rap for invading privacy and harassing wildlife, but that’s only half the story. The National Audubon Society says drones “don’t just offer a safer way for scientists to observe their subjects; they’re often less costly, more efficient, and more precise than traditional approaches.” Here are six ways the organization Conservation Drones, which built a low-cost flier (starting at $3,500) specifically for conservationists and scientists, is using these aerial machines for good.
4. Monitoring the spread of invasive aquatic plants at Lake Carl Blackwell in Stillwater, Oklahoma
2. Flying aerial surveys along tidal creeks in the Bahamas to count sharks, rays, and sea turtles—all creatures that are both threatened and difficult to monitor
5. When equipped with thermal-imaging cameras on their undersides, identifying species like orangutans in Borneo, spider monkeys in Mexico, and riverine rabbits in South America to show health and range of populations
3. Studying whales’ health with “snot bot” drones equipped with petri dishes that hover at the whale’s blowhole to collect a sample of its breath, which includes discharge containing lung bacteria, viruses, and DNA
6. Using thermal cameras to detect and monitor “peat megafires,” which destroy essential peat land ecosystems and are responsible for 15 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions SUMMER 2021
TECH IS...DESIGNING GEAR
THE POWER OF THREE DIMENSIONS
SAVING THE WORLD, ONE SHIRT AT A TIME
Silicon Valley 3D-printing firm Carbon has recently made inroads into the
A pair of Stanford professors founded the startup LifeLabs this year to create fabrics that combat climate change. According to the Department of Energy, if Americans would simply raise their thermostats 2°C higher in summer and 2°C lower in winter, it would save an average of 6,000 pounds of atmospheric carbon per household (about a 20 percent reduction in a home’s total energy use). Better temperature-regulating clothing could make that easier. Enter the company’s CoolLife fabrics, which are made from polyolefin (think kitchen cling wrap). The material allows 100 percent transmission of infrared radiation—the only known fabric to do so—letting body heat escape faster. LifeLabs invented the process of creating knit and woven fabrics from polyolefin: The trick, says LifeLabs CEO Scott Mellin, was to build yarn extrusion and knitting and weaving machines that could handle the material’s low melting temperature (122°C versus nylon’s 220°C). The company’s WarmLife fabrics use a different strategy, employing reflectivity to capture body heat. The concept isn’t new, but the WarmLife fabric is breathable enough for the reflective metallic nanocoating to cover 100 percent of its surface (in comparison, Columbia’s Omni-Heat reflective dots cover just a third of their items to maintain breathability). The result is a garment that requires 30 percent less insulation for the same CLO value. The tech hasn’t hit the market yet, but this summer LifeLabs is releasing 16 garments (insulating parkas and gloves, cooling leggings, and sleepwear) to investors, media, and influencers.
outdoor space with shoe soles for adidas and bike saddles for Specialized. Both feature latticework made from elastomeric polyurethane (EPU), which is remarkably elastic (capable of being elongated 250 percent before it breaks) and, in lattice form, great at returning energy. More importantly, Carbon can tune the latticework’s compressibility by location within the design, which can help accommodate the variances of, say, foot shape, or enable targeted cushioning. And this fall, Osprey is using the tech to make a giant step forward in pack design. Along with a host of other new technologies, the UNLTD Antigravity 64 (see p. 51) and Airscape 68 feature lumbar pads built by Carbon: The company’s tunable 3D printing allowed Osprey to make them more compressible on the top and front to create consistent and extremely comfortable contact with a wide variety of lower-back shapes. The latticework is also exceptionally breathable, grippy, and springy, so even under very heavy loads, the pack feels more secure and balanced. The 3D-printing process was also a designer’s dream. With remarkable speed, it creates shapes impossible to make with injection molding. In just over a year, Carbon was able to iterate close to 100 different permutations of the design, all with far less waste than injection molding. Working with the emerging technology isn’t cheap—the packs ring in at an eye-watering $700—but Osprey owner Mike Photenhauer says he wanted to showcase what’s possible in pack design “when price is no object.”
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PHOTOS BY COURTESY
By Frederick Reimers
PHOTOS BY COURTESY
artiFicial intelligence revolutionizes bike design Imagine bike frames that look like they’ve been built by a spider, with hollow, sinewy strands linking the handlebars, wheels, and bottom bracket. The frames are lighter for subtracting material, but according to the engineering software that created it, just as strong. That’s the concept behind French gear titan Decathlon’s bike design project with software firm Autodesk, which has also partnered with component maker SRAM. The idea is that Autodesk’s Fusion 360 software can take inputs like weight, dimensions, and strength and then generate hundreds of potential designs in just a few hours, all theoretically capable of standing up to the demands of the design problem, even if they may be unusual in appearance. The software can also learn as it goes, basing subsequent rounds of design on those preferred by the human engineers. Such designs are particularly suited for the elaborate shapes possible with 3D printing. For SRAM, it means printing a latticed aluminum crank arm that’s just as light and strong as a carbon fiber one, at a lower financial and ecological cost. SRAM is currently testing a few of those designs in the field, and the process bodes well not just for bikes, but also for climbing gear or any equipment that prizes light weight along with strength. Just as intriguing is another goal of Decathlon’s so-called “vision project” with Autodesk: to explore the process of custom-printing bikes according to a customer’s individual preferences and dimensions.
CHARGING AHEAD Solar, not wind, has dominated the portable power scene because solar panels are so much smaller and lighter— until now. Enter the Shine Turbine. A marvel of efficient design, the device boasts an exceptional weight-to-power ratio compared to other portable renewable devices. The three-pound device, which launches this summer, is capable of generating 40 watts, good enough to charge a smartphone in as little as 15 minutes, and trumps water turbines, thermoelectric stoves, and even solar panels with a 13 watts-per-pound ratio. The Shine Turbine folds into a sleek package about the size of a liter water bottle and deploys in minutes. Designers solved challenges like dissipating the motor’s heat and capturing high power outputs while meeting size restrictions, but the Shine Turbine’s real triumph is in the blade design: They’re efficient enough to withstand 28-mph winds (minimum speed: 8 mph) while still folding snugly into the body.
Quick, name a product you use that doesn’t include petroleum-based plastics and chemicals. Tough, right? But here’s some good news for reducing our petroleum dependence: Design firm Checkerspot aims to solve the problem, starting with the outdoor industry. Growing out of work done at the University of California, Berkeley, Checkerspot develops oils derived from fermented microalgae. The company is currently working with Gore to create petroleum-free DWR, and a project with Swiss chemical firm Beyond Surface technologies has resulted in a microalgae-based wicking treatment that hits the market this year in garments by streetwear brand Pangea. Checkerspot also supplies algae-based polyurethane for its own ski brand, WNDR Alpine. And there’s more on the horizon: The ski maker plans to develop its own line of greener packs and apparel incorporating the Beyond Surface coatings and algal polyurethanes for hard pieces like pack buckles.
wearables get even smarter The future of fitness wearables looks increasingly detailed—and some might say, invasive. Swiss company CORE’s body temperature monitor has been used as a training tool by pro cycling teams for a few seasons, but it’s now available to the public. The device clips onto an elastic chest strap and sends continuous body temp readings to a smart device. Excess body heat saps an athlete’s power output, so such monitoring can help athletes strategize during competition, telling them whether to drop the hammer or back off until they’re cooler. Also launched this spring: a partnership between Garmin and blood-testing company Inside Tracker that combines smartwatch data like blood oxygen and stress levels with the genetic biomarkers the company derives from periodic lab-administered blood tests. The result is customized training and nutritional advice—like increasing your sleep or upping magnesium levels—to optimize performance. Even more frequent exposure to needles is required for an upcoming glucose-monitoring system from Supersapiens. Based on exisiting technology made for diabetics, a needle pressed under the skin and adhered to the tricep is synced with a smartwatch or phone for live monitoring to help athletes stay optimally fueled.
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THE BIGGEST GEAR BREAKTHROUGHS OF ALL TIME 10 innovations that revolutionized the business, according to gear historians and longtime industry members By Amelia Arvesen
1927: Pin bindings
GROUNDBREAKER: ROTTEFELLA 6-PIN BINDING
Before pin bindings, skiers used wicker and leather toe straps to tie wooden planks to their feet. Norwegian engineer Bror With’s clamp-and-spike invention keeps skis more secure and makes walking less cumbersome.
1937: Vulcanized rubber outsoles
GROUNDBREAKER: VIBRAM CARRAMATO SOLE
Vitale Bramani was inspired to make leather boots better after friends died while mountaineering in 1935 in the Italian Alps, in part due to footwear that froze. Bramani beefed up the soles by incorporating a tread design traditionally use for automobile tires.
1968: Avalanche transceivers GROUNDBREAKER: SKADI
Avalanche experts were experimenting with different electromagnetic methods of locating buried people from above the snow when researcher John Lawton at New York’s Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory created a handheld device with the longest range and best accuracy yet.
1969: Internal-frame backpack
GROUNDBREAKER: LOWE INTERNAL FRAME PACK
In a basement in Colorado, Greg Lowe made the first pack that integrated the supportive structure into the back panel. It was first made of phenolic resin layers and later revised to aluminum frame bars. Hips and shoulders everywhere rejoiced.
1977: Expanded polytetrafluorethylene (ePTFE) material GROUNDBREAKER: GORE-TEX
While tinkering with the polymer, Bob Gore discovered it could stretch by up to 1,000 percent and transform into a new substance with tiny pores that allow air to pass through. His invention, later called Gore-Tex, is now a household name.
1977: Sports bra
Ditching the impractical underwire of the past, Lisa Lindahl, Hinda Miller, and Polly Smith sewed together two jockstraps to make a more supportive and comfortable bra that they could wear while running and playing sports. Sports bras have come a long way since then.
1978: Spring-loaded camming device GROUNDBREAKER: THE FRIEND
After Ray Jardine invented the first modern trigger-activated pieces of climbing protection, he kept them a secret because he didn’t want anyone to steal the idea. A climbing partner referred to them by the code name “friends,” and Wild Country still sells cams under the label.
1979: Synthetic fleece
GROUNDBREAKER: MALDEN MILLS POLARFLEECE
Replacing natural fibers from sheep, this synthetic material is softer, better at resisting water, and in some cases, much warmer. Patagonia was one of the first partners of Malden Mills, which has since rebranded as Polartec.
1989: Handheld GPS
GROUNDBREAKER: MAGELLAN NAV 1000
The military was using pocket-sized GPS units long before 1989, but that’s when civilians could finally get their hands on one for a whopping $2,900. Garmin was a close second on the market. Over time, prices dropped, sizes shrunk, and features improved.
2000: Multi-directional Impact Protection System (MIPS) GROUNDBREAKER: MIPS
Before MIPS, helmets didn’t account for the rotational force the brain experiences in crashes and falls. A neurosurgeon and PhD student in Sweden added a thin layer between a helmet’s shell and liner for extra protection.
LEFT PAGE: PHOTOS BY COURTESY | RIGHT PAGE: PHOTO BY ALEX TEMBLADOR
CAN ALGAE REPLACE CHEMICALS?
LEFT PAGE: PHOTOS BY COURTESY | RIGHT PAGE: PHOTO BY ALEX TEMBLADOR
ENOUGH WITH THE TECH JUDGMENT By Alex Temblador
The author at work
I’d been hiking through a foresT, past waterfalls, and across creeks by myself for five hours in the North Chickamauga Creek Gorge State Natural Area near Chattanooga when my Garmin fenix 6S Pro Solar GPS watch died. I’d used it a lot the past few days—tracking my hikes and watching for thunderstorms that threatened to flood me off Lookout Mountain—and I hadn’t noticed that it needed to be recharged. Not a minute later, my dad called and asked, “Are you still hiking?” At the same time, a text from my mom came through, conveying the same concern. The safety tracking feature had turned off, and my loved ones were in the dark about my whereabouts. I often hike, bike, trail run, or camp by myself all across the country. And as a solo woman of color, when I do, you can bet I’m always connected to the internet. You can catch me in front of a campfire with my laptop on my knees or checking my phone while hiking in Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Passersbys have joked, “Stop working—you’re on vacation.” Others boast about how they left their phone in their car. These jokes and subtle comments speak to an old-fashioned way of thinking. See, outdoor purists will tell you that unplugged outdoor experiences are “real” or “better,” but that’s a limited and privileged perspective. And I’m over it. Whether I’m camping with family at a lake in Oklahoma or glamping by myself in a treehouse near Austin, I always have my laptop with me and my hotspot active. As a freelance writer, I must be connected: I’m not yet in a position in my career where I can leave my laptop at home, even for a few days. Sometimes I need to finish an article before kayaking, or answer an email from an editor who’s offering me an opportunity for a high-paying, quick-turnaround piece. I’m not alone in this experience. With the pandemic, many jobs
went remote, and that gave people an opportunity to work while on the move. Technology, like Wi-Fi hotspots and solar generators, allowed people to work and enjoy the outdoors more than they’d ever been able to do before. Isn’t that the dream? Of course I don’t want to bring my laptop to a cabin in the woods, but that’s where I am in my career, and I shouldn’t be judged because I’m not financially able to leave my technology at home. Even if I get to a point where I don’t need to work while outdoors, the reality is, technology and internet access make the outdoors safer for me. With my phone and smartwatch, I can keep track of harsh weather conditions, ensure I don’t get lost, notify authorities in case of a medical emergency, or share safety concerns about a trail, tour guide, or campsite with other people. As much as we’d like to think that the outdoors is safe for all, women, people of color, the queer community, and many other underrepresented groups still face harassment, threats, and assault in the outdoors. We can mitigate this danger with technology and help ourselves and our loved ones feel more confident when we’re in nature. Safety and career needs aside, I can think of a million other ways that connectivity has improved my outdoor experience—not least, Googling “how to start a campfire” while glamping in West Texas, or calling a friend to pick me and my foldable kayak up from a boat launch because I was unable to paddle upstream to my car. (And yes, I like pulling my phone out and taking photos of myself in nature— sue me.) Instead of judging people for using the internet, laptops, phones, and other technology in the outdoors, we should toss those purist notions aside and cheer them on. Who cares if they’re online? The fact that they’re outdoors is what matters most. SUMMER 2021
TECH IS...RUNNING OUR BUSINESSES Curated’s expert guidance aims to merge the best of in-person and online shopping.
When Mike Peters decided to buy an e-bike earlier this summer, online retailer Curated connected the Denver shopper with an e-bike expert in Illinois, and the two texted for a few days. Peters liked the convenience of shopping on his own time, and that his expert felt brand agnostic—“You could ask about any bike, not just the stuff they had in a store”—so he placed an order. The shopping experience at Curated, which launched in 2017 and sells gear for hiking, skiing, cycling, fly-fishing, and more, starts with a series of questions about experience level and gear preferences. Then the company’s artificial intelligence program matches the customer with an actual person to help them find the best product. “I don’t think people would ever want to buy a $2,000 pair of skis from a chatbot,” says founder Eduardo Vivas. Though Curated has about 100 brand partners, the company will source any item a customer and expert choose. Vivas says his business isn’t about steamrolling brick and mortar. Outdoor Gear Exchange (OGE) in Burlington, Vermont, is one of 25 or so retail partners that sell gear through the platform, lopping off a commission for Curated (OGE sends them 10 to 15 percent). “It’s a little bit more than other affiliates that we work with, but [Curated] drives more in sales,” says Ivan Tighe, director of fulfillment and communications—the platform drove 630 orders last January alone. And on the brand side, Curated offers anonymized customer data to its partners quarterly, which clues vendors in to how they’re performing with different demographics or regions and shows them how often buyers pick their gear from the expert’s list of recommendations. -reporting by Tatiana Walk-Morris & Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan
WORKFLOW APPS WE LOVE You’ve been hitting Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and all the Googles hard for the past year or so—but they’re far from the only programs that make your work life easier. Have you met these standouts?
Trello Collaborate with colleagues on to-do lists, set deadlines, and track shared projects. Free (basic) | $10/person/month and up (advanced)
HITTING THE LINKS
Design as a team with templates for everything from Instagram posts to logos.
Earning money on affiliate gear sales without selling your editorial soul
Free (basic) | $10/person/month and up (advanced)
We’ve all seen those dubious “best of ” lists, compiled solely to get cash for clicks. But when established digital outlets pursue the affiliate sales game, do they risk eroding reader trust? Not necessarily. Media brands say they’re able to earn money from recommending products while maintaining editorial integrity. For larger online pubs, that means having separate affiliate sales teams to deal with logistics while letting editors have the final say over what gets covered. At Lola Digital Media—owner of Gear Junkie, Switchback Travel, and other sites—“the editorial and affiliate linking are totally separate,” says VP of Commerce David Wilkinson. In 2020, the company produced $200 million in sales for retail partners and direct-to-consumer brands (Wilkinson declined to say what the partnership netted for Lola). At Gear Patrol, where affiliate sales comprise about 20 percent of revenue, Head of Commerce Brian Louie says the editorial mission comes before the links: “Readers can tell if something is forced.” The same holds true at Outside (a sister publication to Outside Business Journal). “We work to optimize the content that we are already creating for revenue,” says Katie Cruickshank, senior digital marketing manager. “And we’re not going to cover anything editorially just because there’s a good commission rate.” Sales bring in some 10 percent of overall digital revenue. Meanwhile, the increased sales channels and ability to track conversions warrant the revenue sharing for brands and retailers. “I think it’s the most powerful type of marketing on the internet today,” says Wilkinson. —Cindy Hirschfeld
Otter Voice Take meeting notes quickly with this live transcription app for computers and phones. Free (basic) | $8.33/person/month and up (advanced)
Calendly Schedule meetings by syncing your calendars and letting people choose from your available times. Free (basic) |$8/person/month and up (advanced)
Mural Play around with workflow diagrams, graphs, and even freehand sketching for remote teams. $12/person/month and up
Harvest Find out how much time you’re spending on specific projects with this time tracker app. Free (basic) | $12/person/month (Pro)
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ILLUSTRATION BY MALTE MUELLER VIA GETTY IMAGES
PERSONAL SHOPPING SERVICE
A recent dustup between specialty retailers and a behemoth market research firm has the industry wondering: Have we been basing our biggest business decisions on crap data for decades? By Marc Peruzzi | Illustration by Harry Tennant
E LIVE IN AN ERA OF BIG DATA. Enabled by technology capable of tracking every consumer sale and even the whereabouts of consumers themselves—within two feet if you’re running certain apps—data capture drives growth across industries. It’s not a coincidence that your favorite streaming service is teasing you with that new series you Googled last night, or that the banner ads in The New York Times hit you with a ski pass sale shortly after your last day on the hill. Knowing who buys what, when, and where is a clear advantage—an advantage the outdoor industry just does not have. I’ve spent my career reporting on the outdoors. There’s something very fishy in our numbers. Hell, we can’t even get the easy point-of-sale (POS) stuff right. At least, that’s true if you believe the folks behind Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, which acts as the unofficial voice of much of outdoor specialty retail. This past January was a WTF moment for Grassroots. The dispute started with a column written by Dirk Sorenson, an analyst for the consumer research firm NPD Group, in the January 2021 edition of Outdoor Retailer magazine. Most of the commentary was innocuous and obvious—consumers
wanted to get outside during the pandemic. But in paragraph six, Sorenson slipped in an incendiary statistic. Outdoor specialty retailers, he wrote, were down a staggering 32 percent through October of 2020. He followed that up with a vague claim that “outdoor specialty retailers have faced challenges due to store closures.” Grassroots—a collective of independent specialty retailers—was tracking different numbers. Over the same time frame, its research showed top-line sales for the 196 storefronts in the group down just 2.18 percent. This, during what The Washington Post called the worst economic downturn since World War II. As for permanent closures, Grassroots lost only one shop—due to retirement. Grassroots was done with the tired narrative about brick and mortar dying. Ditto with the running oversimplification that specialty brick and mortar and specialty e-commerce are disparate entities; 50 percent of Grassroots shops run e-commerce platforms. More than that, Grassroots disputed the notion that NPD’s analysis speaks for what most industry people think of as specialty retail. Of 73 stores Grassroots surveyed (the coalition has since grown to 96 members) only two reported to NPD.
“NOBODY THAT WE TALK TO IN OUTDOOR SPECIALTY RETAIL TRUSTS THEIR DATA.”
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margins of error, when a sample isn’t representative, neither are the projections. The more you extrapolate, the worse it gets. Something similar might be at play with the NPD and Grassroots misfire. Do the Grassroots and NPD definitions of specialty retail even line up? It depends on whom you talk to. NPD says it has a good handle on outdoor specialty. Grassroots says it’s not even close. But the story of data in the outdoor industry is bigger than the recent spat. Tracking participation is even tougher than the POS stuff. Unless we’re selling tickets, booking campsites, or issuing licenses, what is there to count? And what about all the people taking advantage of free access to our public lands? All we can do is estimate the number of people running, hiking, backcountry skiing, climbing, paddleboarding, and biking. And frequency is even harder to track—after all, there’s no turnstile at the trailhead. For an industry that prides itself on its bona fides, we often don’t have a clue about what’s actually happening outdoors.
HOW DO YOU COUNT AN OUTDOORSPERSON?
In a letter to Outdoor Retailer and NPD, Grassroots demanded clarification and an apology. The magazine published their demands. Some back and forth between Grassroots and NPD followed, but Grassroots wasn’t satisfied with NPD’s counterargument. There’s too much at stake, says Rich Hill, Grassroots’s executive director. If a CEO on the vendor side believes that specialty is in trouble, Grassroots asks, what happens to the co-marketing dollars or the test products designed for specialty shops and their opinion leader clientele? When CEOs rely on incomplete or just plain wrong retail sales data, Hill says, those types of investments get cut. In effect, the prophetic narrative “specialty is in trouble” fulfills itself. “NPD put out a misleading statement about the health and wellness of our industry,” Hill says. “That’s all that CEOs read. Somebody has to say it: Nobody that we talk to in outdoor specialty retail trusts their data. The path to redemption starts with an apology.” Whether derived from political pollsters or POS transactions, data are usually taken as fact—it’s human nature to assume there can be no nuance in projected numbers; no sampling errors; no muddy language in surveys. But it’s high time we embraced some skepticism. In politics, we now know those most likely to answer a call from an unknown number are older liberals. Even with robust
My favorite participation stat comes from telemark skiing. Back when I was the editor of Skiing magazine in the mid-aughts, Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) estimated that in the U.S. there were 4.2 million telemark skiers. Sound accurate? There were only 7 million total skiers then. The slow hippies in their Peruvian hats would have outnumbered snowboarders two to one. Of course, this was total bunk. Even in tele hotbeds like Telluride, Colorado, alpine skiers dominated. I knew this because I looked around lift corrals. My editors at Skiing tried to investigate the telemark glitch. But with OIA standing by its data (they have new researchers now, by the way), we were left to surmise the survey respondents confused telemark skiing with telemarketing, which had reached critical misery at the time. As in: “Oh hell yeah I’ve been telemarketed. I can’t stand those people.” Just as peculiar, though, in 2007, OIA’s Outdoor Foundation (OF) counted 1.7 million telemark skiers, but by 2016 that number was back up to 2.8 million—this during a stretch when anyone in the ski business would attest that telemark skiing had fallen off a cliff. This stuff matters to the outdoor industry. Do you really want to be producing telemark boots, or trail running shoes, or expedition backpacks with a cloudy estimate on participation numbers? It also matters for advocacy. “If you want new trails,” says the International Mountain Bicycling Association’s Executive Director Dave Wiens, “there are many boxes to check along the way. One of those is building community will. That’s true nationally and locally. Mountain biking is a hard sport to really calculate user days on. Right now frequency is going way up because of better bikes and trails, but the industry numbers don’t reflect that. Which means it can be hard to communicate to someone how important trails are to people. Better data would help.” The trade groups and their research arms have done better lately, but I still see suspect numbers. Backcountry snowboarding is one example. Snowsports Industries America (SIA) counts 650,000 “snowboard tourers” in the U.S. For perspective, that’s only 50,000 fewer snowboard tourers than backcountry skiers. But even though splitboard sales have been strong for years, those sales don’t add up to 650,000 users. (And certainly not to the 1.5 million snowboard tourers that OF tabulates.) Since 2016, SIA tells me, the splitboard market has done roughly $17 million in retail sales. If each splitboard sells for $800, that’s SUMMER 2021
21,000 splitboards sold. Even if you doubled that number ($34 million top line in splitboard) by going back to 2010, that would mean that 42,000 people bought splitboards in the last decade or so. Let’s be generous and say that another 100,000 snowboarders who hike the backcountry in boots or snowshoes, or on approach skis (haven’t seen that in a while) identify as “snowboard tourers.” Rounding up, that gets us 150,000 snowboard tourers. Maybe. Brendan Madigan, owner of Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City, California—the healthiest snowboarding market in the country—tells me that he sells skis to snowboards at a ratio of 30 to one. As for participation, says Madigan, in Tahoe it’s more like seven to one. “There’s no way those participation numbers are accurate,” Madigan says. “Snowboard touring has grown, but the sales don’t come close to those estimates.” It’s this type of calculus—mine, not SIA’s—that people like Adam Howard, the publisher of Backcountry magazine, do all the time to gauge market size. “Frankly, we’ve never trusted the numbers that OIA or SIA provide,” Howard says. “Our best numbers have always come from talking to friends in the industry who make and sell gear. If passionate backcountry skiers—the ones we focus on—burn through AT boots every three years, we can get a feel for how many of those skiers are out there.” Trail running is another tricky one. With 11.8 million trail runners in 2020 according to OF, it would seem that running on dirt is leaving the stratosphere—doubling participation since 2012. OF researcher David Mudd tells me they feel good about the data. After all, the survey goes out to 18,000 people. But do the numbers bear out? I’d argue they don’t. And here’s why: Simply owning a pair of trail running shoes might make a survey respondent identify as a trail runner. “There is no way that the trail running numbers are accurate,” says Wes Allen, co-owner of Cody, Wyoming’s specialty retail shop Sunlight Sports. “Not to denigrate trail running, because participation is certainly up. But most trail running shoes are worn in grocery stores. Bad analytics have warped the outdoor industry. And worse, it distracts the industry from what it should be doing. Instead of focusing on trail running, what if, as an industry, we were talking about trail access and diversity? We wouldn’t be so far behind the eight ball right now.”
And then we have the Grassroots and NPD squabble. To an outsider, it might seem overblown, but to the Grassroots crowd it isn’t. Grassroots retailers are convinced there’s a fundamental disconnect between the shops NPD collects POS data from and the ones that Grassroots considers specialty retail. In fact, says Grassroots’s Hill, the two may barely overlap. “The way they describe specialty retail and the way we describe it are two different things,” Hill says. NPD is a global corporation that runs market research on more than 20 industries—everything from toys to makeup. The group collects POS data from more than 600,000 retail locations and issues more than 12 million consumer surveys each year. Under the NPD umbrella you’ll find sports. And under sports you’ll eventually find specialty outdoor. (NPD claims 1,450 sports specialty doors, including specialty outdoor, cycling, snow, and run.) Contrariwise, Grassroots, as its name implies, is a bottom-up collective of independent specialty retailers. If, as Grassroots asserts, NPD is missing its type of store, that’s a problem. It’s in proving or disproving that claim that things get nebulous. Because NPD won’t share its independent outdoor specialty retail
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list, all we really know is that when Grassroots interviewed 73 of its members a few months ago, only two were reporting POS data to NPD. While NPD asserts that its take on outdoor specialty retail only includes stores with five doors or less with a core focus on the goods shown at the Outdoor Retailer trade show, independent analysis done by people like Allen and Hill make it easy to question that claim. Case in point: The products NPD says are top movers are sometimes duds within Grassroots. By way of example, Allen singled out a tent from a few years back. He wasn’t aware of much buy-in by outdoor specialty, but NPD data called it a top performer. Upon asking another retailer about it, he learned that a bunch had been dumped on closeout. He also learned that the tent maker hadn’t even produced as many tents as NPD predicted it would sell. Now imagine you’re a tent maker. Should you build a tent to compete? If you’re a specialty retailer, should you buy such tents? On the flip side, Allen strongly suspects that major vendors (he doesn’t want to say which) have killed or defunded successful specialty product launches because of incomplete data like this. Part of this is specialty’s fault—they haven’t been as good as Amazon and Backcountry.com types at capturing sales live—but part of it, says Hill, is on NPD and how outdoor specialty retail is defined. The next level of confusion, says Grassroots, arises when NPD produces outdoor specialty analysis based on such data. NPD’s analysis is often obfuscated with lines like this: “Over the last year, the sports industry has exceled [sic] in using unrequited demand to drive consumer interest.” But NPD’s logic frequently doesn’t track, either. Information vacuums, like the confusion between brick and mortar and specialty e-commerce, are common. Because NPD often doesn’t do a good job of explaining its data and analysis, the fallout can be confusing. Would you know, for instance, that the category “accessories” includes backpacks, bags, and duffels? Or that NPD doesn’t “see” sell-in data, only sell-through? Which gets us to yet another Grassroots beef: confirmation bias. Because NPD has been so bullish on e-commerce, are they too beholden to the trope that if e-commerce is strong then brick and mortar must therefore be weak? Sorenson denied the allegation and described himself as optimistic on independent specialty retail. In fact, Sorenson disputed most of the allegations I presented. The discrepancies in product performance between Grassroots and NPD, he says, are due to the fact that NPD’s sampling is larger, more diverse, and includes retailers that aren’t part of Grassroots. Sorenson also discounted the weight of NPD analysis among outdoor industry CEOs. “Many of our retail and manufacturer partners dive far more deeply [into the data] than an article,” he says. “It’s far more robust. Those conversations aren’t based on a single article, but more on deep analysis.”
NUANCE BEATS “DATA,” BUT GOOD DATA HELPS
Alpenglow’s Madigan recently told me that retail is sort of like legalized gambling. You study the market and your customers, and place your bet. The same is true with the industry at large. With so much uncertainty and so much at stake, it’s natural that we’re attracted to numbers. When we’re looking to defend a decision—to our bosses, investors, or families—numbers feel like our best armor. But are they? A ski product manager who wanted to remain anonymous* told me that when the market research firm Leisure Trends was sold to NPD in 2013, the quality of some of the data he got
GRASSROOTS RETAILERS ARE CONVINCED THERE’S A FUNDAMENTAL DISCONNECT BETWEEN THE SHOPS NPD COLLECTS POINT OF SALE (POS) DATA FROM AND THE ONES THAT GRASSROOTS CONSIDERS SPECIALTY RETAIL. IN FACT, SAYS GRASSROOTS’S HILL, THE TWO MAY BARELY OVERLAP. “THE WAY THEY DESCRIBE SPECIALTY RETAIL AND THE WAY WE DESCRIBE IT ARE TWO DIFFERENT THINGS,” HILL SAYS. via SIA immediately sank. (SIA partners with NPD for part of its research.) As with outdoor, he said, NPD’s winners and losers in the gear wars just weren’t matching up with what he was seeing. A bike industry source on the vendor side said much the same thing, adding that when he’s in the business of identifying trends, he isn’t turning to NPD—he’s working the phones. Yet another anonymous source, this one a market researcher, put it more bluntly: “NPD data have long had a blind spot in specialty. I think that’s agreed upon in the industry.” NPD disputes that the quality of its specialty retail data declined when it acquired Leisure Trends. On an initial phone interview, NPD’s David Riley called this idea “sour grapes.” Sorenson was more careful. By increasing the scale of the sample and introducing more rigorous methodologies, he said, NPD’s specialty data grew stronger. But by expanding to that larger collection of shops, the numbers also changed. They would have to. “I could see that causing some disconnect,” Sorenson says. “The old [sample] might have been a really targeted subset. [But now] NPD allows retailers to compare [themselves] to the aggregate—the rest of the market, not just a small subset.” That, of course, brings us back to the fundamental question: Is NPD talking to specialty retailers as we know them? Again, Grassroots says no way. And as a result, Grassroots is in the midst of building its own market research tool to better serve its member shops and vendors. The platform, called Switchback, is the brainchild of Hill and Greg Squires, the founder and CEO of Pivot Point Solutions. The seed of the idea, though, came from work that Squires did for a similar category—independent booksellers. Like specialty outdoor, ski, and even bike, indie booksellers had long lived under the cloud of a narrative that spelled their doom. But the prognostications didn’t match reality. Between 2009 and 2018, new independent bookstores grew by 49 percent. This, while chain retailers lost storefronts and Amazon consolidated its power. Could it be simultaneously true that independent bookstores could thrive while the world’s largest bookseller did, too? The answer is yes. Business is nuanced, and tired tropes are symptomatic of lazy thinking. A Harvard Business School researcher made a case study of bookstores in 2020. The takeaway? Indie bookstore success could be attributed to “community, curation, and convening.” Meaning they served specific customers, found products that worked
for them, and opened up their stores as gathering places. To Grassroots, that sounds like modern specialty outdoor retail. To those three Cs I’ll add a fourth: capture. To push back on doomsday narratives, one needs solid data. With Switchback, if a product is flying off shelves somewhere, the rest of the network will see the trend coming. If vendors want to know how a flagship jacket is performing with early adopters, they’ll know in days. There will be no projections made based on a sampling. Thus far, Hill and Squires have signed on 82 Grassroots storefronts with 65 more in the works and have plans to include a broader coalition in a project called Indie Outdoors. They’ve invested more than $1 million in Switchback. “Extrapolation is often misleading,” Squires says. “This platform does not attempt to extrapolate. The data are the data. And that’s meaningful to the market, to the brands, and to the retailers.”
LIVE THE LIFESTYLE AND BELIEVE YOUR EYES
Keeping with the theme, I’m not going to end this piece with projections and extrapolations. The outdoor industry’s data problem is just the reality we live with as retailers and manufacturers, and even guides, magazine editors, and trail advocates. It’s tough to know what’s actually happening in our world. That telemark anecdote? It dates to a time before the current research team at Outdoor Foundation. OF researchers will continue to hone their craft by cleaning up survey language, excising joke respondents from lists, and diversifying sampling. They have to. OF researcher Mudd once saw stick-and-ball-sports category data that indicated that one in seven humans on earth play volleyball. “Data science is significantly better than it was a decade ago,” he says. “I feel confident in our current data. We’re not leading the witness. Or using confusing terminology. But with any research methodology, as much as you try to perfect it, there will be imperfections.” That type of humility and the Switchback experiment offer hope. Some healthy data skepticism helps. From what I can tell, nobody is trying to get the numbers wrong. When in doubt, make some calls, ask questions, get outside, and believe your eyes.
* Some sources in this story spoke to us on the condition of anonymity, for fear of upsetting their relationships with trade groups and NPD. SUMMER 2021
A viral documentary and GoFundMe campaign saved the first Black-owned outdoor gear shop in the U.S. from closing during the pandemic. Now, the owners are using the new interest in their shop to help people of color find autonomy, ownership, and space in the outdoors.
By Alex Temblador | Photography by Wondercamp
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ahmicah Dawes pointed to the surface of the pond. “Do you see the fish?” Three-year-old Silas looked over his father’s shoulder from his perch in the child carrier and asked, “Where?” Heather Dawes took a photo of father and son, making sure not to awaken one-year-old Finis, who had fallen asleep strapped to her chest at the start of the hike. The family was surrounded by lush green hills in an untouched natural area in North Central Texas that will become Palo Pinto Mountains State Park in a couple of years. For a few hours, they walked through fields of wildflowers and up and down rocky inclines, exploring a park that did not yet have trails. Such peaceful moments have been rare for Jahmicah and Heather Dawes lately. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the Daweses—like so many other small-business owners—went into a dark period of debt, depression, and fear for the survival of their specialty shop, Slim Pickins Outfitters (SPO). But then a lucky break led to a viral documentary about their family, a surprise influx of cash, and a second chance for SPO. For the small-town entrepreneurs, the ups and downs of the past year have been overwhelming. Especially coming to terms with just how important their shop is in the outdoor industry.
First of its Kind
Opening an outdoor gear shop wasn’t exactly a lifelong dream for the Daweses. In 2012, Jahmicah graduated from Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, with a fashion merchandising degree. Stephenville is about an hour and a half west of Dallas-Fort Worth, amid a treasure trove of outdoor adventure. That same year he met Heather. The two stayed in town so Heather could finish her studies at Tarleton State, with no clear plans to settle down there. Back then, the idea of starting an outdoor store was on their radar, but only as a joke: “My friends and I had this running gag, like one day someone’s going to open an outdoor shop in Stephenville, make a whole bunch of money, and hit it rich,” Jahmicah says. Right after the couple married in 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and racial tensions increased in Stephenville, a white-majority city where the Klu Klux Klan held a rally in 2007. The couple considered moving to a more diverse place that would be welcoming of their interracial relationship and future children, even applying to jobs across the U.S. In 2016, a sneaker company offered Jahmicah a job if he was willing to move to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. For a man who loved sneaker culture, it seemed like an easy answer. But Jahmicah had something else brewing in his mind. “I remember it as clear as day,” Heather says. “We were driving to my parents’ house and he pitched SPO to me.” The old joke had finally started to make business sense to Jahmicah, and he figured they’d have the support of the community they’d been part of for years. “I said,
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Downtime on the film shoot (top); Jahmicah fishing with his son, father, and older brother
‘We’ll do it. We’ll try it. But when this fails, we are out of here. I’m not living here anymore.’” So the couple opened SPO in 2017—unknowingly becoming the first Black-owned outdoor gear shop in the U.S. In fact, there weren’t many Black-owned outdoor businesses in the industry, period. “I always say the joke is on us because we opened the shop and we’re definitely not rich,” Jahmicah laughs. But between 2017 and 2020, SPO did well, and for the most part, revenue increased each year. Though Heather wasn’t completely sold on the idea of SPO at the beginning, by 2020 she was all in. “My attitude toward the store had definitely changed,” she says. “We were both doing things to make it work. I was making sure we could make payroll.” On weekends and days off from her full-time job as executive director of a local nonprofit, “I work the shop or do back-office stuff so we don’t have to pay other people to do that,” she says. Jahmicah, Heather, their family, and their staff all play different roles in the store’s success. Heather can usually be found behind the cash register, managing the finances, or running the shop’s social media. Finis maneuvers around displays and clothing stands in a baby walker, while Silas plays with a toy cash register on a bench or follows his dad around the store.
Creative endeavors and community engagement are Jahmicah’s forte, and his vision is apparent when you enter SPO. The sounds of blues, rock, or folk music on vinyl greet you as you inhale the smell of charred wood, smoky embers, and spice from burning incense, and feel Bill Murray, the family’s basset hound, nuzzling your feet. The shop holds a colorful array of outdoor gear, like apparel, shoes, blankets, water bottles, bags, mugs, and vintage items displayed on wood-pallet walls. On weekends, locals crowd the shop for community events like yoga or bikepacking classes. Jahmicah has created an experience that fits with one of his many sayings: “It may be Stephenville out there, but it’s ‘Stephen-Chill’ in here.” But just as the store was growing steadily and flirting with success, the pandemic hit, and everything they’d worked so hard to build came very close to slipping through their fingers.
An Unexpected Call
In 2020, “we were heading into year three and feeling really good,” Heather says. “We had paid down a lot of debt. But the week that we had been open for three years is when we had to close down.” SPO closed its brick-and-mortar shop for part of March and all of April per the state’s orders, then reopened with retail-to-go and limited in-person shopping in summer. Around the time Jahmicah and Heather celebrated the birth of their second child that May, the future of their business became of great concern. Bills were due, and though they received a U.S. Small Business Association (SBA) loan and one month’s free rent from the retail building’s owner, their debt increased as sales dropped significantly. Jahmicah had to get a second job working a stock position overnight at Home Depot, then a grocery store, through the summer so SPO could make payroll.
“It’s not a super-high-income area within a 40-mile radius,” Heather says. “A lot of people don’t have disposable income. In a pandemic, you need food and water, and to make sure that your bills are paid, and that’s it.” With each month that passed, the possibility of having to close the shop increased. “I remember going to Google to search ‘how do you sell a business,’” Jahmicah recalls. “I called a buddy who had bought an outdoor business and asked him, ‘Did you have a realtor or was there a broker?’ He broke down the process but then said, ‘Hey, you’re not there yet. When it’s that time, I will help you however I can,’” Jahmicah says. “That held some weight. I said, ‘Okay then, we will suffer a little bit longer.’” And suffer they did, until July 2020, when they received a surprising call. The Outbound Collective, a digital media platform, wanted the Daweses and SPO to be the focus of its next documentary in the #EveryoneOutside film series. Brian Heifferon, co-founder and CEO, learned about SPO through an Instagram Live event that July, hosted by the PR firm JAM Collective, in which Jahmicah spoke about representation in the outdoor industry. Heifferon realized the family and their shop would be a perfect fit. “The goal of our film series is to elevate the stories of remarkable individuals who’ve traditionally been excluded from the outdoor industry’s dominant narrative,” he says. “We thought their purpose and their story really needed to reach more people.” A crew flew out in November 2020. After a week of shooting, and learning the full extent of SPO’s precarious financial situation, The Outbound Collective and its partner production company, Wondercamp, suggested starting a GoFundMe campaign for the shop. The Daweses were a bit hesitant at first to share personal details
Jahmicah being interviewed in the shop
“We’re here to love the community,” Jahmicah says.
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about their family life and financial affairs. “It was a tough decision to make because the video and the GoFundMe would be public,” Jahmicah says. “We prayed about it.” Deciding that the trade-off was worth it, they ultimately moved forward with the crowdfunding campaign, launching with a goal of $142,000 at the same time the film was released last February. Donations flooded in from friends, strangers as far away as New Zealand, and businesses like Taos Ski Valley. By the end, more than 4,400 donors gave a total of $172,001. (And the movie was selected for four film festivals this year, including the Roxbury International and Mountainfilm.) “Having so many people we don’t know donate to the GoFundMe was a humbling experience,” Jahmicah says. “It shows that what we are doing here is important and resonates with people.”
A Second Chance
The Daweses never expected the barrage of nationwide support they received. The store’s Instagram went from 6,000 to 21,000 followers in a few days and the online shop saw a flood of orders. “We were down to the very bare bones of product because we didn’t have any money,” Heather says. They sold out of everything in 12 hours. Eventually people could only preorder products; SPO’s branded T-shirts and hats proved especially popular. “We did half the revenue of 2020 in the month of February 2021,” Heather says. “Granted, our 2020 numbers were very down, and sales have definitely fallen off since then, but it was still better than what we expected.” Jahmicah and Heather used the GoFundMe donations to pay off the store’s debt and their investors—so they now completely own the business (not the building). But though it’s easy to assume the donations solved all of SPO’s problems, the campaign didn’t overwhelmingly change their lives. It just helped the owners get back on their feet. “When we tallied up what we made with the GoFundMe, it was what we needed to essentially start over,” Jahmicah says. “I’m very grateful for it, but we’re in an industry where we are still 10 steps behind. I get to reenter the building, but I’m still at the back of the line.” That said, the Daweses have plenty of ideas to move forward. “It’s been cool to see our online store grow,” Heather says. “We hope that continues.” Jahmicah chuckles and raises his eyebrows. “We need it to.” SPO rehired a retail consultant they’d worked with in the past to create a plan to keep the store thriving. “We are currently working off of a buying plan and have specific financial goals for the coming year,” Heather says. “We’re working to bolster
our e-commerce as well so we can get our products, especially our private-label products, out to a larger market.” In addition to the retail consultant, SPO will tap the expertise of a volunteer advisory board that includes the likes of Julie Atherton of JAM Collective; Heifferon of the Outbound Collective; Alex Bailey of Black Outside; Koby Crooks, an outdoor independent sales representative with Alpine Cowboy; and Chad Haring, vice president and general merchandising manager of Dick’s Sporting Goods. All agreed to help after being inspired by the film. “The goal is to find people that have an expertise and have them help us grow our brand and business,” Heather explains. Many small businesses, especially BIPOC-owned businesses, struggled or closed during the pandemic. So to be in this position—where the Daweses now own their shop and have an array of business experts at their back—feels like a blessing to Heather and Jahmicah.
Slim Pickins Outfitters (top); Heather in the shop for an election watch party
Scenes from the Outbound Collective/Wondercamp film shoot
“The fact that we were put on firm footing from the GoFundMe is really impactful,” Heather says. “It creates a different level of encouragement and wind in our sails. When things get tough we will always remember the kindness of those folks and feel a commitment to them.”
Paving the Way
The welcoming and inclusive atmosphere of SPO draws people like Alex Herrera, a Mexican American fly-fishing guide with Living Waters Fly Fishing. Herrerra also attended Tarleton State University, just down the street from SPO, but never knew the store existed until a friend from Montana sent him a link to the Outbound Collective film in February. As soon as he could, Herrera visited the shop, and he and Jahmicah quickly bonded over fly-fishing. “It was such a cool thing to see a Black-owned shop in a town that would otherwise not want it here,” Herrera says. “Who else is going to set up a shop across from a Confederate monument? I said, ‘That’s a place I need to go to because I’ve felt the judgment in this industry.’ Being someplace like this, where I can kill time and feel comfortable every second, is amazing.” Herrera wasn’t the only person moved by the documentary to visit SPO. Some have taken weekend trips from Austin, while others driving cross-country or to Big Bend National Park have rerouted to stop at SPO and meet a family they admire. The Daweses sometimes feel conflicted about their newfound fame, particularly how to authentically approach their new role as influencers in the outdoor industry. As Heather puts it: “Who wants to see us? We’re normal people.” Still, the couple is forging ahead and learning more about branding and partnerships, expanding their marketing, and coming up with ways to build on the energy they received from the documentary. Jahmicah has plenty of ideas for the future—a podcast, blogs, gear
reviews, brand and media partnerships, and nonprofit work. He has dreams of starting an incubator and accelerator program for people of color with outdoor business ideas. “I was in REI the other day,” Jamicah says, “and got recognized by an Asian American employee who said, ‘I want to thank you for what you’re doing.’ He then told me some of his business ideas. Why isn’t an incubator program with financial and business resources for people of color not a thing already? I know I’m not the first one to think of this, so where is this idea getting snuffed out?” (SPO doesn’t have the bandwidth to start such a program now, but encourages any outdoor business with the capability to start a BIPOC incubator program to take the idea and run with it.) In the meantime, SPO will support BIPOC-owned businesses by looking for ways to carry their brands in-store and providing resources or a road map on what the Daweses did with their shop so others can follow. “History shows that we, people of color, were the first stewards, cultivators, and conservationists of the land,” Jahmicah says. “Even if the papers or documents don’t say we own it, we were here, we worked and toiled over it, and that shows ownership. “Just because we’re the first, we don’t want to be last. Even if we end up going down, we’ve shown it can work, should work, and that there should be more Black and brown bodies in the outdoors.” It’s this spirit that Jahmicah and Heather instill in their sons, especially Silas, who loves interacting with visitors of SPO just like his father. Silas never hesitates to approach customers and ask them their names before starting a conversation. Perhaps it comes with the knowledge that SPO is his space. “I tell Silas, ‘This is our shop. I want you to repeat it. I want you to meditate on that,’” Jahmicah says as he watches his son play. “With that, comes a sense of ownership and responsibility, and a drive to fight even more for it. “Say it with me, Silas, ‘This is ours. This is ours.’” SUMMER 2021
By Christine Peterson
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ILLUSTRATION BY ROBS | PHOTO BY JAMES RANDKLEV / CORBIS DOCUMENTARY VIA GETTY IMAGES
Hunters and anglers say other outdoor users need to step up as the costs of conservation skyrocket.
Land Tawney wants everyone to stop using the term “backpack tax.” People hate taxes. But the idea of taxing outdoor gear to help pay for conservation should be unifying, explains Tawney, the CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. So instead, he suggests, let’s call it an Outdoor Legacy Fund. Let’s describe it as an opportunity for everyone who enjoys the outdoors to help contribute to the protection of that same outdoors. Because hunters and anglers can’t keep paying more than half of the bill to protect the nation’s fish and wildlife through their license fees and excise taxes, especially when only 4 percent of the U.S. population hunts and only 14 percent fishes. But ultimately, the “backpack tax” or Outdoor Legacy Fund or whatever it’s billed as, is, in fact, a tax—one Tawney feels gets more critical as outdoor participation continues to surge. He also thinks that, even after decades of fruitless discussion, it’s finally gaining steam.
ILLUSTRATION BY ROBS | PHOTO BY JAMES RANDKLEV / CORBIS DOCUMENTARY VIA GETTY IMAGES
Our conservation funding system was never built with hikers, trail runners, climbers, or mountain bikers in mind. That’s because it was created nearly a century ago, before any of those sports existed as organized pursuits—back when the biggest recreational users of U.S. public land were hunters and anglers. In the early 1900s, when wildlife species were disappearing across the country, the hunting community and surrounding industry rallied to create what’s known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, which levied a 10- to 11-percent tax on guns and ammunition, paid for by the manufacturers, to help fund conservation. It passed in 1937, and in 1950, the Dingell-Johnson Act also passed, setting aside a 3- to 10-percent tax on fishing and boating equipment. The two acts have resulted in about $23 billion going to states for conservation and recreation projects since their inception. However, income from those acts has been declining for decades as hunters age out and new participation lags. Not that it matters, says Randy Newberg, host of the online show Fresh Tracks with Randy Newberg and one of the nation’s most visible hunting personalities. “The cost of conservation is increasing faster than the cost of excise taxes [ever could],” says Newberg. “If you think the old idea that hunters and anglers, through excise fees and licenses, can foot the increasing conservation bill, I have some news for you. That’s just a terminal path.” In the meantime, record numbers of hikers, campers, and other recreationists are flooding the nation’s parks and open spaces. It’s a welcome development for those who have spent years encouraging outdoor participaton. But it comes at a time when more studies show that nonconsumptive outdoor recreation is having real impact on the wildlife that hunters and anglers have been paying to conserve. A 2019 meta-analysis in the journal Conservation Science and Practice found that 70 percent of the time, the richness and abundance of wildlife suffered in association with higher levels of recreation. And as newer user groups strain trail systems, more states are relying on money from strapped general funds, lotteries, and other sources. Luke Todd is the owner of The Sports Lure in Buffalo, Wyoming, a store that sits at the base of the Bighorn Mountains. Some estimates showed upwards of 35,000 people visited the Bighorns during July weekends in 2020—roughly the population of Wyoming’s third-biggest city. The fish and wildlife felt it, Todd says. “We hate to have more closed roads and trails,” he says. “But [the outdoors] is a very fragile thing.” Improving access is the only way to accommodate more visitors; it’s that or start restricting visitation. But to do that, land managers have to either buy new land, or buy easements to access public land across private parcels—an expensive proposition. That’s why hunters like Tawney and Newberg say it’s time for everyone to chip in.
This isn’t the first conversation about instituting some kind of backpack tax. In 2000, the outdoor gear industry helped remove a provision from the final version of the the Conservation and Reinvestment Act that would have levied taxes on outdoor equipment. Discussions have continued over the years, but no more legislation
has been drafted since then. But many outdoor brands worry that an additional tax will cut into their revenues—or that they’ll be forced to pass the increase onto the consumer, upping barriers to entry. And the financial burdens on outdoor companies have only increased since 2000, says Rich Harper, Outdoor Industry Association’s director of government affairs. The industry already pays billions per year in tariffs and local and state taxes, many of which were instituted in the last few years. The conversation should focus on other options, says Marc Berejka, REI’s director of community and government affairs. REI has opposed the idea of backpack tax for years. “The combined tax revenue generated at the local, state, and federal levels by outdoor recreation exceeds $125 billion,” he says. In other words, the outdoor industry—and by extension, outdoor consumers—are already paying plenty in taxes; it’s time for the feds to meet the industry halfway. “The government doesn’t spend anywhere close to $125 billion in supporting recreation,” Berejka says. In the past few years, Georgia and Texas each passed bills to divert a portion of proceeds from existing sales tax on outdoor recreation equipment. That money now goes into a pot to help pay for local and state parks and historic sites and to protect wildlife and clean water. Texas has had various iterations of the law since 1993, but in 2018 approved spending $277 million, or 89 percent of funds from sales taxes on outdoor gear, on land conservation. Berejka believes states should follow Texas’s lead instead of instituting another tax. Jessica Wahl Turner, executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, says conservation advocates should look first at programs that already exist but are aren’t fully funded, like the Recreational Trails Program (which uses gas tax to pay for trails) and the Sport Fish Restoration Fund (which is financed through motorboat fuel and fishing equipment sales and import duties on boats). But Tawney believes passing the buck isn’t enough, and that most outdoor users are ready for a backpack tax—even if some of the cost falls to them. “People are willing to do it, but companies are not willing to have that conversation,” he says. While the exact details are far from final, some industry experts have tossed around the idea of a 1-percent tax, which would raise the price of a $100 pack to $101. A 5-percent tax, as was discussed in the ’90s, would raise that pack to $105. Backpack tax proponents say that’s not a make-or-break amount for consumers. Even so, Tawney advocates for lowering tariffs as a way to prevent increased costs. Plus, he says, if more money doesn’t go to conservation now, states and municipalities will begin charging (or raising) trail and user fees—a much larger financial hurdle for those with limited incomes. Todd, owner of Wyoming’s The Sports Lure, says a tax on outdoor gear isn’t only necessary, it also just isn’t that big of a deal. His parents started the shop in 1968, and all those years have proven that hunters and anglers are proud to invest in the resources they rely on. “[An excise tax] will be relatively invisible to the consumer and the dealers,” he says. “I don’t see it as an impediment.” Plus, he adds, it would be worse to undervalue, rather than overvalue, our fish, wildlife, and natural spaces. “We have an embarrassment of riches, and we have to take care of them.” SUMMER 2021
By Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan
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PHOTOS BY (FROM LEFT) ERIC LARSEN; LAUREN DANILEK
A cancer diagnosis has put polar explorer Eric Larsen on the toughest journey of his life.
PHOTOS BY (FROM LEFT) ERIC LARSEN; LAUREN DANILEK
ric Larsen remembers March 22, 2014, as one of the hardest days of his life. Seven days earlier, he and his adventure partner, Ryan Waters, had set out from Northern Ellesmere Island bound for the North Pole. The temperature hovered at -35ºF, and they’d been making a demoralizing mile and a half of progress per day, stymied by having to drag 325-pound sleds over sandpaper ice. Then, on day eight, the duo woke up to a polar whiteout, their tent shuddering like a Yeti had seized its poles and wouldn’t stop shaking. “We had 480 miles to go,” Larsen says. With hundreds of thousands of dollars sunk into the project and years spent on planning, his fading shot at the Pole weighed heavily. He texted his wife, Maria Hennessey, “We’re not going to make it.” He’d go back to that tent in a heartbeat rather than repeat another day of the chemotherapy he endured last spring: “Anything is easier than chemo.”
Larsen and suffering have been well acquainted for years. As one of the world’s most accomplished polar explorers, he’s journeyed to the North Pole six times— three times on full expeditions from land (including on that 2014 expedition, which he and Waters pulled off after all by cutting back sleep to four hours a night), and three as a guide. He’s stood at the South Pole six times. Beginning in 2009, he tagged both poles and added a Mt. Everest summit within a 365-day period. Larsen is also a sought-after teacher and guide, leading others in the coldest reaches of the planet or training them to mount their own trips. He’s
been dunked in the Arctic Ocean, stuck in an Everest blizzard, and stalked by a polar bear. In other words, Larsen is one tough guy. But of course, there’s something about the words “You have cancer” that shakes even the strongest among us. Dogged by gastrointestinal issues and fatigue for months after breaking his collarbone mountain biking last summer, Larsen underwent a series of tests that led to a diagnosis of colorectal cancer in early January. “Everything came to a halt the day we got that diagnosis,” says Hennessey, who founded the PR firm SMAK Strategies. “I remember Eric saying, ‘Next week I have a polar training course in Minnesota,’ and the doctor was like, ‘You have to drop everything.’” Larsen’s initial diagnosis was presumed metastatic rectal cancer, stage IV, because scans also showed suspicious spots in his lungs. One oncologist told him he might have “several good years left.” Shocked and
terrified, he returned to his home in Crested Butte, Colorado, to figure out how to tell his two kids, eight-year-old Merritt and sixyear-old Ellie. In early February, Larsen went to Denver for an advanced lung biopsy that would definitively tell the family just how far his cancer had spread. “As they wheeled me into the operating room, I was nearly hyperventilating from fear,” he wrote on CaringBridge later. “Tears were pouring down my face and into my oxygen mask.” When he regained consciousness, a doctor stopped by to tell him there was a 95 percent chance the lung nodules were not cancerous. “I cried again— deep, long sobs, but this time with relief.” The final analysis confirmed the cancer hadn’t spread, dropping Larsen’s diagnosis to stage III and putting him on a path for a cure. Instantly, the scope of Larsen’s globetrotting life narrowed to just one goal: beating
“[Cancer] had to take my cold tolerance as well ... That’s like Superman not being able to fly”
Larsen at home in Crested Butte, Colorado, in May
the cancer. Besides canceling his winter training course, Larsen also had to pull the plug on his 2021 North Pole guiding season; a scouting trip across Svalbard, Norway, for a fat-biking guided trip he’s developing; and journeys to Greenland and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Nor could he confidently plan beyond this year; for a man who’s constantly thinking two to four years ahead, the forced pause felt stifling. And that was nowhere near the worst of it. Larsen started chemotherapy in nearby Gunnison a few weeks after the biopsy. This is what it felt like: “On a Tuesday, I go in and spend six or seven hours getting radioactive, toxic chemicals pumped into my body,” he says. A pump stays attached to him for another 48 hours at home, dispensing more drugs. And he’s completely knocked out with nausea and fatigue for Wednesday. And Thursday. And Friday. And Saturday. Larsen thought he knew what it felt like to be exhausted, but “You just don’t understand this fatigue that’s chemically induced,” he says. “For me, not doing anything, not helping with the kids, just lying in bed—it’s a low place. On all levels, it’s the bottom: physically, mentally, emotionally, philosophically.” By Sunday, though, Larsen would start to feel better, and he’d have a “good” week at home with about 40 percent of his normal energy. He repeated the cycle six times, then headed to Boston for six weeks of radiation therapy at Massachusetts General Hospital. He tolerated it well, and returned home in early July. Next comes surgery to remove the tumor in his rectum, planned for early fall. After that? Impossible to say. Cancer is a debilitating slog toward an uncertain outcome. Kind of like a polar expedition.
Maybe there’s no way to truly prepare yourself to fight cancer, but plodding across Antarctica has to come close. On his trips to the South Pole, Larsen made peace with moving through nothingness, inching forward in a frigid, monochrome world toward a dizzyingly faraway goal. “It’s boring as hell,” he says. “Sometimes it feels like a prison, like you’re stuck in the situation. An expedition is managing big amounts of time and boredom. I call it the art of killing time.”
At work in (from top): Nepal’s Rolwaling Valley; Svalbard, Norway; Alaska
PHOTOS BY (CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT) RYAN WATERS, LAUREN DANILEK; JOSIAH HOLWICK; ERIC LARSEN
Larsen turned to a time-honored strategy on the ice: focusing on small interim goals rather than the overwhelming final objective, living mile by mile if not step by step. It’s a skill that’s served him well so far throughout cancer treatment. During the worst of his chemotherapy, Larsen shrunk his world down to its most basic elements: Just get through the night. Just make it to the bathroom. Just keep this bite down. Just wait out this hour. “Right now, I don’t even know what’s going to happen with surgery,” Larsen says. “It’s just so far away. On the Arctic Ocean, you don’t know what conditions are going to be like, what you’re going to feel like. You just hone in on these smaller objectives, and get comfortable with a lot of unknowns.” But just as the depths of despair are familiar territory for him, so too is the high that comes from pushing through them. “I don’t necessarily like doing hard things,” Larsen says. “I like getting through hard things. I spend so much time on expeditions hating life, really scared or tired. When you’re at the lowest point, all you want to do is give up. But the feeling of empowerment you get from getting through that is just amazing—it’s like a drug.” At the lowest points of chemo, with days of crippling nausea and exhaustion ahead, he clung to the certainty that the high would come again. And it has, every time. On the days he could get out of bed, though, Larsen had questions both practical and existential waiting for him. Like, what happens to a go-go-go adventurer who’s forced to slow down and stay in one place? Was he even an adventurer if he wasn’t planning the next expedition? And if not, then who was he? “If you stop moving, stuff stops happening,” Larsen says. Making a living as a polar explorer, at least for him, comes from about 50 percent guiding income, 30 percent sponsorships, 10 percent speaking fees, and 10 percent miscellaneous income, such as licensing video footage. Most of that vanished with the cancer diagnosis, including all but one of his sponsorships. Larsen doesn’t hold it against the companies—many of his contacts have called to express their concern, and he knows brands have been hit hard by the pandemic. “They’re businesses, I get it,” he says, “and I’m not doing anything.” The notable exception: baselayer and accessory brand Seirus. “The only deliverable for us this year is that he gets healthy,” notes Director of
Marketing Operations Danica Carey. Still, the change has been jarring. “Last year, I had this amazing year—presentations in Europe, selling video footage for documentaries, getting interviewed, commercials, guiding gigs, media trips,” Larsen says. “Now I open my inbox, and it’s nothing.” And in a salt-in-the-wound twist, one of chemo’s side effects is temporary cold dysesthesia: a painful hypersensitivity to anything cold on the skin. “This cancer has taken away so many things,” Larsen wrote on CaringBridge in early May. “My job, some of my sponsors, sense of hope (at times), physical abilities, and more, but it had to take my cold tolerance as well … that’s like Superman not being able to fly.”
On the Arctic Ocean, Larsen lived by the mantra, “Where there’s bad ice, good ice will follow. And where there’s good ice, bad ice will follow.” So he moves forward with treatment, day by day, mile by mile. And he looks forward, as much as he can, from under the cloud of uncertainty. “I still have this drive to do big expeditions,” he says. “But the things I think about now are not necessarily my big achievements, but more when I’ve helped other people out.” Now, he says, he’s more focused on ways he might share his
Larsen and his wife, Maria Hennessey
skills to make a difference for others. Even before his diagnosis, Larsen had been thinking about creating a program to train Black athletes in polar travel—an idea inspired by one of his heroes, Matthew Henson, a pioneering Black adventurer who explored the Arctic around the turn of the 20th century. As his energy returned post-chemo, Larsen started developing a camp to teach aspiring Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) adventurers polar exploration and guiding skills. And Larsen’s public speaking engagements already focused on dealing with crises and overcoming adversity. “Without jumping the gun too much, I feel like the diagnosis and this experience has the opportunity to open doors with his business,” Hennessey says. “When he’s on the other side of this, the perspective he’s gained and the hindsights he can impart will be an opportunity to connect with and inspire more people.” It’s hard to see the future clearly from here, down in the depths of the journey. But the high beckons. Good ice will follow. It’s a path Eric Larsen has walked before. SUMMER 2021
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ILLUSTRATION BY ROBS & RETROROCKET / ISTOCK / GETTY IMAGES PLUS; 4X6/DIGITALVISION VECTORS
Today’s athlete sponsorships are rife with dangerous pressure, inequality, and unfair compensation. It’s time for things to change. By Corey Buhay
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Director Jamie Starr adds that, for many years, the brand has had a rigorous team peer review process for expeditions and is careful to never put any external pressure on athletes to take undue risk— including on Howse Peak. Still, these are familiar worries for many athletes. And there are other concerns with the current sponsorship system, particularly for winter ambassadors who have only a short season with uncertain conditions to accomplish many contractual obligations, Hammer says. “Two of my three injuries occurred while filming,” she explains, noting that it’s impossible to say whether they would have happened without a camera present. Both injuries left her with medical debt, which she was left to pay on her own. “While there isn’t direct pressure to perform crazy stunts, there remains an inevitable pressure,” she says. “And I don’t think it has to be that way.” When these three men died, The North Face, by all accounts, rose to the occasion, footing the bill for loved ones’ flights and travel expenses. Providing therapy and support. Paying for the funerals. None of this was required—athlete contracts rarely mention, let alone cover, such expenses. And all of it is certainly costly to a brand. The North Face stepped up, says Hammer. It did the right thing, handling it all in just the right way. But while members of The North Face team certainly grieved, the brand, through no fault of its own, ultimately emerged looking like a hero, its reputation untarnished. Stories like this highlight the imbalances that exist in the sponsorship equation. Today, controversy accompanies everything from how athletes are selected, to their role in hitting a brand’s DEI targets, to the contracts they sign. As that equation becomes more critical to the success of outdoor brands, it may be time to rethink it.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE NORTH FACE
n April 16, 2019, David Lama, Hansjörg Auer, and Jess Roskelley died in an avalanche on Howse Peak in the Canadian Rockies. All three were on The North Face climbing team. At the time, the trio was seeking the second ascent of a route called M-16, which had been climbed once, back in 1999. The first ascensionists described pitches of overhanging ice, blinding spindrift, and collapsing cornices that nearly killed one of their party. But in alpine climbing, unrepeated routes are rare trophies, and Lama, Auer, and Roskelley were some of the best in the world. Why wouldn’t The North Face give them its blessing? And perhaps the brand was right to do so; according to photos recovered from Roskelley’s phone, the three made it to the summit. That was before the avalanche. When I heard the news, I grieved with the rest of the climbing community. In the past few years, I’ve lost two friends to the mountains. This tragedy felt too familiar. Lama, Auer, and Roskelley had never climbed together. I wondered if they would have chosen to partner up if it weren’t for the convenience of sharing a sponsor. If they would have picked a less hazardous trial run if they hadn’t been vying with other athletes for The North Face’s limited pool of funding. If they would have turned back earlier had Roskelley and Lama not been so new to The North Face’s team—only about a year each—and perhaps still trying to prove themselves. If they would have called it sooner if not for the expenses already incurred. Hadley Hammer, Lama’s girlfriend and an eight-year member of The North Face ski team, believes Lama’s motivations on Howse Peak were purely intrinsic. The North Face Global Sports Marketing
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE NORTH FACE
A Broken Model When news broke of the tragedy on Howse Peak, Horst Eidenmüller, a law professor at the University of Oxford, was in the midst of examining some of the same questions about the hidden pressures athletes face. In August and September of 2018, he conducted interviews with 40 sponsored athletes across a range of adventure sports, from alpine climbing to big-mountain skiing to freestyle motocross, and later published his findings in the Marquette Sports Law Review. Eidenmüller’s conclusion: “These contracts are unbalanced,” he says. “Sponsors—let me be blunt—they are ripping off the athletes.” The trouble is that athletes are easy prey; most interviewees told Eidenmüller that they’re more passionate about their sports than they are about money. That lets brands get away with paying them, on average, $5,000 to $20,000 a year for what often amounts to a quarter- to half-time job. That’s barely enough to cover their training, health care, avalanche education, and other expenses. Even top-tier athletes like Alex Honnold, who make salaries somewhere in the six-figure range, are a steal, Eidenmüller says. That’s because marketing today relies heavily on personality, dynamic storytelling, and dialogue, explains Jonathan Retseck. Retseck is a founder and managing partner of talent management firm RXR Sports and represents an impressive roster of outdoor industry bigwigs, like Jimmy Chin, Alex Honnold, Scott Jurek, and Kate Courtney. “We’re also seeing more and more consulting work integrated into [athlete] contracts,” Retseck adds, explaining that brands increasingly rely on athletes to help develop new products, provide design input, and shape marketing campaigns. “All of that is extremely valuable to a brand.” Just how valuable? From his analysis of annual revenues and mar-
keting budgets of some top sponsors, Eidenmüller estimates that big international brands are making as much as millions of dollars in additional revenue from their household-name athletes. Compared to that, he says, even a six-figure salary is a paltry sum. “The picture that emerges is that of a market tilted heavily towards satisfying the interests of the sponsors,” Eidenmüller says. Thanks to the Covid-19 boost, the outdoor sector is booming. That influx of revenue has allowed more brands to create athlete teams or expand existing ones. And thanks to the recent push for brands to improve representation of diverse adventurers, athlete teams have been hauled even further into the spotlight.
‘‘If someone dies in the mountains, who foots the bill?”” After all, athletes are the faces of a brand. They’re also usually inexpensive, on short contracts (typically just one to three years), and easy to turn over to meet the needs of the day. According to two former La Sportiva athletes who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being passed over for future sponsorships, La Sportiva dropped about half its North American athlete team—close to 45 people—earlier this year via a mass email. A number of the new 2021 La Sportiva athletes are people of color and best known for being outspoken on social media on issues of race and social justice. “We reviewed our current situation and future plans and ultimately made some tough calls,” says Quinn Carrasco, marketing manager for La Sportiva North America. “It’s been a huge learning process.” The brand primarily offers athletes one-year contracts, requires regular social media posts in exchange for gear, and offers no monetary compensation to most ambassadors. La Sportiva dropped a similar percentage of athletes in 2020. Carrasco says it’s hard to let ambassadors go but that turnover is an inevitable part of any athlete program and will naturally fluctuate from year to year. Steve House, a legendary alpinist who now consults for brands building athlete teams, explains that this high-quantity, high-turnover system does make sense for some brands. “The thing is that you have no idea who’s going to pan out,” he says. “You have 100 athletes and one of them is going to be Alex Honnold, and you have no idea which one.”
Mentorship Over Sponsorship Scarpa CEO Kim Miller, who is Asian American, also noticed a hole in the demographics of Scarpa’s athlete team in 2020. But for Miller, the answer wasn’t to bring on a host of green, unvetted athletes. “The first thing I realized was that there just aren’t many people of color in our outdoor sports, industry, and community,” Miller says. “And the second thing is that you can’t just walk into a field and say, ‘Grow, plants, grow!’ These things really have to be developed.”
From left: David Lama, Hansjörg Auer, and Jess Roskelley
Scarpa mentee Aidan Goldie skis with his mentor, Chris Davenport, near Aspen, Colorado.
from diverse backgrounds are set up for success,” Goldie says. “It’s given me a lot of connections in the industry. And Chris has been a great resource.” The mentorship program, he says, is doing exactly what it set out to: bridge historic inequities by lifting new voices up.
The Third Model Over the past year, a third model of sponsorship has emerged: eschewing the somewhat elitist idea of the athlete altogether and instead sponsoring changemakers from diverse backgrounds who can speak to new audiences and untapped markets. Backcountry pioneered that model when it launched its Breaking Trail program this April. Instead of scrambling to start new relationships with people of color, which could come off as tokenizing, the brand moved to sponsor seven prominent advocates and community leaders with whom it had already built close relationships. While plenty of outdoor brands had partnered with culturally diverse advocates for occasional campaigns, this reimagined take on sponsorship broke new ground. Ambassadors were selected not based on past ascents or expeditions, but on their nonprofit involve-
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ment. And the brand intends to add new ambassadors and build upon the program in the future.
Diversity without Exploitation Widening the definition of who can be a sponsored athlete is certainly a big step when it comes to inclusivity, but it doesn’t solve the power imbalances that Eidenmüller uncovered in his research. And some athletes believe the shift could exacerbate those imbalances. After all, the current structure tends to provide less compensation to athletes who “achieve” less. But today, the role of an athlete isn’t just to tag summits, and some, like Andrew Alexander King, worry that the other, equally important work will go undercompensated. King, who is African American, is a sponsored mountaineer pursuing the Seven Summits. “I think athletes of color are often taken advantage of,” he says. Part of that is because, due to historic inequities, athletes of color are less likely to have had the resources to understand how the sponsorship system works and negotiate effectively. “Think of it like a race,” he says. “Athletes of color have been standing outside the stadium, and the world has just let them in. But the race has already started, and by now, an athlete of privilege is already two laps ahead.” In that sense, if the athlete is climbing or skiing at a lower level than an athlete from a privileged background, it’s perfectly reasonable, and shouldn’t result in fewer opportunities. Plus, there’s the matter of supply and demand, King says. Athletes of color are few and far between, and right now an image of a Black man climbing in branded gear is extremely valuable. Many boilerplate contracts, which include lifetime licensing for images, don’t reflect that. So, when King talks to a potential sponsor, he starts by demanding changes. “You can have my photos for one year,” he says. “Any time after that you have to re-sign or go through contracts. If you put my face up in 2023 without my consent, you’re profiting off that, which is exploiting my story and my culture to benefit your profits.” Brands, he says, would do well to listen. Or, better yet, offer athletes of color what they’re worth in the first place.
Calling for Change King’s negotiations often catch sponsors by surprise. That’s because, Eidenmüller says, brands hold all the power in those conversations; they’re not used to negotiation. Mentorship, à la Scarpa’s SAMI program, could help bridge that power gap and give young athletes the tools they need to negotiate with confidence. More transparency around contract terms and salaries, which are currently guarded as “proprietary,” would also give athletes and brands the information they need to reach fair terms. While Eidenmüller believes athlete contracting would most benefit from regulatory oversight, he says the faster, more practical solution is for brands to take responsibility for the outsized power they hold over athletes. The onus should be on them to carefully spell out all the implications for new athletes or ambassadors, and to offer the stability of longer contracts, increased and stable financial compensation, and/or health insurance whenever possible.
PHOTOS BY (FROM LEFT) FRED MARMSATER; WYN WILEY/PATTIE GONIA
For Miller, the answer was to start a mentorship program for upand-coming athletes. The program would allow the brand to both maintain existing relationships with its athletes and give new athletes the resources they need to navigate the industry, advance in their respective sports, and market themselves effectively. Called the Scarpa Athlete Mentorship Initiative, or SAMI, the six-month program matches each mentee with an existing Scarpa athlete. It also provides mentees with gear and networking opportunities. However, mentees aren’t required to use or post about Scarpa gear; there are no strings attached, Miller explains. “This was never about creating more athletes on our team.” Aidan Goldie, a science teacher, ski mountaineer, and diversity advocate based in Carbondale, Colorado, was selected as part of the inaugural SAMI class. He and his mentor, Chris Davenport, ski together and text on a regular basis. “It’s a really intentional program that makes sure these athletes
PHOTOS BY (FROM LEFT) FRED MARMSATER; WYN WILEY/PATTIE GONIA
““I think the reality is that social media infuencers don’t have much inFluence”” Where the Responsibility Lies As for limiting risk? “I think athletes bear some responsibility to know their own limits, and to know them before they’re in a place where those limits are being tested,” Hammer says. “Plus, it’s the athletes [who are] coming up with these ideas. We’re asking the brand to support us. Even if The North Face or other brands scaled back [on their interest in dangerous expeditions], I don’t know if we would.” Difficult realities are easier to absorb if we have someone to blame. Preferably, a faceless entity with deep pockets. But deep down, I know Hammer is right. At least one of the friends I lost in the mountains was chasing a personal speed record at the time of his death. Eventually, he hoped to be sponsored. But both friends had gone out, first and foremost, in search of the sublime. In a world without funding, social media, or external gratification, they would have done it anyway. As La Sportiva’s Carrasco says, “Ultimately, our goal with sponsorship is just to align projects—we want to work with people who are highly motivated. When our goals align with theirs, that’s when we can help each other out.” But even if brands don’t push their athletes or demand certain ob-
Backcountry launched its new ambassador team, the first of its kind, this April.
jectives, they are still in the business of selecting and paying people with enough passion and grit to push those limits. For that reason, contracts need to clearly stipulate who is responsible when the worst happens, Eidenmüller says. If someone gets injured or sick, how long until they have to be performing again (see “Bad Ice,” p. 94)? If someone dies in the mountains, who foots the bill?
The Future of Sponsorship As brands get bigger and add to their athlete rosters, more people than ever before will be sponsored in some way, Eidenmüller says. The market will grow more competitive as it crowds with voices talking up their own achievements—and more jaded as audiences wisen to influencer marketing, which right now, House says, is likely coming off the peak of its popularity . “I think the reality is that social media influencers don’t have much influence,” he says. “Audiences today can see right through those sponsored posts. The reality is that they just don’t work.” In the future, he expects the age of the social media influencer to fizzle, and for authenticity to once again dominate the playing field. This presents a golden opportunity for brands to get ahead of the shift and select athletes who are both champions of their sport and genuine pillars of their community—not just salespeople. To do that right, they’re going to need to allocate more marketing budget to find the right ambassadors, build quality relationships, and compensate them like they would any other employee, says King. Quality over quantity—in how athletes engage with their communities and how brands treat their ambassadors—is about to become the rule of the day. And the brands that figure that out fastest will come out on top. SUMMER 2021
“And sometimes I order off Amazon because it just feels so GOOD to be bad.” Illustration by Lois Ann Luce Kempney
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Outside Business Journal - SUMMER 2021