INDEPENDENT. UNFILTERED. ENGAGED.
THE SUSTAINABILITY ISSUE
CAN WE STOP THE WASTE? NEXT-GEN RECYCLING, GEAR SHARING & MORE IDEAS FOR REAL CHANGE
AN INDUSTRY REPORT CARD
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Sneakers taken a step further to take you places not made for sneakers. Coming Spring 2021 merrell.com
contents / features
G e a r G Lu t
Simply making less stuff would help our planet most. Not so simple, right?
BY K E LLY BA STO N E
c ’m o n, g e t H a p p y 29 ways to build a more satisfied, inspired, and productive workplace. BY E LI S AB ETH K WAK-H E F F E RAN
will we ev er g e t d e i r i g h t ? The industry is just beginning to take inclusivity seriously. Why we’re not yet doing enough—and how we can step up. BY G LE N N N E LSON
G o l i at h ’s r e c k o ni n g When the pandemic threatened REI’s expanding ambitions, it raised an uncomfortable question: What if the giant is not too big to fail?
BY MARC P E R UZ Z I
The Bi g Pl ay Where will the new Dick’s outdoor retail concept fit in?
BY K R I ST I N HO STET T E R
d e f unD P ol l ution
Is your company’s bank contributing to the climate crisis? BY C OR EY B U HAY
A c han g e i s gonna come
Earl B. Hunter, Jr.’s Black Folks Camp Too makes the business case for inclusion. BY SA H R A ALI
Sustainability Issue special coverage
12/20/20 10:10 AM
contents / departments
business 1 3 I nd u s t r y B u z z
culture 27 fresh voices
Behind the scenes with the OREC offices quietly scoring wins for the outdoors.
Meet a public lands advocate in Congress, a ski prodigy, a fly-fishing gear designer, and a PR whiz.
16 Your Next customer
30 Road Rules
RV is surging. Here’s how to ride the wave.
18 show Biz
Unionizing could be a game changer for indie sales reps.
32 nine to five
How broadcasting your salary fights inequity in the office.
33 five hard questions
How to pull off a successful brand makeover.
Backcountry skiing is huge this winter—but will it be safe? Three industry experts weigh in.
34 hom age
1. Small snowboard brands lead the way on green hardgoods design.
3. Lending libraries bring gear into the sharing economy—and improve access for everyone, too.
Does sponsored content pay off ?
49 the trend rep or t
31 un filtered
The bright side of Covid-19.
Retailers weigh in on top brands, 2020 sales volume, and more.
37 The voi c e 5 0
Check out the 50 new products that have us stoked for snow.
2. Innovators chase the dream of endless recyclability.
The six lessons we learned from a year without trade shows.
With Facebook/Instagam Shops, retailers find that social sells.
New inclusivity resources for the media and rookie campers; a generous donation; a big birthday. PLUS: Rekindled love for the neighborhood walk.
56 ecofr ont
OIA vs. SIA: Does the industry need two climate programs?
96 the class i c fi les
Perennially best-selling poles
05 Editor’s No te 08 Contr i bu to rs
Sustainability Issue special coverage
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A LETTER FROM OUR CEO ABOUT INCLUSION & SUSTAINABILITY
As Pocket Outdoor Media grows, adapts, and improves, our mission will always remain the same: To inspire people to do the activities they love—hiking, skiing, climbing, running, swimming, cycling, cooking, and yoga—with greater enjoyment and knowledge. We believe that a hike, a day skiing, a climb, or a ride can change your day and change the world. In 2021, we’re looking forward to building upon two pillars that are central to everything we do: inclusivity and sustainability. While we have made some progress on these fronts, we have much, much more to do, and I intend to be transparent throughout the journey. We are a young company that has grown from five to more than 30 brands in the last six months. In that short time, we have made some exciting progress on these pillars, and we’ve made a series of commitments for the future. In DEI: • I signed the Outdoor Industry CEO Diversity Pledge in August 2020. • We have created an internal DEI committee to bring forth programming, lead our efforts, create and oversee employee resource groups and hold us accountable. And we’ve hired a DEI expert to guide our work. • We’ve committed to diversifying our leadership and workforce with respect to race, ethnicity, and identity by broadening our employee sourcing and adjusting our hiring practices. • We will be conducting diversity training for 100% of our employees. • We will continually survey our workforce to ensure that we’re creating a culture of belonging and inclusivity within our company. In sustainability: • We pledge to become climate positive by 2030 by working assiduously to lower our manufacturing footprint and neutralizing more than the balance that remains. • In the meantime, we have already neutralized the carbon footprint of six of our brands: The Voice, SNEWS, Backpacker, Climbing, Yoga Journal, and Clean Eating. In the first year of this program, we will eliminate almost 6.5 million pounds of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, the equivalent of driving 7.3 million miles. And we are exploring carbon neutralization for our remaining brands, which would further reduce our impact. • We are working on a plan to convert our Boulder, Colorado, headquarters to a zero waste and solar-powered facility. • We are founding members of the Plastic Impact Alliance and will eliminate 100 percent of polybags from all of our publishing and mailing efforts. And as a company, we are committed to being a loud voice of support for the good work of others in the fields of DEI and sustainability by celebrating their achievements in our publications, as well as through donations and content partnerships. 2020 has been a challenging year for all of us. We are grateful for your partnership, your feedback, and your support as we work to deliver on our mission and make our active lifestyles more inclusive and sustainable for all.
Robin Thurston CEO, Pocket Outdoor Media
Have questions or comments? Email me at CEO@pocketoutdoormedia.com.
A FEW INCONVENIENT TRUTHS We’re all part of the climate crisis. Here’s what we must do to fix it. BY KRISTIN HOSTETTER
What does this industry have to do to have a real impact on climate? Do more with less. It’s the stuff, stupid! [Gelobter laughs. This is one of his favorite sayings, a mantra for our time.] The production of materials, not distribution or shipping, represents the meat of a product’s carbon footprint. And let’s check our assumptions about lightweight materials. They may generate less carbon than burlier ones, but they also disintegrate faster and need to be replaced more often. From a climate perspective, lighter is not always better. So how do brands choose between light weight and longevity? To be clear, lighter and lower impact are not mutually exclusive. But let’s shift the paradigm away from ounce-counting. One of the really deep ways to have less impact is to shift our focus to providing services instead of things. Think Xerox as document services versus copying machines. Some important outdoor brands are starting to make this shift—to think of what they sell as services for safe, comfortable, enjoyable experiences in the outdoors, instead of products. When brands shift toward reuse, recertifying,
perts on carbon reduction and climate justice. I first met Michel in 2007, when I was Backpacker’s gear editor and part of a small group launching OIA’s Eco-Working Group. A lifelong backpacker and former Sierra Club trip leader, Michel helped Backpacker become the first magazine to complete a comprehensive footprint analysis. In August 2020, we once again partnered with Michel and his new company, Cooler, to neutralize the carbon impact of SNEWS and The Voice. As we finished this special issue, he joined me for a wide-ranging conversation about gear design, circularity, and common carbon misconceptions, all of which are issues we examine throughout these pages.
COOLER FOUNDER MICHEL GELOBTER AT YOSEMITE
remanufacturing, refurbishing, then reselling gear as new [it’s starting to happen; see p. 52], they may find that circularity can be more profitable. Many companies are making carbon commitments and buying offsets. Will planting trees have a real impact on climate? No. Substantive change requires “additionality,” a critical concept in climate science. Additionality means that your action reduces carbon in a way that wouldn’t happen without your offset dollars. Trees are good, to be sure, but in most places
these forests are already getting planted. And trees aren’t guaranteed to absorb carbon for 100 years. In Oregon alone this summer, 2 million acres of offset forests burned in the wildfires. Okay, so what should we be doing? First, change your manufacturing power grid. For most outdoor products, electricity used in your factory is the number-one source of greenhouse gases. It’s not as easy as flipping a switch, but we need to convert from coal-fired grids to solar and hydropower. Second, think neutralization rather than offsetting. This is what we do for Cooler clients. We buy and retire carbon permits from a multistate, government-regulated market called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. For each permit we buy, we’re preventing coal-fired plants from emitting a ton of carbon. It’s additional, it’s ironclad, and the dollars are reinvested in renewable energy development and climate justice projects.
PHOTO BY TRACEY KEMBLE
f there ever was a time for us to double down on sustainability, it’s right now. Greenhouse gas emissions are down because so many of us are working from home, outdoor participation is booming, and demand for climate action is at an all-time high. Many experts believe we are at a crucial point if we want to avert real disaster, and the window is closing for us to catalyze meaningful change. That’s why we’ve devoted this issue to celebrating great work being done in our world—and the very tough work still ahead. To get an expert view of the challenges we face, I rang up Michel Gelobter, an old friend and one of the country’s leading ex-
Any other advice? Yeah, go backpacking! It’s fun, it’s good for the soul, and it might be the lowest-footprint sport in the world.
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How will you reduce waste in 2021?
EDITORIAL Cleancult.com and tru.earth to cut out plastic packaging
EDITORIAL DIREC TOR
Used kids’ clothes and cloth diapers
DEPUT Y EDITOR
Repairing and patching instead of buying new
CULTURE EDITOR Canceling unsolicited mail at dmachoice.org
Scheduling periodic “spending fasts” to cut down on unnecessary purchases
SALES SALES DIREC TOR OUTDOOR & ENDUR ANCE GROUP
Rob Hudson (303) 253-6324 email@example.com
Supporting sustainable food systems by volunteering in my community
SALES DIREC TOR B2B GROUP
Zack Grice (610) 533-4964 firstname.lastname@example.org
Refillable beer growlers!
SALES MANAGER B2B GROUP
Casey Vandenoever (303) 253-6419 email@example.com
Andrew Weaver CONTRIBUTORS
Sahra Ali, Amelia Arvesen, Kelly Bastone, Natalie Cullum, Eduardo Denniz, Amath Diouf, José González, Rep. Deb Haaland, Cindy Hirschfeld, Courtney Holden, Mike Imes, Kai Jones, Justin La Vigne, Patrice La Vigne, Elizabeth Miller, Glenn Nelson, Laura Onstot, Marc Peruzzi, Tracy Ross, Judith Rudd, Jason Sakurai, Hannah Singleton, Lavanya Sunkara, Kanoe Wentworth
Walking more. Driving less.
Fewer science projects in our fridge. Pass the leftovers, please!
DESIGN & PHOTOGRAPHY I’m learning to hunt.
A PUBLICATION OF
ART DIREC TOR
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PHOTO: NOAH WETZEL, UINTA MOUNTAINS, UT
Reducing our impact one tent at a time.
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Ali’s home base is Vermont, but she happened to be traveling in Tennessee just as The Voice was searching for a journalist in the Southeast for a profile of entrepreneur Earl B. Hunter, Jr. (“Open Invitation,” p. 88). “Everything about the assignment felt serendipitous,” she says. “I wanted to start camping, and this gave me the opportunity to go for the first time. And I met outdoor-loving industry folks who now have become friends.” Ali’s work has also recently appeared in the Museum of New Mexico’s El Palacio and Sierra.
This Steamboat Springs, Colorado, freelancer found inspiration for her cover story about the environmental impact of gear overproduction (“Stuffication,” p. 58) close to home. Namely: “My overflowing garage.” She adds, “Acquiring gear is easy. What’s hard is making the time to use it, and to develop real skill with our tools.” While investigating the piece, Bastone was particularly dismayed to learn “how water hogging gear production can be.” Find more of her recent work in The Red Bulletin Magazine, Outside, and 5280.
My hopes for 2021 in five words Create. Camp. Love. Social justice.
Next big project I recently
accepted a communications manager position with an arts organization in Vermont, so I’ll be adding a full-time job that I care about to my freelance life.
I’ll reduce waste in 2021 by repairing more stuff, particularly apparel. I want to
uncover better ways to patch clothing—the patches I buy at Walmart are just about useless. My hopes for 2021 in five words Security. Travel.
Faith. Reunion. Concerts.
Patrice and Justin La Vigne
For the Phoenix-based illustrator and visual storyteller, creating the art for our cover image as well as “Stuffication” (p. 58) and “Trend Report” (p. 49) opened his eyes to how difficult it truly is to recycle outdoor equipment and apparel. “It was challenging—yet fun—to try to convey that visually.” For a behindthe-scenes look at Denniz’s creative process, check him out on Instagram (@eduardodenniz): “I try to emphasize the fact that I create everything from scratch. As a digital artist, it’s easy for some to use shortcuts. But I try to stay as true as possible to my traditional roots.” Denniz’s work has also appeared in Backcountry, Mountain Flyer, and with
The Voice’s chief gear wranglers spend months collecting, researching, and writing about the season’s latest products for “The Voice 50” (p. 37). The biggest takeaway after all that work sorting through PR communications and deciphering jargon? “Every time I think gear can’t improve or change, I realize that innovation will never stop,” Patrice says. The freelance couple write from a cabin in Healy, Alaska, and have both recently published work in Backpacker, REI Co-Op Journal, and Outside.
the Epic Rides mountain bike race series. Oldest piece of gear I’ve had my cycling water bottle for 13 years. Next big project A chil-
dren’s book that revolves around camping, traveling, and mountain biking.
Oldest piece of gear Justin: Mountain Hardwear Convertible Pack Pants. I bought
them for $100 in 2002, which was a huge expense because I was a graduate student. Next big project Patrice: Promoting my trail memoir, Between Each Step: A Married Couple’s Thru Hike on New Zealand’s Te Araroa. Find it on wanderinglavignes.com!
PHOTOS BY (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT) STEVEN REINHOLD; COURTESY (3)
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MI CROL I G H T A L P I N E T a k in g o u r p a s s i o n fo r p e rfo rm a n c e , te c h n ol ogy and the env i ronm ent, t h e n e w M ic r o l i g h t A l p i n e b l e n d s re c yc l e d m ateri al s w i th body -m apped b a f f le t e c h n o l o g y to e n h a n c e p e rfo rm a n c e and reduce our footpri nt.
Basalt, Colorado-based writer Hirschfeld had followed the burst of publicity that accompanied every new OREC office over the past few years, but, “I wanted to know more specifically what these offices have been accomplishing and how,” she says. In reporting “Head of State” (p. 13), she discovered “ORECs have been working on a lot more than I ever anticipated. I was really inspired by the people I interviewed—I kind of wish I could work for an OREC.” Hirschfeld has also recently contributed to The New York Times, 5280.com, and Aspen Sojourner.
While reporting “Hit the Road” (p. 16), Sakurai, managing director at Roadhouse Marketing in Battle Ground, Washington (“a stone’s throw from Portland”), was surprised to learn how many writers and influencers in the outdoor space are living in their adventure vans for weeks, if not months, at a time. And they’re not the only ones: “The growth of overlanding is phenomenal, and will continue, pandemic or not,” he predicts. Sakurai’s work has also recently appeared in Adventure Rigs, Tread, and RV Pro.
Oldest piece of gear My Dana Design Bomb pack from 1994. I recently started lending it to my teenage son for hut trips.
Laura Onstot Working on “Recycling’s Next Frontier” (p. 52) “made me far more conscientious about what I purchase and how to make sure it won’t end up in a landfill,” says Seattle-based Onstot. Though her piece outlines the challenges of forming a truly circular gear economy, she also came away with hope: “Science is deeply tied to us consumers. We drive innovation, which is something to think about every time you’re spending dollars on gear.” Onstot has also contributed to SNEWS, Grist, and MSN. I’ll reduce waste in 2021 by looking for more options to buy used clothing for our
Oldest piece of gear My Mamiya RB67 camera—35 years old and still producing
top-quality images. Next big project Working on a TV series about motorsports. And building an adventure van to see more and go farther.
baby on the way—and passing it on when we’re done. Oldest piece of gear The Asolo hiking boots I got before my first backpacking trip in 2008. They’ve trekked hundreds of miles with me.
When she started reporting on the growth of gear libraries (“Great Gear for All,” p. 54), “The concept was new to me,” says Sunkara. Surprised to learn that some programs date back to the ’60s, the Long Island-based freelancer marvels, “Think about all the gear that has been used and reused by so many families.”
She has also contributed to Travel + Leisure, Forbes, and Reader’s Digest. My hopes for 2021 in five words Smooth transition and
united country. Next big project Finishing
visiting all 50 states by car. Fourteen to go!
PHOTOS BY COURTESY
I’ll reduce waste in 2021 by encouraging local restau-
rants to use reusable takeout containers.
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OREC Report Card
Behind the scenes, 16 state outdoor rec offices are working hard to fulfill their promise.
PHOTO BY SHAUN PRICE
NEW MEXICOâ€™S OREC HELPED FUND A FREE MOBILE BIKE SERVICE FOR THE NAVAJO NATION.
CASH IN ON THE RV BOOM / THE BEST AND WORST OF A YEAR WITHOUT OUTDOOR RETAILER / HOW TO NAIL A REBRAND 13
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business / industry buzz LORENZO MANUELITO (FOREGROUND) AND MYRON BILLY HELP REPAIR BIKES FOR NAVAJO NATION RESIDENTS.
Head of state A look at the successes—and struggles—of OREC offices.
ince 2013, when Utah Governor Gary Herbert established the country’s first state office of outdoor recreation (OREC), 15 more have popped up across the country, accompanied by huge fanfare, and then—silence. During the last year, the news cycle has been quiet on OREC accomplishments, prompting some to question their impact. The reality? OREC offices are small— usually just one director or a couple of staffers. As such, their progress is slow. But over the last few years, some case studies have emerged that show just how powerful these offices can be, and what their role might look like after the pandemic ends.
A Voice for the Industry
“It’s hard to underestimate what these offices have done for giving outdoor enthusiasts, as well as the industry, a voice,” says Jason Bertolacci, a Colorado-based public affairs and nonprofit consultant who has worked alongside his state’s OREC office. That’s because for many offices, the first line of action is listening to the unique needs of outdoor industry constituents in their states. When Axie Navas became New Mexico’s first OREC director in 2019, she drove 3,500 miles around the state over three months, talking to business owners, local governments, and nonprofits to de-
termine how her office could better serve and help grow the state’s 200-plus outdoor companies, including manufacturers, retailers, and outfitters. One of the main lessons Navas took from her conversations? “The potential for outdoor recreation to diversify New Mexico’s economy is pretty unique,” she says. To that end, she helped create an incubator grant fund. In 2019, among other grants, the fund provided $50,000 to a new business program at San Juan College in Farmington. The money helped launch a boot camp for outdoor industry startups that drew 54 attendees, as well as an ongoing course for eight local outdoors-focused entrepreneurs, which includes access to the college’s new maker space for prototype experimentation. According to Melissa Porch, a grant program coordinator at San Juan, the OREC support has been instrumental in teaching participants new ways to market and grow their businesses. Grant-giving also lets ORECs support communities in individualized ways. “No specific policy lever can anticipate the exact needs of a local community, so why not put the power in locals’ hands to tell us what they want, and give them the cash to achieve it?” says Drew Simmons, chair of the board of directors for the Vermont Outdoor Business Alliance. In its 2019 annual funding round, the Vermont OREC distributed $100,000
to two communities to boost outdoor recreation opportunities. One of them, Randolph, was able to add eight miles of singletrack, complete a new trail-information hub in a renovated building downtown, and launch a high school mountain bike team. “There’s a community vibrancy to what we’re doing,” says Zac Freeman, co-founder and trail builder for the nonprofit Rochester/Randolph Area Sports Trail Alliance. “It’s given the town a nice little boost of recreational energy.” Would the improvements have taken place if not for the OREC grant? Probably, he says, but the process would have taken at least two years longer and required even more volunteer labor. The Power to Organize
Some ORECs initiate action through annual summits. One example: North Carolina’s annual Outdoor Economy Conference, hosted by Growing Outdoors Partnership, a nonprofit that works closely with the state’s recreation office. When a team from Wilkes County attended the first conference in 2018, they left inspired to boost their own fledgling outdoor economy, according to Wilkesboro Town Manager Ken Noland. “I realized we have a lot of these assets,” he says, referring to a growing mountain bike trail network and nearby public lands. “We just need to brand ourselves better.” Since then, the
PHOTOS BY (LEFT) SHAUN PRICE; ZAC FREEMAN
BY CINDY HIRSCHFELD
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PHOTOS BY (LEFT) SHAUN PRICE; ZAC FREEMAN
town has continued to develop trails and parks—to benefit the quality of life and health of locals as much as to draw visitors, says LeeAnn Nixon, director of the Wilkes Economic Development Corporation. Wilkesboro has also formalized a plan to recruit outdoor businesses and improve marketing efforts. Organizational power takes other forms, too. Colorado’s OREC was able to commission a first-of-its-kind study that frames the benefits of outdoor recreation within the context of health care, says Director Nathan Fey. Last year, the office used the study to launch the Get Outdoors Employer Toolkit in conjunction with the Colorado School of Public Health. The tool kit includes a business self-assessment and recommendations for employers to use the outdoors to improve workplace well-being. More than 50 businesses participated in that first year.
THE TOWN OF RANDOLPH BUILT EIGHT MILES OF NEW SINGLETRACK WITH FUNDING FROM VERMONT’S OREC.
Inspiring the Next Generation
One of the biggest challenges OREC offices face is instilling a lasting interest in the outdoors—especially among kids and underserved populations. In that sense, New Mexico’s Outdoor Equity Fund has “really hit it out of the ballpark,” says Stewart Lewis, advocacy coordinator for the Outdoor Industry Association. The OREC’s founding legislation mandated a fund for underserved youth. Already, grants have helped almost 3,000 kids try everything from a day of fly-fishing to a five-week backpacking course. Last August, Gallup-based nonprofit Silver Stallion Bicycle and Coffee Works received $10,000 from the fund. They used it to create a mobile service that provides free bike repairs for kids in the adjacent Navajo Nation. “[The area is] bigger than all of New England, and there’s not one bike
shop there,” says Silver Stallion Director and former pro cyclist Scott Nydam. Last fall, a team of paid mechanics, many from the Navajo Nation, fixed 428 bikes. Where ORECs Fall Short
At least for now, ORECs have not delivered any large-scale conservation wins. Simply put, “these things take time,” says Oregon’s OREC Director Cailin O’Brien-Feeney, who had to put his own office’s strategic work on hold to address the aftermath of the state’s worst fire season on record. In fact, we probably won’t see much new public land attributed to ORECs. What’s more likely: focused efforts on land use. For example, Colorado’s office recently helped the town of Trinidad plan for the new Fishers Peak State Park by helping set up an analysis of statewide recreation trends. Matt Moorehead of The Nature Conservancy also credits the OREC with the fact that recreational and environmental interests ultimately got equal say while designing the park strategy—a big deal for inclusive land-use planning. The other area seeing slow progress is the expansion of ORECs to all 50 states, the ultimate dream for widespread outdoor industry representation. Some states are working on it, but aligning budgets and legislative priorities, and achieving buy-in from other state agencies, is slow, especially during a pandemic. Says OIA’s Lewis, “I think 2021 is going to be a pause year.” And while existing ORECs have the potential to be a powerful national voice for the outdoors, they haven’t taken much unified action thus far. One possible avenue for future collaboration: the Outdoor Learning Network, launched in summer 2019 by the National Governors Association. Through biannual meetings, the network allows OREC directors and states considering offices to exchange ideas. That kind of nationwide collaboration is critical to bringing the industry together on policy issues. Until then, ORECs will remain most effective at the state level— and their full potential is anyone’s guess.
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business / your next customer
Hit The Road The RV market is surging— and not with the customers you might expect. BY JASON SAKURAI
et’s be honest: When most people think of RV owners, they imagine 55-year-old retirees. In the past, that may have been accurate. But I’ve been an avid overlander for 20 years, and during the past few I’ve seen a wave of decidedly different, 30-something RVers. And the trend is gaining steam: According to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), sales of RVs have never been stronger. In fact, RVIA reports
41,509 new units shipped in September 2020 alone, a 31 percent year-over-year increase. The interesting thing is that a lot of new RV owners are road trip novices. According to Neil Morse, the Adventure Van Expo series founder, many have either never been car camping, or haven’t car camped in at least a decade. A combination of nostalgia, the social media glamour of the #vanlife movement, and the convenience of a socially distanced, hotel-free vacation have all combined to spark the recent RV boom. For brands, this wave of novices is a gold mine. After all, they’re going to need a lot of gear. Some companies have already taken heed. Goal Zero’s portable solar panels and lights put them on enthusiasts’ radars, and the brand has since expanded to vehicle accessories and mountable solar panels. Thule started with roof racks and boxes, then in 2018 acquired Tepui rooftop tents, and with it, tremendous access to the overland crowd. When Benchmade noticed RVers using their knives in recent years, they directed a portion of their marketing budget toward the segment. Another key to reaching this untapped market of new RVers is establishing a
presence for your store or brand at shows like Adventure Van Expo or Overland Expo, both of which have events scheduled in 2021. Your booth should reflect the variety of products you make or carry, leaving the audience with a clear idea of what you can provide. The goal? Prove you’re a one-stop resource for what overlanders need, from sleeping bags and tents to gadgets and portable stoves. Next Adventure, based in Portland, Oregon, has done just this, joining the other retailers and brands that exhibit at overlanding events, some of which were held outdoors as late as October 2020. “Our participation has encouraged RVers to visit the store or go online to see what we have to offer,” says Winter Sports Manager Ryan Slagle. While retailers wait for big events to return post-pandemic, they can optimize their offerings. First, realize RVers are an affluent group that is brand conscious. (Rumpl blankets, BioLite camp stoves, and Kühl clothing are among Next Adventure’s best sellers in this category.) At the same time, RVers understand value. After all, new RV owners and overland enthusiasts often spend a tidy sum acquiring and preparing their vehicles. So, few will opt for a $200 folding shovel when there are others available for less. Since outfitting a vehicle is a long process, it may take new customers several trips to your store to get everything they need. Readying my own Toyota FJ Cruiser took innumerable trips, and not just to have parts installed. I also frequented retailers to fully outfit my rig. Provide overlanders information and guidance as you would your regular outdoor clientele, and they can easily become some of your best repeat customers. The other unique thing about RVing is that it’s often a long-term lifestyle—but not one tied to a particular sport. As your overland customers get into new activities, they’ll return to your store. Overlanding is also a very close-knit community. RVers share where they buy their gear. Be that store, and you’ll grow alongside them for years to come.
PHOTO BY LBLINOVA/STOCK.ADOBE.COM
THE PAST YEAR SAW A SURGE OF NEW RV OWNERS AS AMERICANS SOUGHT TO ADVENTURE AMID COVID-19 LIMITATIONS.
12/19/20 12:54 PM
You can find my MICROspikes® with me in the coldest regions of the planet. Not in my backpack, but on my feet! - Ray Zahab
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Ray Zahab’s mid-winter crossing of Baffin Island, Canada in Jan, 2020 PHOTO BY NATALIA GUBAREVA
business / show biz LAST YEAR, THE COLORADO CONVENTION CENTER STAYED QUIET AS IT AWAITED THE RETURN OF TRADE SHOWS.
a year without trade shows The outdoor industry has adapted to business without our big gatherings. It hasn’t been easy, but the things we’ve learned along the way will resonate for years to come. BY COURTNEY HOLDEN
ight now, in a typical year, we’d be gearing up for another Outdoor Retailer trade show: whirlwind days spent reconnecting with industry
pals and our favorite brands. There would be parties and press events, hugs and high fives. But the past 12 months have been a lot of things. Typical isn’t one of them.
This year, we’ve all had to make changes. And amid the pivoting, we’ve learned a few things—about how we do business, and how we relate to one another. Lesson 1: Embrace new tech, fast “The pandemic has taught us, if nothing else, how to adapt,” says GearJunkie reporter Mary Murphy. “Our industry is going to rely a lot more on the technologies that let us connect, look at products, talk to athletes, and interview people virtually.” That’s been the case for Thule, which chose to look at the need for new technologies as an opportunity, not a chore. In March, when the summer trade show schedule started to look tenuous, the roof rack gurus were quick to adopt an interactive, 360-degree video platform. The self-directed, virtual walk-through lets retailers and journalists explore a staged warehouse full of elaborate product displays. The platform has seen 2,524 unique visitors from more than 160 companies to date. “A big thing for me as a buyer is getting
PHOTO BY LOUISA ALBANESE; PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOY KELLEY
12/21/20 10:34 AM
PHOTO BY LOUISA ALBANESE; PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOY KELLEY
to really experience a product firsthand,” says Nathan Grothe, category merchandise manager for REI. What Thule did by creating a rich virtual environment is the next best thing. Chris Ritchie, Thule’s PR and communications manager, sees his company’s fast adoption of the new tech as a win-win: Since virtual tours offer no real space constraints, they let Thule show off far more products than it could in a booth, and the viewers can learn at their leisure and return any time. Lesson 2: Lean on your network Meghan Highland, buying coordinator of casual and outdoor apparel for Western retail chain Jax Mercantile Co., says the helpfulness and camaraderie that have characterized this year have taught her how to lean on her industry network. This season—her first in the apparel buyer role—she’s had to rely heavily on her reps for advice. That includes recommendations on product aesthetics, especially colorways, and how to coordinate items on store display racks. “I’m really trusting my reps a lot and asking for their support, whereas in a normal buying season, I might not be in that same position,” she says. That “lean on me” mindset has also been helpful when muddling through new Covid-19 rules and regulations. Darby Communications was able to compare notes with fellow Southeast-based public relations firm Groundswell PR during the initial transition back to in-person office work. The two agencies also knocked around ways to plan effective virtual media events. “We had an ally,” says Angie Robinson, Darby’s vice president. “It was nice to be able to bounce ideas off someone who’s in the same boat as you.” Lesson 3: Appreciate quality over quantity Many PR firms have hosted smaller press events to comply with social distancing best practices, and Murphy of GearJunkie says she’s appreciated the close-knit vibe. The agencies have noticed the difference, too. This summer, Big Fish
The pandemic has taught us, if nothing else, how to adapt.” Collective invited three writers (a much smaller-than-usual group) to a socially distanced, on-water event for Mustang Survival. “It was like we were having a one-on-one at a trade show, but we were also able to test the product and have some more intimate time,” says Big Fish’s Brooke Fifield. “In the future, we’ll keep in mind that smaller events are something journalists are asking for.” KEEN Footwear has also followed that “bigger isn’t necessarily better” mantra and reined in its 2021 line. Erik Burbank, chief brand officer, notes that with fewer SKUs, they’ve been able to zero in on their consumer (read more about tackling overproduction on p. 58). “We asked, ‘What are our fans doing?’ ‘What problems are we trying to solve for them?’” Burbank explains. “This has been an opportunity to be more focused than we would have been.” Lesson 4: Forget old rivalries In a move uncommon among competitive PR firms, California-based OutsidePR and ECHOS Brand Communications joined up in April to create a two-day virtual brand showcase, dubbed the REVEAL Global Media Conference. The two firms managed to rally 46 brands, including some outside of their portfolios, which presented to the 212 journalists who attended the conference. Later in the summer, PR firms Momentum and Akimbo founded a similar partnership for their Virtual Showroom series. The benefits of collaborative events extend beyond the media attendees: Jennifer Kriske, founder of women’s cycling brand Machines for Freedom, says REVEAL helped level the playing field between major industry players and boutique brands like hers. “With my limited budget, I wouldn’t be able to get that kind of concentrated attention in a real-life trade show,”
she says. “This is a really efficient way to get our brand in front of an audience.” Lesson 5: Rethink the budget
Uncertainty has been a mainstay of the pandemic, especially in terms of budgeting. NEMO Equipment reacted quickly back in March, revising its operating model, slashing expenses, and making sure it was putting its money where its values were. “We decided to base our sales target on what it would take to retain our people and not have to furlough or lay off,” says CEO and founder Cam Brensinger. The one area they didn’t touch: research and development. “We saw a big competitive advantage in being a brand that never took its foot off the gas on new product development.” Of course, brands with a line item for trade shows suddenly had some extra cash. Emergency kit manufacturer Uncharted Supply used it to beef up its marketing and advertising spending. After seeing search frequency for terms like “emergency kit” and “air mask” skyrocket, the small brand invested in search engine optimization and online ads, something it might not have been able to do at the same scale in a trade show year. It was successful, too: “At times, a dollar spent would return nearly $100 in sales,” says owner Christian Schauf. Lesson 6: Grumble less, enjoy the long days more
There’s no escaping it: Trade shows are just as exhausting as they are exciting. “The long, consecutive days would wear us down, and we’d think, ‘Oh, we have to go do this,’” recalls Highland of Jax Mercantile Co. “But now that Outdoor Retailer is gone, I really miss those long days full of meetings and in-person interactions.” While we’ve learned a lot about how to do business differently (and in some cases, better) over the past year, most of us are pining to get back together. Sure, much of the time is spent cooped up inside, pounding the aisles, squinting at spec sheets, but there are also happy hours, new connections, and meetings with old friends. Murphy sums it up well: “It will be the biggest family reunion.”
12/21/20 10:34 AM
business / messaging A WHOPPING 71 PERCENT OF CONSUMERS HEAD TO SOCIAL PLATFORMS FOR SHOPPING INSPIRATION.
Social Capital Retailers are decoding Facebook’s new Shops feature to boost their ecommerce strategies.
ver the last decade, social media has grown to dominate much of our lives. Now, it has a new frontier: ecommerce. This year, Facebook and Instagram launched their new Shops feature. On Instagram, a button on the home screen takes users to a personalized feed of products. On Facebook, Shops are clickable catalogs accessible from brand or retailer pages. Shop owners can choose to have customers check out through the social platforms, or through their own sites. Facebook and Instagram have massive user bases, offering equally massive opportunity for retailers—both brick-andmortar and direct-to-consumer—says Akvile DeFazio, president of social media advertising agency AKvertise. Just how much opportunity? According to 2018 data from digital services provider Avionos, 55 percent of consumers do the majority of their shopping through social. And a whopping 71 percent head to social platforms for shopping inspiration. The pandemic only fueled the trend— most 2020 studies report 20 to 30 percent year-over-year increases in online sales. “If your business is just getting started online and doesn’t have a website, Shops are a great way to explore the
digital ecommerce space,” DeFazio says. (Though, she adds, a good website should be your eventual goal.) Shops are easy to set up, make products discoverable to new users, and let retailers immediately reach an audience they’ve already built, says DeFazio. Plus, the feature integrates seamlessly with Facebook and Instagram ads, which have become indispensable to digital retail. “At first we were nervous [about setting up Shops],” says Whitney Eldridge, marketing director for Arkansas-based Gearhead Outfitters. “We’ve always been really focused on the brick-and-mortar experience.” For Gearhead, growth was slow at first. That’s normal: It takes time for the platforms to gather enough data to reliably share a retailer’s information with the right users—for ads, that can be up to three months, even with $100 a day in ad spending, says McKenzie Daigle, account manager at ecommerce agency Shopanova. But six months after starting up, Eldridge says she’s seen “great response” from customers looking for new ways to shop during the pandemic. That includes an uptick in scrolling on Shops pages, and
click-throughs to the store’s website. Shops can also bolster an already robust social-media presence. John Weir, marketing manager at Colorado store Bentgate Mountaineering, says the feature has streamlined the way Bentgate interacts with its community. “We can attach those Shop items to specific posts or stories about new products we’re excited about,” he explains. “It also lets us see any tracking attached to those. So we can tell if we spent, say, five minutes on a story and sold a splitboard.” Neither Bentgate nor Gearhead uses the in-platform checkout feature, which demands a 5-percent fee for transactions over $8. Both prefer to monitor customer traffic and inventory through their websites. (Shops doesn’t have good built-in inventory tracking, Weir says.) As for retailers who are just waiting for things to get back to normal? Don’t, DeFazio says. Now is the time to learn to get creative, innovative, and flexible—especially when it comes to ecommerce. “The pandemic gave us a look into what the future of ecommerce will look like,” she says. “This is just the start of it.”
PHOTO BY LOUISA ALBANESE
BY COREY BUHAY
12/21/20 10:50 AM
Business has changed. Consumer behavior has changed more. MOVE FORWARD WITH VERDE
FULL SERVICE COMMUNICATIONS PUBLIC RELATIONS DIGITAL MARKETING LEADERSHIP
Resources to Power the Consumer Decision Journey • Channel Mastery Podcast • Multi-Channel Marketing Academy • Verde Voice Blog • Consumer-driven strategic leadership
TWENTY YEARS IN AND AS FIRED UP AS EVER
business / Pivot DESIGNER ANTON SUTOVSKY SELECTS TENT COLORWAYS THAT WILL BROADCAST UST’S NEW BRAND PERSONALITY.
Identity Crisis BY AMELIA ARVESEN
hen John Holdmeier became the brand manager of Ultimate Survival Technologies (UST) in 2019, he didn’t realize he already owned two pieces of the survival tool company’s gear: a lantern and a fire starter. The products were useful, but the brand just didn’t stand out enough to be memorable—even to a career gear aficionado like Holdmeier. Not anymore. Holdmeier was one of several employees hired to give UST a monumental makeover for its 84th birthday. At some point during a brand’s lifespan, leadership often decides it’s time for a refresh. That can mean anything from updating its logo to introducing new product categories to entirely reshaping its mission. There are plenty of ways to execute a rebrand, too. But the outdoor industry is learning that the most important end result is a distinct brand personality and voice. For UST, the first step in the yearlong process of finding that voice was taking an inventory of every product developed since 1936. “I like to think of it as a shakedown before you’re getting ready to go on a trip,” Holdmeier says. His team picked what would stay in the lineup and what would go. As an example, the brand’s very
first product—a cannon used by rescue boats to shoot rope at sinking watercrafts—didn’t make the cut. Next, they conducted market research within the outdoor industry to determine where there was room for the brand to evolve beyond survival gear and camping accessories. Untapped potential, they believed, lay in tents and sleep systems (the new lineup includes both). UST’s logo also got a face-lift from sharp, orange uppercase letters to bubbly, blue lowercase ones. The original logo was flavorless, Holdmeier says, while the revamp matches their new approachable, casual, and irreverent style. UST could have stopped there, and many brands do. But today’s customers are selective and good at sniffing out marketing tactics. To be successful, a brand can’t just push product and close sales, even under a spiffy new logo; it also must relate to its customers and create meaningful connections. That’s something other brands have been catching on to. Knife maker Studies and Observations Group (SOG), which rebranded with new beginner-friendly items in 2019, went the educational route. During the pandemic, SOG kicked off a series of webinars devoid of pushy marketing. Ambassadors and field experts hosted talks on emergency preparedness, personal safety, and everyday carry essentials.
Terramar is another recent example. After a rebranding process that took more than three years, the 50-year-old baselayer maker rolled out new packaging, which speaks directly to customers about warmth levels and baselayer tech. Neither SOG’s nor Terramar’s values have changed—but the way they present themselves as authorities has. “The war happens on the shelf,” says Johnny Macri, Terramar’s creative director. “We know everything about the product, but how do we communicate that on a six-by-nine box?” Smart branding, like Terramar’s, tells that story and helps a product stand out—even in a crowded shop. To broadcast that change was afoot at UST, and invite fans along for the journey, Holdmeier and his team launched a podcast and a video series in 2020. They didn’t have new products to launch, so they generated content by dissecting the entire rebranding process. They were also intentional about sharing the team’s goofy side to help bond with viewers. UST then recruited 60 storytellers—i.e., influencers and ambassadors—to help with visibility. Those storytellers are now documenting their adventures out in the field through the blog, podcast, and video series. “At the end of the day, obviously everything we do is to create gear and sell it,” says Holdemeier. “But just as important as that, we want to create a community.”
PHOTO BY COURTESY
A memorable brand is one with a personality. Here’s how some outdoor companies are finding theirs.
12/19/20 10:20 AM
business / numerology LOOK WHO’S TALKING To understand where our data came from, we categorized our 136 survey respondents by shop type. Here’s the breakdown.
By the Numbers
SPecialty retail At the end of 2020, we surveyed more than 100 outdoor gear shops across the country to get a glimpse of how this crazy year affected retail. BY ANDREW WEAVER
SALES SNAPSHOT Though the pandemic wreaked havoc on certain sectors of the retail industry in 2020, specialty outdoor shops escaped the worst of it. The graph below illustrates the spread of reported annual sales volumes among our survey respondents in 2019 (actual sales) and 2020 (anticipated sales).
46 Traditional outdoor specialty 23 Lifestyle + outdoor specialty 16 Cycling only 14 Paddlesports + outdoor specialty 8 Snowsports + outdoor specialty 7 Cycling + outdoor specialty 5 Traditional sporting goods + outdoor specialty 17 Other (climbing only, paddle only, angling, etc.)
PERCENT OF SURVEY RESPONDENTS
19.9% 19.1% 14.7%
Drumroll, please! The best brand to do business with, according to our survey respondents, was PATAGONIA, with 17.4 percent of the vote. Cascade Designs, The North Face, and Trek tied for second place with 2.7 percent of the vote each.
1.5% 1.5% $5M+
REPORTED ANNUAL SALES VOLUME
5.1% 5% Declined to answer
We asked retailers which categories propelled sales most in 2020. Here’s how they voted.* Other* (18%)
BEST-SELLING HARDGOODS CATEGORY Cycling (25.8%)
Men’s sportswear (17.5%)
BEST-SELLING SOFTGOODS CATEGORY
Camping (9%) Backcountry ski (7.9%)
*Includes all categories that received less than 5 percent of the vote total each. Responses included alpine ski, climbing, coolers, cross-country ski, helmets, and more.
Men’s lifestyle (10%) Outerwear (10%) Women’s sportswear (10%)
*Includes all categories that received less than 5 percent of the vote total each. Responses included accessories, gloves, hats, rain wear, socks, swimwear, and more.
Cycling, including ebikes (18.8%)
FASTEST-GROWING CATEGORY OVERALL Footwear (8.2%)
Backcountry ski (9.4%)
*Includes all categories that received less than 5 percent of the vote total each. Responses included accessories, alpine ski, angling, packs, car racks, helmets, and more.
*These percentages represent only respondents who voted. Retailers who declined to answer were not included in these totals.
12/19/20 4:59 PM
business / Faceoff
Does Sponsored Content Work? Two media insiders debate whether paid articles pay off.
Yes, if done correctly.
PHOTOS BY COURTSEY
—SHARON HOUGHTON General Manager, Pocket Outdoor Media*
Today, we see a lot of sponsored content coming directly from brands. That can be a great strategy, but many brands are winging it. They try a few things, but give up when they don’t get the ROI they wanted. They don’t have professional content writers or editors, or an established audience. A good publisher has both. Plus, good editors know their audience, and can tell a brand’s story in a way they know will resonate. Good custom content is about storytelling. No one wants to read an article full of links pushing them to buy something (common if the publisher is trying to get an affiliate cut of the sales). But a good writer can tell the story in a way that helps readers picture themselves using a product or visiting a place. That’s what makes sponsored content so powerful.
That said, due to Covid-19, most companies have shifted away from branded messaging, including sponsored content, and instead put their dollars into performance marketing or ecommerce strategies, which have a more immediate return. But that can have long-term impacts on a brand’s success. The issue is that there’s a lot of noise in the marketplace. Customers who understand your brand tend to be loyal. But if you haven’t done anything to tell your story or build that relationship? They might buy your product once, but the next time they need gear, they won’t come looking for you. Instead, you’ll lose them to whoever can offer a lower price. Sponsored content takes long-term commitment and resources. But if you take time to figure out the right content, publisher, and distribution strategy, you’re going to see the benefits in the longevity—and resilience—of your customers.
It’s not our first choice. —CHARLIE LOZNER Partner/VP of Digital Media, Backbone Media
At Backbone, we tend not to like sponsored content as much—it’s not typically the first thing we go for. We will absolutely go to sponsored content if a brand is having a hard time getting a story across, or if there’s a message that doesn’t lend itself well to a lot of ad formats. And if a brand’s creative team is strapped for resources, it can be great to lean on a publisher. But one of the issues with sponsored content is that it
can be expensive, and it takes a lot more time to work on. We have to make sure we leave a long enough timeline to do several rounds of edits. Then, the publisher has to have a distribution plan around it. The last thing we want to do is pay for a piece of artwork and then hang it up in a closet. Instead, one of the newer areas of sponsored content we tend to go for is a hybrid model: the affiliate channel. That way, we might pay less to have a sponsored content article written up front, but we’ll offer a really generous commission if the article performs well, driving traffic and sales. And if it does, maybe the publisher will write another article that we don’t even have to pay for. At that point, your goals as a brand and the publisher’s goals are aligned. There need to be shared incentives, so that you both have skin in the game—and so that you both benefit.
Does sponsored content work? SNEWS readers weigh in.
28 Occasionally 27% Rarely 21% Never 18% Fairly often 6% All the time %
DO YOU READ SPONSORED CONTENT?
DO YOU TRUST IT?
46% Sometimes; it depends on the outlet 29% Rarely 16% Never 7% More often than not 1% Yes, always
*Pocket Outdoor Media is the parent company of The Voice.
12/19/20 2:16 PM
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PHOTO BY COURTESY; PHOTOSKETCH BY JOSÉ GONZÁLEZ
In their own words, get to know a 14-year-old athlete turned climate activist; a marketer battling gatekeeping; a designer rethinking hunt and fish; and—announced as we went to press—our new nominee for Secretary of the Interior.
WHY SALES REPS SHOULD UNIONIZE / THE UPSIDE OF THE PANDEMIC / THE BENEFITS OF PAY TRANSPARENCY / PREPPING FOR A BACKCOUNTRY SWELL 27
12/21/20 10:25 AM
NIC ALEGRE/TETON GRAVITY RESEARCH
PHOTOS BY (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT) CORNELL WATSON JR; EMMA EARL; COURTESY;
culture / fresh Voices
12/19/20 5:05 PM
1 [MAR KETE R]
NIC ALEGRE/TETON GRAVITY RESEARCH
PHOTOS BY (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT) CORNELL WATSON JR; EMMA EARL; COURTESY;
I GREW UP VISITING NATIONAL PARKS and camping in Morocco, but I didn’t consider myself a conservationist until I rediscovered Islam in college. The Muslim Student Association gave me a Quran and, feeling lost, I began to explore its pages. As I read about the diversity of life on earth, my sense of wonder peaked and I was propelled towards a career in the outdoors. After graduation, I attended the 2019 Outdoor Economy Conference, where I met Danielle Williams, founder of Melanin Base Camp. She encouraged me to start writing about racism, gatekeeping, tokenism, and other barriers prevalent in our industry. That same weekend, I met Angie Robinson, the vice president of Darby Communications. That meeting led to my being hired as an account coordinator at Darby. Now, I give marketing assistance to brands and nonprofits that care about the outdoors. I also write and consult with a social-justice lens, adding my perspective as a Black, Muslim outdoorsman. My dream is to help grow wellness initiatives in the outdoor space.
ON A HOT DAY IN LOGAN, UTAH, three years ago, I waded into a frigid river with a fly rod in hand. Although I’d had some training, this was my first time stepping out on my own. I caught a small cutthroat and went home captivated by fly-fishing. At the time, I was part of the inaugural class at Utah State University’s Outdoor Product Design and Development program. For my senior capstone project, I reimagined what waders for women could look like. Focusing on fit, function, and aesthetics, I designed and prototyped a pair of waders that at the time were unlike anything else on the market. My project caught the eye of someone at Orvis, which led to my current role designing fishing and hunting gear for the company. Fish and hunt are traditionally male-dominated categories, but I’m working to make products that work for everyone—and, I hope, create more converts in the process. [D E S IG N E R]
Natalie Cullum @NATALIECULLUM NATALIECULLUM.COM
3 [ATH LETE]
Kai Jones @KAIJONESSKI
I HAVE NO MEMORY OF LIFE BEFORE SKIING. I grew up in Victor, Idaho, and was on skis by age two. My dad, Todd Jones, founded Teton Gravity Research (TGR), so I was always around pro skiers and cameras. By age seven, I knew I wanted to center my life in the mountains and someday go pro. Becoming a climate advocate came later. In fourth grade, around the same time I took second in my first freeride competition, I learned about climate change. I was curious, so I started asking my parents questions—that’s how I discovered Protect Our Winters (POW), the organization founded by my uncle Jeremy Jones. POW showed me a path to becoming a climate activist. I’m now 14. I’ve appeared in three TGR films and I’m the youngest POW ambassador. Even though I can’t vote yet, I use my platform (44K followers on Instagram) to encourage people to protect our planet. The mountains have shaped me, and I want future kids to be able to feel that stoke, too.
I GREW UP OUTDOORS. My dad was an active-duty Marine, and although we moved a lot, he always got us outside. In the summers, I would visit my grandparents in Mesita, New Mexico, one of Laguna Pueblo’s six villages, where we lived without running water. Those experiences taught me to respect the Earth and to value our resources. Before being elected to Congress in 2018, I was chairwoman of my pueblo’s development corporation, bringing sustainability to our casinos and other businesses. After I was sworn in, I became vice chair of the Natural Resources Committee, where I prioritized land designation and oversight of the Trump Administration’s Interior. Like many Americans, my life hasn’t been easy: I struggled with homelessness, have relied on food stamps to feed my family, and raised my daughter as a single mom. Those struggles give me perspective. My vision is to build policy that helps people get ahead, protects our resources, and leaves a livable planet for future generations. [POLITICIAN]
Deb haaland @REPDEBHAALAND HAALAND.HOUSE.GOV
12/19/20 5:01 PM
culture / road rules
Should Sales Reps Unionize?
ion Injury protect
Contract negotiations Health Care
Thousands of industry reps might be better off if they did.
eith Reis’s typical week has changed a lot since last March. As a sales rep, he’s used to being on the road, hosting clinics, meeting with clients, and visiting stores. These days, though, you’ll mostly find him on video calls, negotiating inventory, untangling supply chain issues, and mediating discussions between clients. “It’s a lot of one-off communications,” says Denver-based Reis. “Back in March, it was all hands on deck, and it still is.” While some reps work in-house for brands, the majority, like Reis, are independent contractors, operating solo or for a sales agency. When the pandemic struck, independent reps were left on their own to navigate underemployment and job uncertainties. The industry shakeups of 2020 also magnified preexisting issues, like lack of workers’ compensation or salary security. Adding to the stress: waves of returned inventory from some retailers, and demand from others that brands couldn’t fulfill. “When brands stopped shipping products, reps stopped getting paid,” says Cami Garrison, director of the Western Winter Sports Rep Association (WWSRA). “Reps spent March, April, and May canceling orders, reordering, and emotionally navigating what was going on for them personally, as well as for their retailers and brands.”
Rich Hill, director of Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, worked as a sales rep before he spent 25 years managing them. Grassroots serves specialty vendors and retailers, but sales reps have no such representation. Hill believes a national organization would help reps stay relevant and support collective initiatives, such as health care, commission management, the overhauling of data systems, and contract negotiations. “Reps are powerfully effective, but as a group, they’re stuck in the ’70s,” says Hill. “They need to elevate their game, become easier to work with, and organize to have a seat at the table.” According to Dana Caraway, founder of the sales agency Caraway & Co., regional associations already provide many of these perks and cooperate regularly (six, including the WWSRA, form the United States Reps Association). Still, she’s for larger-scale collaboration, especially if it gives women and the younger generation a say in an industry dominated by older male reps. “It would be cool to have a co-op where we could trade resources and ask questions,” says Caraway. “We’re an important part of the ecosystem and we need to have a bigger voice.” As the uncertainty of Covid-19 persists, reps are as crucial to successful retailer and brand operations as ever. But sometimes, they need a champion. “The more I sell, the more I’m supposed to do for my
retailer,” says one rep, who requested anonymity to preserve working relationships. “But the more I sell, the more my brands want to cut my commission.” Without a unified voice, many ongoing issues or similar grievances never get aired publicly. Working conditions for sales reps vary by brand and contract, with little to no oversight, so a national organization could also help provide transparency and minimum rates. “Contracts are so one-sided— there is zero protection for the rep,” says the anonymous source, noting that reps are also discouraged from disclosing their contracts. “No one wants to stick their head out unless everyone does.” And when brands break contracts, reps must decide if they want to fight for pay and risk losing a client. Why then, hasn’t a union gained steam? Reps’ schedules remain diverse and overloaded, leaving little time for organizing. Sales is also naturally competitive, contributing to a lone-wolf mentality amongst reps. “I think the regional organizations would be the place to start,” says Reis, citing their membership and unique insight. “But do they have the bandwidth or finances?” Garrison, from the WWSRA, confirmed that although the organizational capacity is there, time and resources are the limiting factors. Still, she says, “I think we would all be up for it if the industry wanted to mobilize.”
ILLUSTRATION BY IRACOSMA/STOCK.ADOBE..COM
BY HANNAH SINGLETON
12/19/20 10:34 AM
culture / unfiltered THE PANDEMIC HAS INSPIRED A BROADER SPECTRUM OF PEOPLE TO RECREATE OUTSIDE.
Silver Linings The trials of 2020 have altered our industry for the better. BY MIKE IMES
s an industry, the pandemic was the best thing that could have happened to us. Although 2020 won’t be remembered for its silver linings, I think it should: Covid-19 has shattered the status quo in profoundly positive ways. Don’t get me wrong—this year has also been devastating. I mourn the lives lost and realize how fortunate I am to be both healthy and employed. I work for the marketing agency Backbone Media, and back in March, our clients—many of them giants in the outdoor industry— were reporting grave revenue concerns. As brands moved to cut expenses and customers braced for a recession, a team pushing adventure goods felt inessential.
PHOTO BY WILD ACORNS MEDIA
As spring crept on, though, my outlook changed. By late April, The New York Times was reporting increases in “quarantine fatigue,” while cell phone data showed people venturing outdoors more often and farther from home. The quiet parks and trails I’d frequented for years were suddenly teeming with people. Customers emerged from the woodwork as stimulus checks arrived and work stabilized. Without a commute, newly remote workers had more time to actually get outside, with fewer cars and less pollution. Now remote myself, I traded the concrete sidewalks of Denver for the singletrack of Carbondale, Colorado. As experts labeled socially distanced outdoor recreation safe, millions came to know the positive effects of time spent in
nature, as they chipped away at stress and cabin fever. Suddenly, prices for used bikes began to skyrocket as new models sold out. Friends of mine at Bicycle Village in Aurora, Colorado, one of the largest bike shops in America, told me they could not build entry-level models fast enough. And it wasn’t just biking: Across the country, everything from kayaks to tents to hiking shoes have been selling well during the pandemic (see p. 24). Clients and industry partners—including Black Diamond, Weston Backcountry, and Karakoram—reported selling out of bindings, boards, and other backcountry gear months ahead of their most optimistic estimates. Paralleling this unexpected resurgence was a national cry for social justice, a response to police brutality but also a product of the pandemic and the inequity it laid bare. Many of the new outdoor enthusiasts emerging were people of color, among others not traditionally well-represented in the outdoors. The national push for diversity, equity, and inclusion forced a reckoning within our own ranks. Brands are now considering solutions to systemic issues and realizing we can grow revenues alongside genuine, positive action. We have a ways to go (see p. 70), but we’re now better positioned than ever to cultivate an environment where everyone feels included. All that said, the outdoor economy has still been hit hard, especially guiding outfits, trade shows, and any businesses that rely on on communal gatherings. Supply chain complexities, production issues, and ever-evolving health and safety protocols aren’t helping things, either. But I’m optimistic. A broader spectrum of people is now recreating outside, meaning our customer base has grown, as has the number of new advocates (and, I hope, voters) for fresh air, clean water, and the protection of wild places. In the long run, new outdoor participants will mean new businesses, new employees, and new ideas. As the vaccine rolls out, let’s carry these wins forward.
12/19/20 4:38 PM
culture / 9 to 5
You probably don’t know how much your colleagues make. Here’s why you should. BY KIRAN HERBERT
ould you share your salary publicly? The idea makes most of us squirm—but what if that’s exactly what we need to end unjust pay gaps? This year has brought no shortage of equity commitments from the outdoor industry, yet pay transparency—the practice of making employee compensation figures visible, either internally or externally—is essentially nonexistent. A growing body of research suggests that the disconnect is a missed opportunity: Pay transparency is one of the most effective (and easiest) things a business can do to alleviate racial and gender pay discrepancies. Across industries, white women typically make 81 cents for every dollar earned by white men (the gap widens for women of color). And women, like all Black candidates, are viewed as less likable when they do negotiate. Salary secrecy also keeps entry-level positions fixed at lower rates, exacerbating the wealth gap (and encouraging folks to jump companies when they want a significant raise). When incomes are fixed and public, it’s much harder to maintain an overinflated pay gap. Still, keeping mum about salaries is standard practice, allowing companies to maintain the upper hand while negotiating. If a talented staffer can be hired at an
“If people feel that pay is inequitable, bad things happen.”
California, Berkeley, found that employees who knew their colleagues’ salaries put in significantly more effort than those with no knowledge of peer earnings. Says Terry, “Salary transparency breeds trust, laying the foundation for teamwork and collaboration.” The flip side: Knowing your coworker makes more money can also breed resentment. Companies can avoid any sense of bitterness by benchmarking base salaries against a data source and building a formula to account for things like seniority, cost of living, or other qualifications (no negotiating allowed). And remember that including pay philosophy—making it clear how salaries are calculated and what career progression looks like—is crucial, too. “Unless companies can publically justify why someone should be paid more, they’re usually better off flattening pay,” says Zenger. Another option is to keep individual salary data private, while still publicizing the salary formula used, ranges of pay, and pertinent stats, such as women’s pay relative to men’s. “Maintaining a sense of fairness in an organization is absolutely vital, and pay transparency plays into that,” says Zenger. The practice won’t eliminate all inequity in our industry, but it will help close the pay gap—that’s a pretty good place to start.
PHOTO BY LOUISA ALBANESE
unfairly low rate, most businesses consider that a win. Salary secrecy also keeps with a culture that values individualism, and sees the sharing of personal finances as taboo. But secrecy can backfire. “If people feel that pay is inequitable, bad things happen,” says Todd Zenger, professor of strategy and strategic leadership at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business. “They leave organizations, they lobby for changes in pay, and their effort [as employees] declines.” Nevertheless, companies that employ pay transparency remain outliers. Whole Foods and the software company Buffer are two notable examples of businesses that have adopted the practice and are more egalitarian for it. Buffer made the move towards salary transparency in 2013, posting all employee salaries publicly online (including that of CEO Joel Gascoigne: $280,500). Although transparency has allowed Buffer to eliminate the gender pay gap between people in comparable roles, men on average still make about $14,000 more than women due to overrepresentation in upper-level positions. Salary tracking and public accountability, however, ensure the company is constantly improving. “Basically, we need to hire more women in senior-level roles,” says Jenny Terry, Buffer’s finance and compliance manager. Like recruiting more people of color, it’s a pipeline issue the company is actively working to address. Perhaps most surprising is the fact that within a month of making salaries public, job applications to Buffer doubled. “Pay transparency has been a huge driver for our inbound recruiting,” says Terry, noting that the practice removes guesswork for the applicant and bias for the hiring manager. “It’s been a really positive thing for company culture.” A 2013 study out of the University of
12/19/20 5:24 PM
culture / 5 hard questions
Backcountry boom The outdoor industry gears up for a record number of users— and accidents—this ski season. 1. Experts predict a surge of interest in backcountry traffic this winter. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Ethan Green: It’s a good thing. At the CAIC, we promote backcountry recreation by encouraging people to be safe, not necessarily by trying to increase users. Still, more users does help local governments, the economy, and businesses. Jerry Hicks: I think it’s awesome. There’s certainly a positive on the business side, but this level of increase is also a culturally cool thing. Adding different people and perspectives into the backcountry is truly more important than any money made. 2. What’s been done to prepare for this season’s uptick?
PHOTOS BY COURTSEY
EG: The main part of our program, forecasting, is scalable. The other part is education, and we’ve done a lot to prepare for more users. We’ve beefed up our programs, shifted things online, and collaborated with other groups to broaden the scope of offerings. We’re doing a lot of outreach with retailers to pass out basic information to people purchasing backcountry equipment, and we’ve partnered with local governments, the Forest Service, and the Friends of the CAIC to put up trailhead signs in Colorado. Liz Riggs Meder: You could say we have a shortage of instructors—we’re offering the same number of classes as last year, there’s just greater demand. Becoming an AIARE instructor is a multiyear process, so it isn’t exactly a quick spin on a dime to
ramp up our courses. We’re adding a lot of hybridizing courses this year, where you might be virtual for one day, provisionally instructed another, and then in the field later. We’re adapting, but you also can’t make an experienced educator overnight. 3. Safe backcountry winter travel requires specialized skills. What dangers do you foresee as a result of the surge? JH: A lot of people are coming to the backcountry from ski resorts and don’t understand the inherent risk of being in the mountains without active avalanche control or ski patrollers. I don’t want to expect dangers or a huge increase in accidents, but I think it would be naïve not to. Typically, we head to the backcountry for solitude, but this year, we need to actively look out for each other. If we see something that’s not safe, we need to say something. There are going to be people out there who don’t know the protocol or even that there are educational options. As a community, we need to do a good job of self-policing and correcting mistakes. LRM: We are an industry that sells a lot of hype and aspirational messaging. This is the year where we might want to flip the script and exercise caution—keeping our community safe is rad, too. 4. Where does responsibility lie when it comes to backcountry safety? LRM: It’s all of us. Every single one of our touchpoints—from people in retail to manufacturers to athletes to educators to advertisers—has the ability to impart a
Ethan Greene, Ph.D. Director, Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) Liz Riggs Meder Director, Rec Programs, American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) Jerry Hicks Director of Sales and Marketing, Pieps N. America at Black Diamond Equipment
message. Education happens at all levels. JH: The buck stops at the user. We all need to ensure users understand that there is a pipeline for education and that they need to get in it. With equipment, before things even make it to market, we’ve done thousands of hours of testing. Everything you’re buying from a retailer is going to work, but only if you know how to use it. It’s lifesaving equipment, so you need to consistently test and inspect it and make sure you’re keeping it in perfect working order. That said, we will absolutely retest beacons if there’s an incident. 5. Should recreationists just stay home? EG: It depends on the public health environment. People really need to pay attention to what’s happening with Covid-19 in their local area and the area they want to explore. We need to make decisions that don’t stress local infrastructure, hospitals, and emergency systems. JH: I don’t think people should stay home. They should learn as much as they can about backcountry safety. Learning is a huge part of the process and people should enjoy it. In the beginning, keep your objectives low risk by planning and researching your routes. You can have a lot of fun skiing lower-angle pow. LRM: Have options, but get out there. It’s healthy and good for our public lands.
12/21/20 10:09 AM
culture / homage
Paying respect to outdoor awesomeness. BY KIRAN HERBERT
Converting Fresh Campers
ear can be cost prohibitive, keeping those who can’t afford it—often Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC)— from knowing the joys of camping. Gear libraries are one solution (see p. 54). After experiencing Idaho’s wilderness, Mo Jackson, 28, got another idea. Last May, Jackson (who uses they/them pronouns) used their savings to buy three camping kits, each including a tent, two sleeping bags, and a cooler. They then took to Instagram to find BIPOC recipients. In that first post, they wrote, “As BIPOC we are far less likely to access our national parks and camping sites but are in need of the freedom, healing, peace, and fun” they provide. The sentiment resonated with others, and in July, Jackson set up a GoFundMe page for BIPOC Camping Kits. To date, they’ve raised more than $95,000. A partnership with Portland, Oregon-based retailer Next Adventure has aided the cause, which so far has gifted more than 600 kits.
Cash for Rescuers
2019, Bryce Jones, the CEO and I nco-founder of backcountry radio brand
Rocky Talkie, was climbing in Colorado when a falling rock smashed his hand. Rescued by a volunteer team, Jones built the experience into his business: For every radio sold, Rocky Talkie donates $2 to volunteer search and rescue (SAR) teams. Anticipating a surge in backcountry use this year (see p. 33), Rocky Talkie has upped its pledge to SAR volunteers by offering four grants totaling $10,000. The grants, open to any U.S.-based volunteer SAR group, will be
Bringing in New Bylines
iversifying the outdoor stories we share and the audiences we reach isn’t enough: We need a diversity of storytellers, too. Teresa Baker, founder of the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge, pushed a group of publishers and editors—including The Voice’s own Kristin Hostetter—to take on the task, and last October, Outdoor Media For Inclusion (OM4I) was born. The working group aims to provide more work for journalists and other content creators who identify with marginalized communities. “Privileged—mostly white— voices have dominated outdoor consumer and B2B media for too long,” says Hostetter. “It’s time for a change.” Talent looking to work with outdoor media can opt into OM4I’s database (OM4I.org), which OM4I will share with outlets that have publicly agreed to a list of DEI-specific terms.
Happy 100th, Eddie!
n 1920, 21-year-old Eddie Bauer opened a tennis shop in downtown Seattle. Gradually, the outdoorsman expanded his wares, offering customers an unconditional lifetime warranty. In 1936, after suffering from hypothermia, Bauer debuted the Skyliner (pictured), a quilted goose down jacket we’d still rock today. His company went on to outfit the first American to summit Everest, design a U.S. Army parka,
and co-brand seven Ford cars. To celebrate 100, Eddie Bauer updated classic pieces for its Centennial Line. Looking forward, the company is focusing on innovation, sustainability, and, notably, inclusivity, by partnering with community leaders and activists via its One Outside program. Says President Damien Huang, “Our goal for the next 100 years is to inspire all people to feel accepted and empowered in the outdoors by making it a more inclusive place.” Oh, and that lifetime guarantee? It still stands.
The neigborhood walk By Liz “Snorkel” Thomas @lizthomashiking; eathomas.com most outdoorsy L ikepeople, the “stay close to home” part of the pandemic really got to me. But as the reigning Queen of Urban Hiking, I know adventure can be found anywhere. So I began mapping routes through my Los Angeles suburb. It wasn’t mountain trekking, but there were still blue skies and trees, birds singing, and a calming breeze. Instead of dismissing my home as urban sprawl, I noticed greenery peeking out through cement, its resilience a metaphor for these times. With my gym closed, I covered anywhere from 3 to 25 miles a day, observing others out in their own neighborhoods, experiencing joy by connecting to one another and the places they live. My own wanderings gave me something to look forward to—a much-needed mental health boost in 2020. By leaving behind my screens and looking up and around at the world, I was reminded to slow down and live in the moment. This year, neighborhood walks helped people recognize that nature is everywhere if we pay attention.
PHOTOS BY COURTESY
used to fund things like new equipment, PPE, and training. “SAR teams play a crucial role in supporting the activities we love,” says Jones. “Most of us take their work for granted until we need them—I know I did.”
034_Culture-Love Fest Homage_proof-aw-ek.indd 34
12/20/20 5:42 PM
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The voice 50 The coolest products of Fall/Winter ’21, ranked. BY JUSTIN AND PATRICE LA VIGNE
et’s raise a toast to all the sweet gear we’ll use on our blowout post-quarantine adventures. We received 247 submissions in response to our call for the most exciting products launching in Fall/Winter 2021, and we enlisted a gear-savvy crew of more than 60 retailers, consumers, and staffers to help us comb through them. The result is here: the most anticipated new 50 products of the year, in order of stoke.
PHOTO BY WILD ACORNS MEDIA
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12/21/20 2:21 PM
gear / season’s top 50
Democracy reigns, at the polls and here at The Voice. Submissions to our gear call were down by 28 percent from last season, reflecting a more cautious approach to product launches and disruptions in the supply chain due to the pandemic. Still, we had plenty to choose from. We culled the list down to the 60 products that intrigued us most, then put it to a vote among three different user groups: consumers drawn from a pool of superfans of Backpacker (our sister publication), a panel of retail shop owners, and our own staff of gearheads. Everyone voted on each product, assigning a ranking of 1 (not interested) to 10 (very interested). We tallied the numbers to assign ranks. Here
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are the top three picks from each voter group: RETAILER First: Patagonia Downdrift Jacket. Second: Fernweh Food Adventure Meals, Good To-Go Chicken Pho, Sea to Summit Telos TR2, and Vapor EZ Lick Portable Dog Bottle (four-way tie). Third: Backcountry Access Dozer 2H Shovel, and Cusa Coffee Dirty Chai (tie) CONSUMER First: Ignik Outdoor Heated Sleeping Bag Liner. Second: SOL Fuel-Free Lighter. Third: Good To-Go Chicken Pho, Helly Hansen Elevation Fleece Shield, Sea to Summit Telos TR2 (three-way tie) STAFF First: Sea to Summit Telos TR2. Second: Granite Gear Perimeter. Third: Ignik Outdoors Heated Sleeping Bag Liner
1) Sea to Summit Telos TR2 (see p. 37) $499 THE PROMISE Sea to Summit debuts its first tent, obliterating typical space and condensation issues. THE DEETS This two-door, two-vestibule, double-wall, freestanding tent has a radical new pole design, conceived in partnership with Jake Lah of DAC poles. The angle of the brow pole is inverted to push the body of the tent farther out from the floor, creating higher entrances (3 feet) and steeper sidewalls (no more mesh in the face). With 28 square feet of internal space and 19 square feet of vestibules, this tent is roomy. There are vents on the bottom and top that enhance cross ventilation. 2) Ignik Outdoors Heated Sleeping Bag Liner Available Now! $100 THE PROMISE Never sleep cold again. THE DEETS Any old liner will add warmth to a bag, but this is the industry’s first to actively heat it up via a 5-volt USB or 12-volt power source. Three modes and two zones (feet and core) turn up the temperature using patent-pending conductive carbon fiber technology
woven through the fabric (no bulky wires). The reflective layer facing the body directs the heat upward, not into the ground. The outer polyester layer is soft to the touch and machine washable. Available
Now! 3) Fernweh Food Company Adventure Meals $13.50 THE PROMISE Meet the new kid on the backcountry food block. THE DEETS After years of making her own meals for bike- and backpacking tours, Ashley Lance launched Fernweh (which means “far-longing” in German). Made from ingredients harvested at peak season, the debut offerings include Mushroom Pot Pie, Sweet Potato Breakfast Bowl, and Southwest Stew. Cool: You can choose your packaging, either a compostable cook-in bag or a reusable muslin sack.
4) Good To-Go Available Now! Chicken Pho $8 THE PROMISE Your takeout go-to comes camping. THE DEETS This Vietnamese chicken noodle soup is spiced up with lime, scallions, cilantro, and jalapeño. A single serving delivers a protein bomb of 27 grams.
PHOTOS BY COURTESY
12/21/20 2:21 PM
PHOTOS BY COURTESY
6 5) ORTOVOX Diract Voice Avalance Transceiver $380 THE PROMISE This beacon talks you through the rescue. THE DEETS Once the avalanche is over, the chaos begins. The new feature on this device is that it helps rescuers through the recovery, giving verbal prompts, such as navigation to the buried victim. Nine language options make it accessible worldwide. The rechargeable battery lasts 500 hours in transit mode and 20 hours in search mode.
8 6) Fjällräven Keb Wool Padded Jacket $280 THE PROMISE Get durable style and performance while diverting material from the landfill. THE DEETS The jacket padding contains 60 grams of reclaimed wool that’s usually deemed unusable. Instead, Fjällräven mixes it with biodegradable cornstarch fibers to make the insulation. Pair it with a shell and it’s a warm, stylish layering piece for skiing or trekking. It’s also free from perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).
7) Survive Outdoors Available Now! Longer Fuel-Free Lighter $25 THE PROMISE Fire up your camp stove and light your way with this multifunctional tool. THE DEETS Rechargeable via any USB power source, this windproof lighter has a built-in LED light with high, low, and strobe modes (three hours of low light when fully charged). Plus, there’s 3 feet of paracord around the handle that can be used as rope or tinder. A single charge produces 45 ignitions and, since it’s fuel free, it’s TSA friendly.
8) Granite Gear Perimeter 35 & 50 $200-$220 THE PROMISE Celebrating body diversity, this backpack is an invitation to all shapes and sizes. THE DEETS The suspension system includes daisy-chained webbing points to allow several inches of adjustment for torso length, plus a wide setting for shoulder width. The Re-Fit hipbelt adjusts from 24 to 40 inches (women’s) and 26 to 42 inches (unisex). Both sizes have a 40-pound load rating due to the spring-steel-rod frame.
12/21/20 2:21 PM
gear / season’s top 50
10) UST Monarch Available Now! Sleeping Bag $270 THE PROMISE Transformative to conditions, this sleeping bag promises yearround versatility. THE DEETS By attaching or detaching foldable wings to this synthetic sleeping bag, you can adjust the temperature rating from 17 to 37 degrees. When removed, the wings stuff into the compression sack for use as a camp pillow.
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11) Hilleberg the Tentmaker Soulo BL $825 THE PROMISE This four-season solo tent boasts the strongest zippers, fabric, and stakes for the harshest conditions. THE DEETS This is the first solo four-season tent in the Black Label series, Hilleberg’s top line. Made with the company’s heartiest materials—40-denier nylon and DAC 10-mm poles—this freestanding tent weighs just 6.3 pounds. There’s a 6.4-square-foot vestibule and 20.5 square feet of living space. The vents are higher up on the tent body and can be closed tightly
with a snowproof panel from the inside or out. 12) Flylow Gear Compound Bib (m’s) $550 THE PROMISE The bib has the protection of a hardshell and the breathability of a softshell. THE DEETS No need to choose between winter pants or bib; this is both, thanks to the zip-off softshell suspender top. The hardshell pants will fend off any weather, but the fabric’s air permeability—plus side and inseam vents—means you won’t steam up while touring. Available
Now! 13) Vapor EZ Lick Portable Dog Water Bottle $20 THE PROMISE This fussfree hydration solution pares down your dog-care kit. THE DEETS This 23-ounce, foldable water bottle has a rolling ball at the wide mouth that allows pups to lick and hydrate without spillage or the need to mess with a separate water bowl. The dishwasher-safe bottle weighs just 3 ounces and stands upright when full.
14) Cusa Coffee Available Now! Dirty Chai $9 (pack of 7) THE PROMISE This cozy instant bevvie will warm your belly in chilly camps. THE DEETS Just add (hot or cold) water for a spicysweet drink that will fuel your winter adventures with 130 mg of caffeine per cup. This chai blend uses Arabica coffee that’s made through a patented cold-brew evaporative dehydration process and mixed with tea and spices (but not sugar or dairy).
PHOTOS BY COURTESY
9) BioLite AlpenGlow 500 $70 THE PROMISE This lantern can illuminate an entire camp or create a romantic, ambient glow. THE DEETS This rechargeable LED lantern features nine different modes; a quick shake up and down changes color. From a flickering candle to a burst of fireworks, this light will spice up indoor or outdoor life. There’s also a USB charging port, all in a 13.4-ounce package.
12/21/20 2:21 PM
15) Big Agnes Danvers and Cora Pullover $250 THE PROMISE A warm, versatile puffy that’s as light as air. THE DEETS The pullovers are quilted with diamond-shaped baffles, which allow the 850-fill, water-resistant down feathers to expand fully and eliminate cold spots. This 6-ounce pullover has a deep chest zipper, kangaroo handwarmer pocket, and an interior stash pocket. The trim fit is ideal for layering.
PHOTOS BY COURTESY
16) Backcountry Access Dozer 2H Shovel $80 THE PROMISE The hoe mode speeds up avy rescues and camp setup. THE DEETS At just 1.7 pounds, this shovel’s durability might be surprising. The hollow handle extends to 23.5 inches for more leverage when breaking up snow. When the handle is flipped, it turns into a D-grip to use as a hoe to pull and push snow. 17) Patagonia Downdrift Jacket $299 THE PROMISE Stay warm and reduce ocean pollution. THE DEETS This lifestyle jacket comes with a good story. Not only is it manufactured with nylon upcycled from postconsumer fishing nets, the DWR finish does not contain PFCs and the 600-fill down insulation comes from reclaimed duck and goose feathers. The full-length jacket has a drawcord hem, hood, two-way zipper, and metal (not plastic) snaps for extra durability.
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17 18) Bliz Eyewear Rave Nano Optics Available Now! Photochromic $190 THE PROMISE This single photochromic lens makes everything crystal clear, no matter the weather. THE DEETS Photochromic lenses that automatically darken in strong sun and lighten up under dark skies are not uncommon, but most have double lenses with an air gap
between to reduce fogging. Problem is, that creates light refraction and visual distortion. The single lens in the Rave Nanos uses two layers laminated together to solve that problem. 19) Merrell Thermo Rogue 3 Mid GTX $240 THE PROMISE This winter hiker might be lightweight, but it’s built to last.
THE DEETS In its third iteration, this pair is 20 ounces lighter than the last version thanks to a durable TPU material stitched into the toe bumper instead of rubber and TPU overlays. By stripping the top buckle, the shoe fits more like a sneaker, but is weatherproofed for winter conditions. The outsole lugs feature tiny kernels to bite into whatever terrain is underfoot.
12/21/20 2:21 PM
gear / season’s top 50
21) Backcountry Access Tracker4 Avalanche Available Transceiver Now! $390 THE PROMISE New features make this stalwart tougher and more user friendly. THE DEETS Now encased in rubber, this beacon is easier to grip and protected against drops. The recessed screen resists scratches and damage. A brighter and larger display steps it up from the previous iteration, the Tracker3. It runs on three AAA batteries and weighs 7.6 ounces. 22) Dakine Phoenix Gore-Tex Mitt $160 THE PROMISE Gore-Tex, wool, and PrimaLoft keep hands dry and warm all day. THE DEETS This two-piece
23) Deuter Freescape 24 SL/26 L $175 THE PROMISE Light on weight, heavy on features. THE DEETS Built for the backcountry, this daypack has a litany of useful features, like a dedicated compartment for avalanche equipment (including a reinforced shovel sleeve); side access to the
main compartment; a shoulder stow system for glasses; a fleece-lined, zippered pocket for goggles; and stowable gear straps for affixing skis, crampons, a snowboard, or snowshoes. 24) Icebreaker Merino LS Roll Neck $200 THE PROMISE A luxurious baselayer for overachievers. THE DEETS Thanks to the tiny, 15.5-micron fibers in this long-sleeved shirt, it’s cozier than other wool fabrics, yet provides the same level of temperature regulation as higher-micron merino. The high neck, extended sleeves (you can wear them like mittens), thumb loops, and drop tail add protection and versatility for the most active winter days.
system is composed of a liner that uses Gore-Tex and Gore Active technology, which means it stays waterproof on its own, but is breathable enough to wear in combination with the shell mitt. The outer mitt is made of water-repellent and four-waystretch leather for dexterity with sturdiness, packed with the PrimaLoft/wool mixed insulation for a cozy feel.
PHOTOS BY COURTESY
20) Mobile by Peak Design $20 and up THE PROMISE This phone case adapts for every activity. THE DEETS The molded bumper on this lightweight polycarbonate case protects against the inevitable drops. But the real story is the case’s accessory compatibility. With a large variety of swappable accessories that lock in place, the case is ready for any adventure with mounts for car, bike, motorcycle, and home/office, plus special accessories for on-the-go photographers and filmmakers. If you don’t need the accessories, then you can add the optional mobile wallet to the back, which also serves as a kickstand for reading or video-watching.
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26 PHOTOS BY COURTESY
25) Jones Snowboards Peak Bagger Jacket (m’s) $400 THE PROMISE Jones Snowboards drops into the apparel game with this rugged, breathable hardshell. THE DEETS This jacket is made with a proprietary, recycled, four-way-stretch waterproof polyester that offers bombproof weather protection, but more than anything, it’s breathable. The tailored fit frees up dynamic movement for skiers and riders alike. 26) Norrøna Trollveggen Superlight Down850 Jacket $349 THE PROMISE It weighs less than 7 ounces, but it’s
hardy enough for alpine activities. THE DEETS This full-zip, 850-fill, ultralight down jacket is warm and protected enough for harsh conditions. The 7-denier nylon shell keeps the weight down, but the jacket still has two pockets, plus an elastic hem and cuff. The slim fit has a longer tail for extra coverage. 27) Mountain Hardwear Stretchdown Light Pullover $275 THE PROMISE Durability and maneuverability set this down pullover apart. THE DEETS This new version of the Stretchdown jacket still has its DWR-treat-
ed shell and 700-fill down/ feather insulation. However, the revamped baffles are smaller and use a single-woven stitching method, which reduces migration of insulation, eliminating cold spots and still allowing for stretch at just 17 ounces (men’s medium). 28) Altra LP Alpine $140 THE PROMISE A classic hiker, reinvented with eco-friendly materials. THE DEETS The midsole uses Bloom foam, made from dried algae. Using this partially bio-based material not only cleans up waterway-degrading algae blooms, but delivers under-
foot support. With 25 mm of cushion, it comes in at 11.3 ounces per shoe (men’s version). 29) Dynafit Blacklight 95 Ski $750 THE PROMISE Speed demons will want this one. THE DEETS It’s well-known that carbon fiber skis are light, but this version uses unidimensional carbon fiber, meaning the fibers run parallel instead of intertwining. Without any cross linkage, there’s less chance for breakage. The 3D sidewall cap also reduces the weight even more to 2.5 pounds (per pair), yet ensures torsional rigidity.
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gear / season’s top 50 30) GCI Outdoor Brute Force Chair $99 THE PROMISE With inclusivity in mind, this camp chair is meant to hold us all. THE DEETS The aluminum frame bears up to 400 pounds with armrests that support getting up and sitting down. The chair has a mesh backrest and stands more than 3 feet tall, with cup and phone holders on the sides. It packs up and stores in its bag for a 10-pound carry. 31) Helly Hansen Elevation Fleece Shield Jacket (m’s) $180 THE PROMISE No wind can penetrate this tightly woven
fleece material. THE DEETS This midlayer blurs the lines between a fleece and a softshell jacket because the fleece is woven versus knitted, which traps heat more effectively. Plus, the two hand pockets and one chest pocket are large enough to fit snacks, a cell phone, and other essentials. Available
Now! 32) PEARL iZUMi AmFIB Lobster Gel Glove $85 THE PROMISE Protect your digits while biking in negative temps. THE DEETS These split-finger gloves marry the warmth of mittens with the dexterity of gloves in order to operate
shifters and brake levers during cold-weather biking. They’re stuffed with 170 grams of PrimaLoft Gold Insulation for warmth, while synthetic leather palms provide a solid grip. Bonus: The fingertips are touchscreen compatible. 33) Mammut Aenergy Air HS Pants $419 THE PROMISE No more sweaty legs during steep, snowy ascents. THE DEETS The Pertex Shield fabric allows water vapor to easily escape while retaining wind- and waterproofness. Yet these pants only weigh 15 ounces (men’s
M) and pack down tiny. The elastic waistband has a hookand-loop fastener so you can adjust the waist, even with a harness on. 34) Salewa Ortles Couloir Mountaineering Boots $1,000 THE PROMISE Lightweight mountaineering boots that are flexible, supportive, and warm. THE DEETS Built like a ski boot with a carbon fiber ankle protector system in the exoskeleton, this mountaineering boot provides steady support along with dexterity, but only weighs 25.5 ounces per boot. The inner boot is made of Thermofelt—a blend of wool felt and thermoplastic fibers—
PHOTOS BY COURTESY
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with additional insulation in the toebox. 35) Bern Winter Available Carbon Watts Now! $250 THE PROMISE A strong and light winter sports helmet to protect your noggin. THE DEETS A 10-hour handmade process weaves carbon fibers into the shell of this helmet, making it up to 10 times stronger than plastic. It weighs less than 17 ounces, yet it’s still equipped with MIPS (multi-directional impact protection system) tech and a UV gloss coat that’s scratch resistant.
PHOTOS BY COURTESY
36) Gordini Front Line Series $120 Mitt, $50 LT Mitt THE PROMISE This versatile series of mitts strips seams for better durability and ultimate protection. THE DEETS This system includes an outer and inner mitt that can work in conjunction with each other or separately. The Front Line minimizes seams, as stitching typically appears in high-pressure areas prone to wear and tear. The palms of both the outer and inner mitt contain Kevlar, making these durable as well as warm and waterproof. Both layers have four-way stretch. And every single component, from the shell materials to the hardware, is bluesign approved. 37) Midnight Lightning Liquid Chalk Refill Available Pack Now! $25 THE PROMISE Leave conventional chalk in the dust with this first-ever refillable liquid chalk system. THE DEETS Midnight Lightning’s existing line of liquid
chalk is all about sustainability, and now the refill packs reduce plastic waste even more. The new 300mL pouch replenishes the brand’s portable 50-mL clip bottle six times over with its magnesium carbonate liquid chalk. The packaging and spout reduce air contact, keeping the refill chalk fresh. 38) Osprey Poco LT Child Carrier $260 THE PROMISE It’s a lighter version of the brand’s classic kid carrier. THE DEETS This child carrier uses a patent-pending stainless-steel frame that folds and stores smaller than other carriers, all at only 5 pounds. The frame locks into place for on-the-ground stability, while the child cockpit includes a harness and front-facing arm loops for easy entry and exit. The builtin sunshade stores away when not needed within a zippered pocket and deploys easily to provide UPF 50 overhead sun protection. 39) Ledlenser H19R Signature Headlamp $300 THE PROMISE This headlight is 3.5 times stronger than a car’s headlights. THE DEETS High beams in a typical car register 1,200 lumens. This headlamp blows that away at 4,000 lumens, making it ideal for mountaineers and adventure racers navigating technical peaks or lighting the way for an entire group with adjustable flood and LED light. The price is steep, but it comes with adapters for helmet, handlebar, and a GoPro, plus it’s Bluetooth capable.
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gear / season’s top 50
41 43 44
Available 41) Suunto 7 Now! $500 THE PROMISE It’s a happy marriage between a sports watch and a smartwatch. THE DEETS Equipped with GPS tracking in 70-plus sport modes (like hiking and kayaking) and new full-color maps, this water-resistant watch pushes into the lifestyle category with weather updates and access to apps via Google Play. Track miles, sleep, elevation, and heart rate with battery life that lasts 12 hours in GPS mode, or up to 48 hours during everyday use.
42) Bolle Torus with Volt Lens $220 THE PROMISE Ski the world in enhanced color. THE DEETS Using artificial intelligence to test color combinations, Bolle developed this lens to have the highest contrast possible by combining cylindrical and spherical shapes that widen the field of view and eliminate distortion. Triple-layer face foam with a thermoformed nose area and integrated lens vents mean comfort without fogging.
43) LOWA Calcetta III GTX (w’s) $230 THE PROMISE These women’s winter boots are cozy and slip-proof. THE DEETS The midcut, cold-weather Calcetta has been updated with a three-directional lug for improved traction during winter excursions. The insulation layer is not just fuzzy, but also protected by a Gore-Tex membrane. 44) WANDRD Fernweh Backpack Available Now! $349 THE PROMISE It’s the ultimate pack for adventure photographers. THE DEETS Not only does this bag have front and back clamshell entry for a camera, there’s also quickdraw side access on the move. The 50-liter pack also has oversized pockets, a hydration sleeve, and a padded laptop compartment. 45) Dynafit Radical Pro Boot $800 THE PROMISE Improve stability on tight turns. THE DEETS Ski touring enthusiasts will love the 60 degrees of rotation in the Grilamid cuff, which blends in carbon fiber to add stiffness without weight. The sole is compatible with all pin, frame, and hybrid bindings because the heel and toe welts conform. It comes with a lifetime warranty, although it should be unnecessary since the Grilamid shell is built to last. 46) Selk’bag Nomad Available Now! $249 THE PROMISE An eco-friendly way to keep warm in camp.
PHOTOS BY COURTESY
40) Salomon STH2 MNC 16 $360 THE PROMISE No matter the boot, this binding allows for smooth entry and exit. THE DEETS The sliding antifriction device on this binding translates to lateral release and seamless reentry. The dual-transfer switch function lets the skier personalize the dampening mode for different terrains. The binding also absorbs shock—ideal for safeguarding against pre-release on the mountain.
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PHOTOS BY COURTESY
47 THE DEETS Like Selk’bag’s other wearable sleeping bags, this one is human shaped with zip-off booties. But it’s the first eco-friendly version, filled with PrimaLoft Black ThermoPlume Insulation; each bag is made with 65 discarded plastic bottles that have been recycled into polyester fibers. It provides a comfort rating of 44 degrees. Zippered kangaroo pockets and a balaclava improve camp functionality and boost comfort. 47) Marmot WarmCube Novus Hoody $250 THE PROMISE This active
insulation hoody uses body mapping to prevent sweaty backs. THE DEETS Built with synthetic-insulation-filled pods that mimic the ventilated backpanel of your backpack, this jacket is breathable. It also allows moisture to wick from the inside to the outside, all while trapping heat in the surrounding air channels for maximum warmth and performance. 48) Vasque Talus WT $160 THE PROMISE Hike all day in any temperature or terrain. THE DEETS This classic all-leather hiker received a
winter upgrade thanks to 200 grams of recycled insulation in the upper. Plus, Vasque has equipped the dual-density-rubber outsole with harder lugs around the perimeter to bite the snowy and frozen trails, while the center lugs remain grippy and pliable for rocky terrain. 49) Black Diamond Mission Wool Denim Pants $150 THE PROMISE Don’t let jeans stop you from sending. THE DEETS Made from a wool and cotton blend with a touch of of elastane, these dark, traditional-fit jeans are
flexible enough for climbing and stylish enough for mingling. They retain warmth in cool temps, and their low profile accommodates a climbing harness. 50) Dirt Chalk Bags Available Mt. Hood Now! $30 THE PROMISE Who says a chalk bag can’t be pretty? THE DEETS Make an art statement on the crag or wall. Thirteen different artists have created one-of-a-kind scenes on the recycled polyester exterior. The landscape pictures include Torres del Paine, Mount Hood, and Glacier Point.
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Gear / Trend report
The 2021 Trend Report
ILLUSTRATION BY EDUARDO A. DENNIZ
Greener manufacturing, recycling innovations, and sharing economies are taking gear sustainability to the next level.
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Gear / Trend report (LEFT) WNDR BIOCHEMIST CHARLES RAND ADDS ALGAL OIL TO BIO-BASED POLYURETHANE; (RIGHT) WNDR’S INTENTION 110 SKIS
Fresh Tracks BY TRACY ROSS
n 2017, Matt Sterbenz was heading up a company he’d founded, 4FRNT, a successful ski brand known for launching the freeskiing movement. 4FRNT’s skis are crisp, light, and torsionally stiff—and, like pretty much all skis, they’re also made of materials that are horrendous for the environment. The vast majority of the brands constructing the tools that move us across snow use some of the most polluting materials on the planet, such as petroleum-based resins, plastics, and carbon fiber. Sterbenz had to use these, too, because no alternative had yet been created. But a businessman named Charles Dimmler was about to hand him a solution. Dimmler is the founder of Checkerspot, a company that uses algae to bio-manufacture oils that can be used in polyurethanes and textile coatings. Polyurethane makes up the plastic components in a typical ski, and it’s traditionally made of petroleum-based chemicals, so it has a large environmental footprint: According to one German lifecycle assessment, the production of a single ski emits about 60 pounds of carbon (in comparison, burning one gallon of gasoline emits 20 pounds). Ski manufacturing also typically has a very
large water footprint, a long supply chain, and generates huge amounts of waste. The irony is striking: Building skis and other winter hardgoods contributes significantly to the climate change wreaking havoc on our ski seasons. But Dimmler and Sterbenz were about to make a breakthrough. The company that emerged from their collaboration, WNDR Alpine, uses renewable energy to fashion boards with sustainably harvested aspen wood from Utah and polyurethane made from algae, not petroleum. The brand is also reducing waste in its manufacturing process (in 2020, WNDR diverted 1,200 pounds of trash from the landfill). Its efforts seem to be resonating with consumers: Last year, WNDR sold out of the most popular sizes of its Intention 110 backcountry ski. And in 2021, with backcountry skiing predicted to explode (see p. 33), the company expects the same. WNDR isn’t the first snowsports brand to innovate with the environment in mind. In Europe, Capita Snowboards’ factory runs on 100-percent green energy, and Grown Skis uses eco-friendlier basalt instead of carbon fiber, sustainably harvested wood, and glues made from pine tree resin. Among U.S. brands, Mervin and Niche lead the way. Niche, founded in 2010, builds its snowboards from sustainably harvested wood cut near its factory in Utah, uses basalt as well, and digitally prints its top
sheets using water-based inks. It also partnered with a company called Entropy Resins to create its patented Snappy Sap Bioresin, made of renewable materials from the industrial waste streams of the paper pulp and biofuels industries. Mervin (parent company of Lib Tech, Gnu, and Roxy) uses the eco-friendliest materials available, produces zero hazardous waste, and runs its operation primarily on wind and hydroelectric power. It also formed an extensive recycling program, as well as a sawdust-to-soil compost program. Together, such innovations have taken these brands to the next level in eco-friendly manufacturing. What will it take for everyone else to catch up? Too Big—and Small—to Change
Some big ski brands are taking steps to make the hardgoods industry greener. Atomic’s North American Brand Manager Sean Kennedy says, “Atomic uses tons, literally tons, of recycled plastics in our ski boot assortment. We also power all of our ski presses with reclaimed wood [from factory scraps], and the excess heat from this process is then recaptured to heat our entire factory and adjacent facilities.” Völkl has eliminated hazardous substances from many stages of production. Rossignol uses wood cores from certified sustainable sources in its Black Ops skis,
PHOTOS COURTESY OF WNDR
A handful of smaller snowsports brands lead the industry in greener production practices. Can everyone else catch up?
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100-percent recycled steel in its edges, and 30-percent recycled plastic in the bases. And La Sportiva switched from carbon to wood in all of its skis, and is using FSC-certified woods for the 2021 line. Yet the vast majority of brands use plastics and resins made from toxic petrochemicals. Experts estimate it can take 500 to 1,000 years for these materials to decompose in a landfill. So brands still aren’t addressing one of the industry’s key environmental hazards. “As an industry with a future dependent on consistent winters, it’s truly unfortunate that many brands haven’t stepped up en masse yet,” says Chris Steinkamp, director of advocacy for Snowsports Industries of America’s ClimateUnited initiative. But “stepping up” isn’t that simple, says WNDR co-founder Xan Marshland: “Economically, our industry is a drop in the bucket compared to larger ones, like aerospace or automotive. There’s not much incentive to innovate beyond what’s already available.” According to NPD, the ski and snowboard industry generates $2.3 billion in annual revenue (compared to, say, the apparel industry’s $368 billion). And even if suppliers did make changes, “larger brands will require more time to get adequate infrastructure set up to support a new [production] process,” says Marshland. For larger brands, which can produce more than a million pairs of skis every year, obtaining enough green materials also appears to be a challenge. Niche, for example, uses a resin-hardener called Recyclamine that allows skis and snowboards to be fully recycled. “I’m not sure the supply chain is large enough yet for everyone to be able to switch,” says founder Ana Van Pelte.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF WNDR
The Upside of Small
In some ways, greening a company is easier for new brands that are starting from the ground up. Mervin founder Pete Saari says, “Working towards sustainability and nontoxic, recyclable boards has been part of Mervin’s DNA since we began in
the early ’80s. We knew we were going to be building every day, so we didn’t want to work with toxic resins or materials for personal safety and health reasons.” The brand was broke when it started, Saari says. “[But while] scarcity and ‘no money’ sounds bad, when it comes to creating motivation to maximize material usage, it’s a strength.” From the beginning, Mervin was able to “scour the world of materials,” looking for ones that met both the company’s performance and sustainability standards. Today, it’s a profitable business. And now WNDR has created a line of skis with its AlgalTech technology, using plastics derived from oils secreted by microalgae. These plastics replace conventional materials derived from fossil fuels (carbon fiber, plastic, polyurethane), and create a ski that has a short supply line, high performance, and a lower impact on the environment than traditional skis. But all of these companies still impact the environment simply by manufacturing something (see p. 58). That’s why Cyrus Schenck, founder of Renoun Skis, believes there is no such thing as a truly green ski (or snowboard). In his view, the best thing skiers can do is ride the skis they already own longer. “The average lifespan of a pair of skis is 100 days, yet the average American skis 2.7 days a year,” he says. Most buy skis far more often than once every 37 years. Schenck scoffs at the idea of stopping ski production entirely, “but a company can offset skis and shipping by buying carbon credits,” he says. Renoun does what it can to green up its manufacturing, but ultimately, Schenck believes the best way brands can minimize impact is by encouraging skiers to ride their boards longer and participate in takeback programs (which WNDR offers) when they’re done.
Getting it Done
Of course, creating products with dramatically lower environmental impacts and encouraging customers to use them longer aren’t mutually exclusive. And Mervin, Niche, and WNDR believe that it’s possible for other companies—including long-established ones—to make changes to shrink their environmental footprints. The main excuses from bigger brands? Cost, accessibility, and scalability. Four decades after starting Mervin, Saari says, “Even today we find there is some resistance from the business community on sustainable efforts, with [some] studies by business experts saying that consumer purchasing decisions aren’t significantly impacted by environmental efforts or practices.” Niche’s Van Pelte adds, “I don’t want to name any names, but bigger companies than ours have the money and resources to do more and better than we do, and their failure to act on pushing the technology further is really unfortunate. They should be putting their money where their mouths are and stepping up to the plate, if they truly care about the environment as much as they claim to.” WNDR, for one, is willing to share its technologies for the greater good. “Six or seven brands throughout the snowboard and ski space” have reached out about partnerships to incorporate AlgalTech into their product lines, says Marketing Director Pep Fujas. This bodes well for giving greener skis a bigger share of the market. And though it may take time, Van Pelte believes the environmental methods Niche and others use “are absolutely stuff that anyone could adopt and put into practice. It might be more expensive, but the more people who adopt it, the easier and more affordable it will become.”
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Gear / Trend report
making gear out of recycled bottles and factory scraps, and manufacturing apparel to sustainability certification standards. Programs like Patagonia’s Worn Wear and The North Face’s Renewed line take used gear and repair or remake it into new clothing, checking the “reuse” box. But at some point, those boots have too many holes to fix, the jacket is in tatters, and another night in that sleeping bag is guaranteed to induce hypothermia. That’s where the third R comes in. And so far, recycling outdoor gear has been an elusive target. “The end of life is still a really challenging piece,” says Jessie Curry, sustainable business manager at the Outdoor Industry Association. The problem: The complex materials necessary for high performance are also what make gear and apparel difficult to fully recycle. But this year has seen some of the first signs of hope as the industry sets its sights on cutting down its waste footprint.
Recycling’s Next Frontier Turning plastic water bottles into fiber is one thing. But what happens when that fiber wears out? BY LAURA ONSTOT
educe, reuse, recycle: We all learned the three Rs of environmentally conscious consumerism in third grade, but remembering them and implementing them have proved very dif-
ferent tasks. Now, long after elementary school graduation, the outdoor industry is still trying to put all three into practice. For years, companies have been looking to reduce their use of virgin materials,
Nicole Basset co-founded The Renewal Workshop in Portland, Oregon, in 2015 to take in well-used apparel and home goods, repairing them enough to be resold or turn them into something new. After working on sustainability initiatives for Patagonia and prAna, she now counts The North Face among her clients (The Renewal Workshop supports the Renewed line). Competitor company Trove similarly manages Patagonia’s Worn Wear program. The vast majority of textiles that end up in landfills could actually be repaired or re-created and sold, Basset noted in her company’s Leading Circular report, released last September. “It’s not like all of those efforts [to repair or remake apparel] have been exhausted,” she says. But gear can’t be rebuilt indefinitely—her report found that 18 percent of textiles overall have no avenues for revival: “Textile recycling options are extremely limited today.” Allied Feather + Down has been recycling some of the feathers it gets back from returned bedding since 2011. “Down is the easiest thing to recycle on its own,” says President Daniel Uretsky. But, he adds,
PHOTO/ILLUSTRATION BY LOUISA ALBANESE
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PHOTO/ILLUSTRATION BY LOUISA ALBANESE
things get tricky when it comes to more complex products, like jackets, where stitching and baffles make recapturing the small amount of down inside inefficient. Recycling only gets more complicated from there. The biggest problem is blended materials: Think nylon coated with polyurethane, wool mixed with elastane, and common cotton-polyester blends. The innovations that have made gear like baselayers and shells warm, breathable, and waterproof also make them very difficult to recycle. “We call them hybrid monster materials,” says Basset. She describes manufacturing like baking a cake: You mix together flour, sugar, vanilla, an egg, and the rest of the ingredients. Then the process of baking transforms those ingredients. “You can’t deconstruct it back to an egg, flour, sugar, and vanilla, because you’ve created something new,” she says. “You don’t think, ‘Oh, I’m going to need the egg back at the end of this.’” But while complex textile recycling is in its infancy, some pioneers are making progress. In January 2020, Patagonia announced that its investment arm, Tin Shed Ventures, would join three other partners in funding a textile recycling company called Tyton BioSciences. The company, which has since changed its name to Circ, has developed the ability to recycle any cotton-polyester blend. COO Conor Hartman says that when the company was founded in 2011, it focused on biofuels. But about three years ago, a partner asked if their technology could be repurposed for textiles. “We then refocused our company on the fashion industry, and that led to the rebranding.” According to Hartman, one of the challenges of recycling textiles made from multiple components is being able to extract the different fibers and chemicals without breaking anything down. He describes Circ’s solution as something like “a household pressure cooker, and we’ve got a really fancy one that can target polyester while not targeting cotton.” As a result, Circ can separate the two materials and re-create the polyester and cotton fibers for reuse.
But at some point, those boots have too many holes to fix, the jacket is in tatters, and another night in that sleeping bag is guaranteed to induce hypothermia.” With a technology solution in place, the next problem is scaling up. Hartman says he expects the first pilot products made with their recycled materials to be out later this year. A similar blended textile recycling company, Stockholm-based Renewcell, needed about five years to get its first garments into production, says Brand Manager Nora Eslander. Last March, the company (which handles majority-cotton blends only) released a recycled cotton dress with H&M. While recycling cotton-poly blends would take a big bite out of the apparel industry’s overall waste problem, the materials in more technical apparel are, as of yet, unrecyclable. Hartman says that’s his company’s next goal. “We’re very much going to other fiber types that are in the clothes that all of us wear every day,” he says, adding that Circ sees market demand for their technology “both from a business and an environmental standpoint.”
Planning for the End Both Hartman and Eslander say that while there is exciting potential for recycling more complex fabrics on the horizon, gear makers need to do their part by designing products that are easier to break down at the end of their lives. Salomon is making headway: In Spring 2021, runners will be able to purchase the Salomon Index.01, a recyclable running shoe. “Today, when it comes to the end of life of shoes, most of them are burned or put in a landfill,” says Olivier Mouzin, Salomon’s footwear sustainability manager. But the polyester used in the Index.01’s upper, tongue, laces, and foam can be recycled into polyester yarn and reused. Most of the rest is made from thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), which Salomon plans to recapture and use as a component
in ski boots planned for release in 2022. (The shoe’s liner is the only part that can’t currently be recycled.) Mouzin adds that part of the challenge isn’t just the technology, but the logistics of getting the shoes to the proper recyclers. If you burn more resources just trying to transport materials for recycling than you would tapping virgin ingredients, you lose any environmental gains. Salomon is tackling the problem by partnering with a network of recycling companies worldwide. After Index.01 owners have finished their last mile, they can print out a shipping label to send the shoes to the one closest to them. For now, the next step is the end of the line: The molded plastic boots Salomon plans to make from the shoes won’t be recyclable themselves. JY Audouard, who works with Salomon’s Ski Boot Research and Development division, says the challenge is separating out the multiple plastic and metal components. He adds that the company is looking at ways to collect used boots from ski resorts and ultimately disassemble them en masse for recycling, as well as investigating options for making boots that can be disassembled more easily. Mouzin acknowledges that the Index.01 is just a first step, but says he’s excited about the increased interest in recycling from the industry as a whole. “In most cases, companies in our industry, and most industries, are always competing heavily against each other,” he says. “In the case of sustainability, that competition is good for the environment because we’re all trying to improve on what is out there and what we have always done. But to progress, we will have to work together to some degree and keep pushing the possibilities.”
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Gear / Trend report
Great Gear for All BY LAVANYA SUNKARA
aria Donjuan gets giddy reminiscing about her first camping trip a decade ago. “It was just so much fun, I forgot about my fears,” she says, referring to her snake phobia. The 41-year-old Mexican-American Texan and mom of three has been camping with her family for years, with gear borrowed from Families in Nature (FIN). The Austin-based organization facilitates outings and provides camping equipment for families who want to experience nature but lack the means. Donjuan recalls when the founder of FIN, Heather Kuhlken, loaned her a tent from her own garage when the program first launched. The nonprofit has come a long way since. In the past five years, its camping trips saw a record number of 18,000 participants, with some 200,000 hours spent outdoors. Gear-lending libraries aren’t new to the
outdoor industry. The oldest—Appalachian Mountain Club’s Youth Opportunities Program—was established in 1968. Last year, its gear libraries supported 690 outdoor experiences. In recent years, more libraries have cropped up in cities across the country as more people come to realize their dual benefit: helping people overcome the cost barrier to getting outdoors, and doing it in a way that’s more sustainable than peddling less-expensive, less-durable, less-sustainable gear. “Lending libraries have been key in providing access to high-quality outdoor gear for experiential programming in nature,” says Cianna Walker-Flom, a diversity and inclusion consultant based in Wisconsin. “Individuals who don’t have financial access to buy gear for backpacking, kayaking, and rock climbing are dependent on these organizations.” Outdoors Empowered Network (OEN) is similarly dedicated to breaking down those barriers. The national nonprofit was founded in 2012 and now consists of 12 outdoor education groups, including
FIN. OEN libraries, located in Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Washington state, and the Northeast, provide underserved communities with outdoor leadership training and equipment with the capacity to serve approximately 50,000 kids a year. While some OEN libraries are independent nonprofits, others collaborate with cities or organizations, receiving grants or fundraising help from OEN. Each library has its own training program—offered for a low fee or via scholarship—for educators and leaders willing to take groups on outings. They stock their closets by buying gear at discounted prices or accepting donations from companies like REI, Osprey, Therm-a-Rest, GSI, and EXPED. During the pandemic, the libraries are seeing less engagement due to group transportation safety concerns, but staff is diligent in keeping gear safe through improved cleaning methods and sanitizing it after use.
Cheaper Gear is Not the Solution Lending libraries are about providing
PHOTO BY LOUISA ALBANESE
Gear-lending libraries are gaining steam as an alternative to short-lived, cut-rate products, which are often the only option for those with limited resources.
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PHOTO BY LOUISA ALBANESE
access, to be sure, but they’re also about sustainability, gear sharing, and keeping gear in good repair and rotation. We all know that having the right supplies, whether it’s a proper rain shell or a sturdy tent, makes being outdoors significantly more enjoyable. Cheap gear often results in disappointing experiences, and it more quickly ends up in the landfill. “We look for the highest-quality gear to stock our lending library,” says Hannan Tennent, youth outreach coordinator at The Mountaineers in Seattle. “Otherwise, it wouldn’t stand up to frequent use.” As such, lending libraries provide an opportunity for premium brands to reach people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford their own gear. Osprey donates many backpacks to lending libraries. “We want to provide new users in underserved communities with quality equipment because they’re going to have to make a decision: ‘Is nature right for me?’” says Rob BonDurant, VP of marketing, who believes that access to superior gear will create more passionate outdoorspeople. “When you’re dealing with underserved communities, more often than not, being in nature is not a comfortable first experience, so we have to take away as many barriers as possible. This is not a revenue program for us. It’s a holistic seeding program,” he adds. Osprey’s donations consist of a combination of dollars and products that have been returned but can no longer be sold. “They’re not landfill-ready by any stretch of imagination, but they’re not retailable,” says BonDurant. More outdoor brands should follow suit, says Walker-Flom, because the answer to providing accessibility to more people is not to make less expensive gear that ends up in a dumpster after a few outings. It’s making the good stuff accessible to more people. One of the benefits of a lending library is that families don’t have to go out and buy inexpensive gear that won’t serve them in the long run. “If an underresourced family feels unprepared, they can come to us and know that they will get high-quality gear that we’ve tested, and
their gear is going to look like everyone else’s,” says Kuhlken.
Serving Different Needs Each of OEN’s dozen libraries serves different community and cultural needs, and are all part of larger programming efforts to facilitate access. FIN helps underresourced families go on camping trips and science outings in central Texas. Washington Trails Association (WTA)’s Outdoor Leadership Training program caters to schools where a majority of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Sierra Club’s Detroit Inspiring Connections Outdoors (ICO) organizes student camping trips in the city’s only campground, Scout Hollow, in Rouge Park. Among OEN’s newest libraries is Arizona’s Indigenous Cultural Concepts, which has its own unique needs working with Diné (Navajo) youth. “Their outdoor work has to do with traditional food practices, gathering medicinal foods, and teaching young people about their heritage,” says Seraph White, interim director of OEN. The students that Indigenous Cultural Concepts serves get a starter-kit kitchen from GSI, Therm-a-Rest sleeping bags and sleeping pads, Mountainsmith tents, and Osprey packs. “This top-quality gear allows them to go on longer treks into the land around where they live,” says White.
Small Projects, Big Impact Though gear libraries have made an impact around most of the country, they have been nonexistent in the South. Ronald Griswell, Founder of HBCUs Outside, is determined to change that. While at North Carolina A&T State University, the largest historically Black university, Griswell became frustrated with the lack of programming and access to good gear, which stymied his ability to develop his passion for the outdoors. After taking a sabbatical to work an outdoor job in Minneapolis, he returned to North Carolina to start an outdoor program and a gear library stocked with top-notch products. “The life cycle of gear is an import-
5 Ways Your Brand Can Support Lending Libraries ✔ Connect with Outdoors Empowered Network to find out their libraries’ needs. ✔ Donate returned or non-retailable gear. ✔ Send gear libraries new products to test. ✔ Help gear libraries with their infrastructure and operational needs by funding or donating shelves, hangers, labeling equipment, and cleaning supplies. ✔ Repair gear for free when necessary, or train staff on how to do their own repairs.
ant topic for me,” says Griswell. “I believe we’re tackling this in a sustainable way by working with well-established and quality brands.” Griswell’s program is supported by Backcountry, Eddie Bauer, Black Diamond, and Nike, among others. By helping bring people of all backgrounds outdoors, gear libraries foster a sense of connection and responsibility to the natural world. According to White, “This supports them growing up to be the informed citizens we need, whether they’re fighting for more parks in our neighborhood or on a more global level.” The outdoor industry is uniquely suited to advance this mission. The solution to more outdoor access doesn’t lie in cutting corners on fabrics or materials to make things more affordable. Low cost may be the north star in many industries, but that is not historically the case in outdoor. And that shouldn’t change, says Ted Steudel, president of EXPED, which is contributing to WTA’s new gear library in Tacoma. “We design, build, and refine gear for functional durability,” says Steudel. “The longer a piece of gear can serve a person’s purpose in the field, the better it is for everyone—including the environment.”
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Gear / eco front WHICH WAY NOW? SOME BUSINESSES FACE A CHOICE BETWEEN TWO NEW CLIMATE PROGRAMS FROM OIA AND SIA.
Two for One? How climate emissions programs from OIA and SIA might dilute—or amplify— each other’s goals.
utdoor industry businesses motivated to address the climate crisis now have a brand-new set of tools to help—make that two sets of tools. In 2020, the Outdoor Industry Association’s Climate Action Corps and Snowsports Industry Association’s ClimateUnited launched within a few months of each other. They aim to guide retailers, brands, and (in OIA’s case) suppliers in shrinking their carbon footprints through steps like creating emissions-reduction plans, and increasing buying power and influence through collective action. The more the merrier, right? Well, maybe. Some worry dividing the industry into two groups could weaken our overall influence down the supply chain. That’s significant because manufacturing is a major source of carbon emissions, but suppliers have been resistant to the outdoor industry’s attempts to green it up because we represent such a small share of the suppliers’ total business. Having two groups also complicates matters for outdoor industry members that are part of both trade groups, or belong to neither. Joining both climate initiatives would set redundant goals, but with different programs and metrics for progress (though a handful of brands, including Burton, K2, and Rab, have doubled up).
OIA’s Climate Action Corps was the first to launch in January 2020. It works with members to meet their carbon-reduction goals via a suite of tools and trainings. OIA and SIA had discussed partnering up, says Amy Horton, senior director of sustainable business innovation for OIA, so the Climate Action Corps tools would be available to SIA members for the same rate OIA members pay ($250 to $25,000, depending on annual revenue and business type). Instead, SIA launched its own platform last November, ClimateUnited. Chris Steinkamp, advocacy director for SIA, says this seemed like a more financially efficient option, and allowed the association to offer its members a program for free. “We knew part of the barrier to getting companies to do something on climate was the cost,” he says. OIA sees it differently. Anyone who signs up for OIA’s program has to put skin in the game, Horton says: Even for OIA members, joining comes with a price tag. “We’re all trying to solve climate change,” says Steinkamp. “This was not a competitive thing. This was us figuring out what’s best for our business and our members, but also hopefully bringing more companies on board.” OIA, again, sees things differently. “The whole vision was, build a big tent, a multi-association effort,” says Horton.
“We need to all come together on this existential threat to our industry, whether you make camping gear or running shoes or skis or boards.” She adds that OIA hopes for a critical mass of members to drive its CoLabs, a program that allows members to pool their influence on the supply chain or to purchase renewable power sources. Steinkamp says he still hopes to collaborate with OIA members on projects like renewable energy purchases, and that conversations between the two groups are ongoing so SIA members won’t miss out on big-ticket projects or on the chance to compel changes in the supply chain. Horton says that without some partnership between the associations, it’s not clear how that would work. That said, “It’s beneficial to bring the industry together on this,” she says. “Our door is definitely still open for that.” At press time, OIA counted 82 members and SIA had 26. There’s one big area in which having two industry climate groups could be a great thing: political influence. Impactful work has to focus on policymaking, says Lindsay Bourgoine, Protect Our Winters policy and advocacy director. “Spreading out our efforts, that’s what really excites me—having this constant, steady drumbeat on lawmakers around DC and in state capitols,” she says.
PHOTO BY ROMAN TIRASPOLSKY/STOCK.ADOBE.COM
BY ELIZABETH MILLER
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OFFSET THE REST
WHAT IS YOUR COMPANY’S CLIMATE ACTION PLAN FOR 2021?
Your retail partners and your consumers expect you to take authentic and meaningful steps to reduce your brand’s impact. Start this year off on the right foot, and set out on the trail to climate positive. We are here to help guide your journey.
“Being involved with the Corps, as well as other climate and social collaboratives, helps verify who Klean Kanteen is and proves our investment in the movement.” KLEAN KANTEEN
CLIMATE ACTION CORPS FOUNDING MEMBER
JOIN THE OIA CLIMATE ACTION CORPS. More than 80 outdoor companies are collaborating and sharing the cost of measuring their carbon footprints, setting reduction targets, reducing their emissions, reporting on their progress and advocating for climate policy. The question
isn’t can you afford to do this work right now. The question is can you afford not to. LEARN MORE AND SIGN UP
“We believe that the Corps unites missiondriven brands that recognize the responsibility we all have in stewarding our environment, and creates a network that allows for crosspromoting, education, accountability, and more.” MIIR CLIMATE ACTION CORPS FOUNDING MEMBER
“As a business, the long-term risk of inaction may be greater than the short-term cost of action. No company can “solve” the climate crisis through individual action, and the Corps offers scale and increased speed for industry solutions.” BURTON
CLIMATE ACTION CORPS FOUNDING MEMBER
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c at on i i To become more sustainable, the outdoor industry should make less gear. But can brands battle their own bloat? By Kelly Bastone Illustration by Eduardo A. Denniz
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gear closet is an embarrassment of riches, and I’m not the only one with an overabundance problem. When the outdoor industry last convened for Outdoor Retailer in Denver, its skis, snowboards, pants, boots, jackets, sleeping bags, backpacks, camping accessories, skis and boards, energy bars, coolers, beanies, and assorted stuff filled a half million square feet of space. That’s our collective gear closet. It spotlights a disturbing irony: For an industry that values non-consumptive experiences in nature, we sure do make and buy a staggering quantity of things. Outdoor recreation is supposed to be the antithesis of materialism. Marketing photos depict hikers basking in nature’s glory, or climbers savoring the satisfaction of having achieved a seemingly impossible summit. Nature’s beauty and fulfillment are touted as this industry’s ultimate rewards, yet a steadily churning manufacturing machine has now flooded the market with more outdoor product than consumers have ever seen before. The glut of SKUs seems more hypocritical than ever, as brands’ sustainability talk takes center stage. After all, most of an item’s environmental impact (up to 98 percent, according to OIA) comes from its production, rather than its distribution or end-of-life considerations. The United Nations Environment Programme calculates that the apparel industry produces 10 percent of annual global carbon emissions—more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined—and about 20 percent of wastewater worldwide comes from fabric dyeing and treatment. So simply swapping in recycled fabrics for virgin material makes little difference compared to the truly eco-friendly move: not making it at all. But for both individuals and companies, it’s hard to pare down. I worry that I’ll miss one of my five pairs of ski poles; brands worry that streamlining product lines will torpedo profits. Yet a growing body of evidence suggests that companies can actually improve their earnings by limiting the number of products they produce. And when those revenues become weapons in the battle against climate change, the net gain for the environment may exceed the impact of production.
Addicted to New
“We’re not going to recycle our way out of this climate crisis,” says pro snowboarder and climate activist Jeremy Jones. He founded Protect Our Winters (POW) in 2007 to mobilize the
snowsports community to battle climate change. Yet his gear company, Jones Snowboards, is launching its first-ever line of technical snowboarding apparel for Fall ’21. It begs the question: Does the world really need more waterproof/breathable jackets? Yes, says Jones—if those jackets raise the bar on sustainable, durable construction and reduce the use of polluting materials. “I don’t think, whether we’re making snowboards or apparel, that we’re putting more product into the world,” he explains. After all, snowboarders will buy snowboards, whether Jones makes them or not. But if he can make a version that’s less dependent on plastics and pollutants, and lure consumers into buying that instead, Jones believes he can nudge the snowsports marketplace into more environmentally friendly habits. “We’ve continued to make cleaner and cleaner products,” he explains. “We take that evolution in our environmental impact as seriously as our progression in technical performance.” Other companies justify production by measuring each item’s innovation value. “We will not bring product to market that is the same as what’s out there,” says Cam Brensinger, founder and CEO of NEMO (which has introduced truly novel designs for tents, hammocks, sleeping bags, and even camp chairs over the past 18 years). Andrew Gibbs-Dabney, founder of LIVSN apparel, also believes that only truly differentiating features—such as sustainable construction or technical innovations—justify creating new products. “The problem isn’t simply making things that are new,” says Gibbs-Dabney, who manufactures exactly one model of painstakingly designed pants. “It’s making a lot of low-effort products that don’t need to exist. Creating anything does harm to the environment, and that’s the biggest, ugliest pill we have to swallow. But if you can create something that fills a legitimate need, then that’s the right way to do it.” And yet, admits Gibbs-Dabney, humans are obsessed with everything new. Nate Porter sees that in his specialty outdoor retail shop, Salida Mountain Sports in Colorado. Porter blames manufacturers, retailers, and the media (we confess to being complicit on p. 37) for fueling the outdoor industry’s habit of producing too much gear. “But ultimately, it comes down to the consumer,” he says, explaining that visitors to his shop routinely ask to see the latest and greatest. “We’ve trained the consumer to want new, new, new,” he observes. The pandemic only seems to have spiked shoppers’ craving for consumer comforts, says Porter. So although he’s also observed a subset of less materialistic shoppers who prioritize gear’s durability and repairability, Porter worries that the “do more with less” movement may be a fad that ultimately fizzles.
of clothing is recycled into new garments 60
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Patagonia, however, has been working for years to grow the anti-consumerist movement into a groundswell. In 2011, the brand launched its watershed “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign, which included a full-page ad in The New York Times on Black Friday. Since then, the company has rolled out its Worn Wear program, which institutionalized its dedication to repairing damaged gear rather than replacing it with new (Patagonia now operates the largest outdoor apparel repair facility in North America). And on Black Friday 2020, Patagonia debuted a “Buy Less, Demand More” program that included adding an “option to buy used” button alongside each new item on patagonia.com. “This is a larger effort to have consumers take a moment and really think about whether they actually need a new item in their lives,” explains Patagonia spokesperson Corey Simpson. “Reevaluating our relationship with consumption is a vital step in lowering the need to manufacture more and more new products each season.” And when shoppers do buy new gear, they should ask more from it. “Demand organic cotton, demand recycled materials, demand Fair Trade certification,” says Simpson. “We all know that there’s an environmental price to pay when new products are created, so demanding more from companies to do the least amount of harm when making their products is an important step in the long run.” Other brands, such as REI and The North Face, have joined the effort to retrain consumers’ expectations, particularly by offering used gear in place of new. In 2018, The North Face launched its Renewed program of repaired gear sold through thenorthfacerenewed.com (see p. 52). The program also supports garment recycling and experiments in circular design. “Through our Renewed programs, we’re shifting from a traditional, linear model to a circular model where people share, resell, repair, and recycle clothing to keep it out of landfills and in the value chain,” explains The North Face spokesperson Kali Platt. So far, Renewed has diverted and processed more than 148,000 pounds of damaged textiles, and is seeing a “steady increase” in new customers, says Platt. “A lot of consumer industries, including automakers, are now looking at circularity,” says Jessie Curry, sustainable business innovation manager for the Outdoor Industry Association. Thus, OIA anticipates promising growth in recommerce, which represents an alternative revenue stream that can help companies expand without upping their production of new gear. In time, says Curry, resale could help brands trim their production of new product. “As a business, it’s a big risk to cut down your current revenue stream without having another in mind to replace it with,” she says.
increase in the amount of new clothing the average consumer bought in 2020 versus 2000
Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation report: A New Textiles Economy
Tracing the Carbon in Clothing
Distribution of a garment represents only a fraction of its greenhouse gas emissions. The estimated breakdown: Fiber production
Source: Outdoor Industry Association/Quantis
Less is More
And yet, counters Mountain Hardwear’s president Joe Vernachio, cutting back on product can be precisely what a company needs to boost revenue. Offering less can actually earn more. When Vernachio took the helm at Mountain Hardwear nearly four years ago, he started hacking away at the company’s product lines, reducing styles and colors by some 20 percent each year. The brand now offers 60 percent fewer products—yet Mountain Hardwear was on track to grow it revenue by 50 percent until Covid-19 struck (even now, the company expects to exceed 2019 figures by a small margin). “We decided that we didn’t need three options to do one thing,” says Vernachio. “Instead, we’re making one thing that’s perfect, by our standards. That’s forced us to be really serious about the things we do make. The design process has to get extremely refined, especially when you’re designing for factors like repairability.” Besides, Vernachio adds, a small array of compelling choices makes it easier for the consumer to make a purchase. “Sheena Iyengar [of Columbia Business School] did a study that’s always in the back of my mind, because it showed that having too many choices actually makes people less likely to buy something,” he says. (The study, “When Choice Is Demotivating,” was published in 2000 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology). Chaco came to similar conclusions after paring down its 2020 product line by 40 percent—and watching earnings leap by 30 percent in Q3 2020 versus the prior year. “Companies think, ‘We’ll sell more if we have more,’ but it doesn’t work that way,” says Garrett Adam, Chaco’s vice president of product. “Having 17 colors of two sandals doesn’t equate to more sales.” Instead, consumers respond more positively to fewer decisions—and a clearer message into
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the brand’s core identity and values. “Cutting back has made our storytelling cleaner and more powerful,” says Lyndi Bell, Chaco’s marketing manager. “It’s really let us penetrate with what we actually feel we should be talking about.” Therefore Chaco is not talking sneakers—one resurging athleisure trend that it won’t pursue unless it can offer its own, more compelling version. “Trend-hopping is what gets [companies] in trouble,” says Carrie Hill, Chaco’s design director, who adds that trying to hitch to every passing fad results in bloated product lines. “We’re coming back to the threads we never gave up on, to the things we’ve consistently done since the beginning—like durability, adjustability, and especially, arch support.” Vernachio agrees that establishing a clear company identity can help to check excessive production. Trying to please everybody— such as sales reps that request shirtsleeves with and without thumb loops—is another recipe for overproduction. “From a business standpoint you think, ‘I don’t want to leave any of this opportunity on the table,’” says Vernachio. “But before long, your product line loses all its density, and people get so paralyzed by the choices that they won’t buy.” That “analysis paralysis” also afflicts retail buyers, says Porter of Salida Mountain Sports. “Sometimes the catalogs are so thick and vast that it’s impossible, or very difficult, to hone in on what’s going to sell,” he says. From retail to manufacturing, doing away with undifferentiated products can be good for business. And cutting back on manufacturing certainly results in less environmental harm—unless, that is, companies can use their revenues as a weapon against climate change.
Fighting Big-Money Battles
For years, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard stubbornly limited his company’s growth. After all, unchecked production and the pursuit of money for money’s sake seemed, to him, to be the hallmarks of the very businesses that drove this planet into its current climate crisis. That’s how he explained his reticence about “biggering” to me one day in 2013, when I got to go fishing with him on Idaho’s Fall River. But former Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario presented him with a different vision for the company’s potential: Chouinard could grow it and leverage that financial influence to lean on legislators and motivate people at all levels of society to take action against climate change. In other words, he could weaponize his profits and fight the climate’s foes with their favorite tool: money. “We have an obligation to fight climate change with whatever tools we have,” he told me in 2013. “I have a multimillion-dollar company. And you have your writing.” (Though I’d argue that Chouinard is beating me in that contest.) Since then Patagonia has channeled its economic growth into Patagonia Action Works, funding grassroots groups that are seeking solutions to the environmental crisis. It also launched Tin Shed Ventures, a corporate venture capital fund that invests in startups that are developing eco-friendly solutions. Patagonia Films has spread the word about environmental causes and spurred conservation wins (“Blue Heart,” for example, helped in forestalling a
“Ultimately, we would be happy to see the sale of secondhand product ‘cannibalize’ sales from new product.” hydropower development on one of Europe’s last remaining undammed rivers, the Vjosa in Albania). None of it would be possible without the revenue from gear that Patagonia makes and sells. However, CEO Ryan Gellert acknowledges that even Patagonia isn’t immune to SKU bloat. “At times, we—like most apparel companies—are guilty of making multiple products for different sports where one can do the job,” says Gellert. He’s established concrete SKU-reduction goals for various apparel categories and intends to shift the company’s revenue streams toward used gear, rather than new. “We are working to scale our secondhand business, Worn Wear,” says Gellert. “Ultimately, we would be happy to see the sale of secondhand product ‘cannibalize’ sales from new product.” He intends to scale back the number of products that Patagonia produces as part of a broader reevaluation of its revenue streams. “Number one, [we will] make less product, just really get more done with less,” Gellert says. “Number two, [we will] continue to challenge ourselves to really push the envelope in the footprint of the product that we make and the footprint of everything we do.” Yet Gellert also plans to continue to leverage Patagonia’s influence to fight the climate crisis, a business approach that’s gained followers among other outdoor companies. One of those converts is Jeremy Jones, who “weaponizes” Jones Snowboards profits to support the reforestation of a rainforest in Costa Rica through Association Community Carbon Trees, a nonprofit that’s planted thousands of trees in clear-cuts across the country. Additional profit-mobilizing companies include United By Blue, which removes one pound of water-polluting trash for every product it sells, and Fjällräven, which in 2020 alone supported environmental improvement projects to the tune of more than $140,000. Funneling revenue into impactful climate action is one way to justify—one might say offset—the environmental consequences of producing gear in the first place. “Through POW, I’ve seen that the biggest limitation [on environmental activism] is a lack of financial resources,” says Jones. “So businesses that raise significant money for environmental causes do something very important.” Indeed, curtailing gear production is one important strategy for reducing pollution and improving a brand’s sustainability scorecard, but it’s not the only way that gear companies can battle climate change. Developing sustainable manufacturing methods, switching to a circular production model that considers product repair and reuse, and dedicating profits to climate action are all worthwhile avenues—because they all solve for future needs. Sure, companies could shut down production and quit the game, so to speak. But by remaining on the playing field with a tightly curated product line and an institutional dedication to battling climate change through all available outlets, gear manufacturers can make the gear we want now—while also reforming the systems we’ll need in the decades to come.
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WAYS TO BUILD ~
HAPPIER C O M P A N Y
Want to turn your business into everyone’s dream workplace? Follow these cues for a more fulfilled, productive, and inspired workforce. BY ELISA BETH KWA K-H EFFERA N
here are jobs—and then there are jobs. You know the ones: The gigs that make coming to work about so much more than punching the clock and collecting a paycheck. The ones that fill the workday with camaraderie, a sense of purpose, and just plain fun. It shows in the policies and perks a company offers, in ways big (health insurance, parental leave) and small (ski days, free gear). And they pay off—big time—for employers, who can count on loyal, productive employees who feel invested in the company’s success. Here are just are a few of the ways leaders in this industry go above and beyond for their workers. We hope employers and employees alike will consider this a menu of inspiration for greater workplace satisfaction. To say the past year has been a challenging one for businesses across the industry is an understatement. But despite all the hurdles, we still wouldn’t want to work anywhere else. This is why.
We asked industry members to nominate their workplaces for providing a superior employee experience. After combing through all 165 responses, these are our favorite ideas worthy of imitation.
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What separates revved-up, motivated employees from cubicle drones? An office culture that promotes camaraderie, connection, and plenty of outside time. Many of us may still be working apart from our colleagues, but that won’t last forever—and we can’t wait to get back into offices like these..
CASE STUDY: Darby Communications, Asheville, NC
s any veteran of summer camp knows, getting out into the wilds together builds lasting bonds. So this boutique PR firm throws an annual staff campout, taking employees on a (paid) overnight excursion that has included paddling to an island campsite, fly-fishing lessons, tubing, and whitewater rafting over the past four years. “It builds community on our team, so there’s a deeper connection between us,” says Vice President Angie Robinson. The pandemic forced the team to cancel last year’s trip, but Darby replaced it with smaller outdoor gatherings, and when it’s safe, “We’re planning on a blowout camping trip to bring back the tradition in a big way,” says Suzanne Hermann, media relations director. Pro tip The financial barrier to this sort of retreat is low, points out Robinson. Camping is cheap, and Darby takes advantage of its clients’ gear and services (like whitewater guiding), so the total cost is only $200 to $300 per year for nine employees.
THE DARBY CREW ON A TEAM DAYHIKE
BREAKFAST TIME AT SKRATCH LABS
BRING COMMUNITY TO THE CAFETERIA. CASE STUDY: Skratch Labs, Boulder, CO
very month, all 29 full-time employees of nutrition/ sports drink company Skratch Labs are invited to a communal breakfast at the office, courtesy of founder Allen Lim. Some staffers play sous chef, helping whip up Lim specialties like savory rice porridge, breakfast salad, and egg tacos. “In the same way that a family is closer when they share meals around the table, we are a better team when we do the same,” says CEO Ian MacGregor. Since last spring, the communal dining has shifted to live cooking lessons for employees at home. “We prep and ship all necessary ingredients to each of our team members, then we all get on a massive video call and learn to make something,” says MacGregor. Pro tip Even if you don’t have a full kitchen or a cookbook author for a founder, as Skratch Labs does, you can still break bread as a team: Think regular takeout gatherings or voluntary potlucks.
Brands across the industry are beginning to meet the moment by ramping up DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) efforts. See page 70 for four steps worth emulating.
Hit the slopes.
n what other industry do you get formal permission to go skiing when the pow is fresh? Here are just a few of the businesses that allow—nay, encourage—playing hooky on a snow day.
• Backbone Media • BoldBrew • Burton • Hala Gear/CKS Online • Meteorite PR • Stio
PHOTOS (FROM LEFT) COURTESY OF DARBY COMMUNICATIONS; SKRATCH LABS; ROADS RIVERS AND TRAILS
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Industry Leadership Bold action to fix some of the world’s biggest challenges can push the entire business forward— and make employees proud to be along for the ride.
Commit to fighting climate change.
Genuine support for off-the-clock endeavors translates to on-theclock loyalty.
Be generous with vacation time. CASE STUDY: Roads Rivers and Trails, Milford, OH
CASE STUDY: BioLite, Brooklyn, NY, and Peak Design, San Francisco, CA
ioLite (maker of camp stoves and lights) and Peak Design (a camera gear and travel bag brand) took their sustainability missions to the next level in 2018 with the launch of their Climate Neutral nonprofit. The organization helps other brands measure their total carbon footprints—from sourcing to manufacturing to shipping—and then offset them with carbon credits, earning certification. In 2019, 146 companies joined the program, representing a sizable commitment to reducing carbon emissions. “Climate Neutral makes me so proud to be a part of the organization,” says BioLite Ecommerce Operations Manager Joseph Caravaglia. Hyden Polikoff, treasurer at Peak Design, agrees: “I want the place where I put my time and effort to embody my values.” (See p. 56 for more tactics to fight climate change.)
PHOTOS (FROM LEFT) COURTESY OF DARBY COMMUNICATIONS; SKRATCH LABS; ROADS RIVERS AND TRAILS
very winter for the past six years, as long as she’s been working at specialty retailer Roads Rivers and Trails, Manager Olivia Eads (pictured below on Pikes Peak) has taken at least a month off work to go climbing. Owners Bryan Wolf, Joe White, and Emily White highly encourage it with unlimited (unpaid) vacation time for all staff. “We get the shifts covered and we make it work,” says Wolf. In 2019, employees averaged 40 days off apiece—“and that’s just outdoor trips, not Christmas,” Wolf notes.
mbracing pups in the office— when we go back to the office, that is—pays off for both dogs (more walks) and employees (research shows that the presence of a furry friend reduces stress and boosts self-esteem). A few businesses that make room for our best friends: • Arc’teryx • Kelty • NEMO • Ruffwear • Xero Shoes
GET CREATIVE WHEN CHALLENGED. CASE STUDY: Mustang Survival, Burnaby, BC
hen the pandemic hit last March, industry members counterpunched. Mustang Survival was one of them, switching from making its usual dry bags, drysuits, and ocean racing gear to churning out hundreds of thousands of waterproof/breathable protective gowns for healthcare workers (many other brands swiftly did the same with masks and eye shields). Not only did the pivot provide crucial PPE to hospitals across Canada, but it also allowed Mustang to hire 50 new employees (31 of them were still with the brand as of press time). “We set up a school and ran new hires through extensive training on sewing and taping,” says Mark Anderson, VP of engineering. “They learned skills directly transferrable to the apparel we make.”
Spread profits around.
Some workplaces give everyone a different kind of promotion. All employees at Pocket Outdoor Media (The Voice’s parent company) get stock options, which increase with strong performance or a promotion. “It’s critical for creating alignments [between employees and the company] and incentives,” says CEO Robin Thurston. When the company does well and hard works pays off, employees benefit, too. 65
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CASE STUDY: Cotopaxi, Salt Lake City, UT
ow’s this for an antidote to job turnover? After 18 months, employees of this B Corp apparel and gear brand can cash in on their first of two “bucket list stipends”: $1,000 to use on a dream trip anywhere in the world. After five years, the reward bumps up to $5,000. Recent employee trips have included touring Morocco, cycling the French Alps, and a fish-spearing, coconut-gathering survival excursion on a remote Caribbean island. “Number one, we need to be able to attract and retain talent, and this is a unique perk,” says founder and CEO Davis Smith. “And secondly, we want to make sure our employees are living the values of the business. We’re building a brand around adventure and exploring the world.” Cotopaxi has spent nearly $100,000 on its bucket list payouts so far, he says, but, “These things pay for themselves—you don’t have to pay higher wages to convince someone to join the team, or [deal with] rehiring.” Pro tip Cotopaxi helps employees make the most of their trips by holding learning sessions on topics like getting involved in local communities and traveling on a shoestring budget. “Within the team, there’s a constant sharing of travel deals,” says Smith. “If you keep your eye on deals, $1,000 can cover a trip somewhere really fun.”
Juggling a career and the rest of your life ain’t easy—but these companies make the balancing act a little smoother.
Get gear in our hands.
CASE STUDY: NRS, Moscow, ID
addling gear can be expensive, as NRS’s employees well know. But lack of capital won’t ever stand in the way when someone pulls a rafting permit, thanks to the brand’s “company use” stash of rafts, frames, coolers, stand-up paddleboards, inflatable kayaks, and drysuits. Employees can check out the gear for free. “We’ve had employees go on Grand Canyon trips, and they were able to get everything they needed and disappear with it for 18 days,” says Steve Farley, key account manager. In 2019, 130 employees dipped into the stash for a total of 880 checkouts. Pro tip Appoint someone (or a small team, as NRS does) to manage the gear sign-out process and keep items clean, safe, and organized.
Give us long weekends!
he Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics offers half-day Fridays, and in summer, Outdoor Prolink switches to a four10s schedule. Nobody’s head is really in the game at 3 p.m. Friday anyway.
Support employees’ life goals. CASE STUDY: Outdoor Gear Exchange, Burlington, VT
mployees who get five years under their belts at this retailer have extra reason to celebrate: They qualify for its Living the Dream program, which awards a $5,000 grant for pretty much anything that makes their lives a little easier. “Originally, it was to go on a dream trip,” says Brian Wade, executive director of retail and service. But the list of acceptable uses has ballooned over the years to
include down payments on homes, childcare, a new vehicle, or paying off debt. “I can’t think of anybody who hasn’t figured out a way to use it,” he says. Pro tip How does OGE afford it? “We just do it,” says Wade, noting that the total expense is a fairly small line item on the budget. “It’s nice to honor the people who’ve put in time. And the emotional impact of getting a lump sum is really great.”
PHOTOS BY (FROM LEFT) NEAL WASSMUTH; LOUISA ALBANESE; BILL KRAMER
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No surprise: Outdoor lovers value support for an active, healthy lifestyle.
SUPPORT NEW PARENTS…
BOND OVER WORKOUTS.
ood: allowing employees to head out for a midday sweat break. Better: organizing group runs, yoga classes, bike rides, and even surfing sessions (like NEMO does on the New England coast) during the workday for communal exercise, stress relief, and team bonding in one fell swoop.
CASE STUDY: Outside PR, San Francisco, CA
n a country where his seven-person PR firm doesn’t legally have to provide any break for its new parents, owner Gordon Wright instead offers the best parental leave policy we’ve seen in the industry: six months of leave at 80 percent salary, moms and dads alike. “It feels like the right thing to do,” Wright says. That kind of investment pays off in ways both tangible (an attractive carrot when looking for new talent) and intangible, says Senior Account Executive Kelsey McGraw. “Gordon and all the managers believe family comes first,” she says. “They care for my well-being, and I don’t want to disappoint them. I want to work that much harder to see this company be successful.” Pro tip Doing without a key employee for six months poses challenges, but Wright notes that hiring a freelance substitute can help any company keep chugging along.
THE NEMO TEAM ON LONG SANDS BEACH, MAINE
…and not-sonew parents, too.
Make fitness easy.
PHOTOS BY (FROM LEFT) NEAL WASSMUTH; LOUISA ALBANESE; BILL KRAMER
CASE STUDY: Patagonia, Ventura, CA
arents industry-wide could be forgiven for daydreaming about a job switch to Patagonia. For one, there are the on-site daycares (in Ventura and Reno), which together care for 200 kids and offer tuition discounts based on income. “Being able to nurse my son at daycare rather than pump every three hours was so huge,” says Amy Garrahan, southwest sales manager. And if a primary parent needs to travel for work while a baby is still nursing? Patagonia covers travel expenses for a caregiver. Pro tip Half of the brand’s daycare program is covered through tuition; 75 percent of the rest is recouped via tax credits, improved productivity, and employee retention. Companies that can’t add their own programs can still help parents with daycare stipends and more flex time options.
CASE STUDY: Wolverine Worldwide, Rockford, MI
pin classes, pickleball, pickup volleyball and basketball: All in a day’s work at Wolverine. Opened in 2019, the on-campus, 29,000-square-foot The Rock facility also offers an indoor track, group fitness classrooms, and cardio equipment. Plus, membership is free for all 600-plus employees of eight brands. “Not only does it help in getting people excited to work for Wolverine, but having a variety of activities available is really key for blowing off steam,” says Merrell Senior Marketing Manager Lauren King. Pro tip Building an entire gym might not be in the cards. “But figuring out things that might not cost a lot of money, but add a lot to culture, is.” See #16 and #18 for ideas.
18 Give cash for ski passes. Or gym memberships, yoga classes, and other wellness perks of choice, as sales agency Caraway & Co. does ($150 per employee per year).
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Invest in employee health care. CASE STUDY: Waypoint Outdoor, Seattle, WA
erks like gyms and company bike rides are great, but a real commitment to employee health should be built on a foundation of high-quality, affordable health insurance. This sales agency for brands like Klean Kanteen and Smartwool takes that to heart, covering 100 percent of premium costs for its employees. That’s made a huge difference for sales rep Carly Morava, a cancer survivor who’s been with the company for three years. She’d wanted to switch careers from retail to repping, but was afraid she wouldn’t be able to afford the insurance she needed. Unlike other workplaces she’d considered, Morava says, “Waypoint pays for everything, and it’s a really good plan.”
Everyone benefits when companies help employees get better at their jobs..
22 Let employees drive improvements.
CASE STUDY: KEEN, Portland, OR
CASE STUDY: Hydro Flask, Bend, OR
n a workplace just as on a mountain, sometimes the right guide can make all the difference. That’s why KEEN added formal mentoring to its benefits. The Career Compass Program matches eager employees with seasoned volunteer “coaches” for structured career advice and development. Pairs meet twice a month to set goals and track progress. Though the program is open to everyone, says Global Communications Manager Mindy Montgomery, women make up the bulk of the participants—“Research shows that women utilize formal mentoring programs more because men have greater access to informal mentoring opportunities,” she notes. Senior Compliance Specialist Elsa Clements credits the program with helping her land a promotion in 2019. “It was super-valuable in giving me confidence,” she says. She worked with her coach on strategies for putting her best foot forward, and “It was really good for me to have that framework when I sat down with my manager.” Pro tip Career Compass facilitators consider applicants’ communication style and personality when setting up pairs. “If the participant and coach have trouble communicating, they’re going to have a hard time forming a connection,” says Montgomery, “which is a crucial component to a successful coaching relationship.”
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Help us advance by springing for certifications, courses, conferences, and skills clinics. Take Vail Resorts: Employees can apply for a $2,500 Educational Ascent Grant to fund a college degree (vocational to Ph.D.) or certificate (such as EMT).
ydro Flask holds its own kind of holiday two or three times a year: the Better Future Day. Each one features a menu of activities for employees to choose from, all conceived and planned by fellow employees. Recent options have included guided meditations, art workshops, public speaking courses, and SUP sessions. “It could be anything from, ‘It’s time to reorganize our shelves’ to ‘Let’s bring in an expert on a topic like racism and have a difficult discussion,’” says Lucas Alberg, senior manager, PR and brand communications. Continually working on company culture is a bedrock value for Hydro Flask, says Senior HR Generalist Ryan Combellick, “but if it’s something that’s just coming from the top down, it can feel forced.” Pro tip Don’t overthink the scheduling, and just do it. “There’s never a good time for this, but it’s imperative that you make it happen,” notes Alberg. “Productivity may be lost that day, but it’s taking one step back and two steps forward for the company.”
PHOTO BY THOMAS BARKWICK/GETTY IMAGES
HELP PEOPLE CLIMB THE LADDER.
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upporting an employee resource group (ERG), a club dedicated to a particular identity or interest— from working parents to sober employees to members of specific ethnicities or religions— cultivates belonging and community. VF Corp. has put significant resources into its ERGs since 2017.
Giving Back Do good, feel good: Over and over, employees told us they highly value the chance to incorporate service into their workdays with full company backing.
24 Make the world a better place far away… CASE STUDY: Superfeet, Ferndale, WA
…AND CLOSER TO HOME. CASE STUDY: Big Agnes, Steamboat Springs, CO
PHOTO BY THOMAS BARKWICK/GETTY IMAGES
or a company making gear tailored for use on the trail, volunteer trail maintenance felt like a natural way to live out brand values of land stewardship and community involvement. So Big Agnes zeroed in on the Continental Divide Trail, which passes within two miles of company HQ, officially adopting the 72 miles from nearby Rabbit Ears Pass to the Wyoming border in 2018. Since then, the brand has organized several trail work days on their section every year. “It’s a cool opportunity to see the owners of the company really caring about our public lands, and [having] the employees be part of that,” says Product Developer Paige Baker. And though the point of the trail work is giving back, it doesn’t hurt brand image with customers, either, says co-owner Len Zanni, who notes that the marketing team produces blog posts and publishes catalog essays about the project. Pro tip Scale give-back projects according to your workplace’s size and goals. “Think about what you care about, then figure out what organizations or areas could use your help, and how much help you can lend,” says Zanni. “If you’re a smaller organization, maybe you can put someone on a nonprofit board, or donate money or time.”
hen this insole brand decides to give back, it goes big. Superfeet donates 1 percent of its profits to charity, including an ongoing public-health service trip to Guatemala to build latrines and rainwater-capture tanks for small rainforest villages. “I wanted our employees to be engaged with the charities we’re working with,” says Director of Outreach and Fit Jeff Gray, who runs the program. “How can we get down on our hands and knees and get dirty and make a difference? It’s about writing the check, then also diving in.” The brand has taken eight to 10 employees on the (fully paid) trip for the past four years, an opportunity that has proven so popular that Gray has to pull names out of a size-17 running shoe to select participants. Superfeet’s commitment to nonprofits builds loyalty and helps attract employees, says Gray: “So many are grateful to be able to work within this culture.” Pro tip Got the cash—or the time—to donate? Choose beneficiaries carefully, says Gray. He screened a number of nonprofits before choosing six to support based on how well their core values matched Superfeet’s. “Then you can build that relationship, bond, and do some great work together,” he says.
4 MORE WAYS TO MAKE YOUR EMPLOYEES LOVE YOU
hese perks are among those with the biggest impact on workplace culture, says Rodney Evans, host of the “Brave New Work” podcast.
Remote work policies that work for all When the pandemic ends, many will still appreciate the flexibility to work remotely. Evans says the best policies let employees work wherever they’re most productive. Her company, The Ready, traded its office for monthly stipends for home office upgrades, co-working spaces, or rent for optional group offices.
Fair profit sharing Sharing success fosters an environment of collaboration, not competition. Email marketing firm ConvertKit diverts a chunk of its profits to a shared pool that’s distributed to all through a formula that gives a little extra to those with the longest tenure.
Employee connection One easy way to help build connection among virtual workers: Start meetings with a five-minute check-in, prompted with questions like, “What was your weekend highlight?”
Self-set salaries Want employees to really feel they’re being paid what they’re worth? Let them choose their own salaries, like tomato-packing brand Morning Star has done for decades—and make all of them public (see p. 32).
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WAKING UP H A R D T R U T H : T H E I N D U STRY I S B E H I N D T H E C U RV E ON RACI AL J U STIC E. H E R E ’ S W H Y B LAC K S QUAR E S AN D W I S H Y- WAS H Y S TAT E M E N T S AR E N ’ T E N OU G H — AN D W H AT R E AL P RO G R E S S LO OK S LI K E. BY G LE N N N E LSON
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ast summer—when the streets across America started burning, Black Lives Matter became a mainstay in the national discourse, and her employees began pushing loudly for a company reckoning on race—Donna Carpenter knew she was in the midst of another one.
Another “Oh, Shit” Moment
Carpenter is chair of the board at Burton Snowboards, a company founded by her late husband, Jake Burton Carpenter, in 1977. Over the years, the couple had their share of “Oh, Shit” Moments, as they called them, on everything from gender equality to the environment to LGBTQ+ inclusion. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing last spring, like dozens of other white executives, Donna Carpenter had her “Oh, Shit” Moment about race. “We always talk about barriers that people have to leadership, or to becoming a great athlete,” she says. “But, all of a sudden, it was like, ‘Oh my God, we’re part of those barriers,’ and we have to do more to dismantle them.” On June 11, Carpenter broadcast that realization on the Burton blog, writing that the moment was “a wake-up call for all white Americans, even those of us who saw ourselves as committed to social justice.” Working at warp speed, Carpenter returned three months later with one of the most comprehensive diversity and inclusion agendas the outdoor industry has witnessed to date—which even she admits is late and not enough. “I think the industry is way behind in talking about this stuff,” Carpenter says. “[The industry] is terrible. It never inspired me to do anything.”
A Long Road Ahead
The outdoor cohort certainly lags behind other industries (such as pharmaceuticals, biotech, and travel), several of which have
spent years stripping their company cultures down to the studs and rebuilding them with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at the forefront. For example, Marriott International, the top-rated company by DiversityInc (an organization that promotes the business benefits of diversity), has made DEI a part of its business model for nearly 30 years. People of color and women make up half of its board of directors and senior management, and own more than 1,400 of its 7,000-plus hotels. The company also spent more than $900 million in 2019 with diverse or women-owned suppliers. Twenty years ago, Marriott became one of the first companies to establish a board committee focused on the advancement of inclusion. So far, in comparison, the outdoor industry is in the crawling stage, committing mostly to showy surface actions. “[Outdoor] companies place a priority on the marketing of diversity, and not the cultural or systemic changes that need to happen in order for that change to be sustainable,” says C.J. Goulding, an outdoors diversity advocate who is program manager at the Children and Nature Network and a partner in the Avarna Group, which consults and trains organizations around justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI). “They are more willing to repaint the house— marketing, influencers, surface-level workshops, statements— than to repair the foundation.” That work, he adds, involves active anti-racism, shifts in hiring practices and structures, active white allies, and undoing mental models of exclusion. It is difficult to know what to expect from an industry that serves a system of recreation so steeped in white supremacy. John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt started it down that path in 1903, hatching the notion that national parks and wildernesses are respites for elites from urban stressors—a thinly veiled code for people of color—and the outdoors has been a place of white privilege ever since. Any movement on outdoor industry diversity must be considered in the context of this lingering past.
PHOTOS BY COURTESY
BURTON SUPPORTS THE CHILL FOUNDATION, A YOUTH DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM THAT SERVES KIDS IN 24 CITIES AROUND THE WORLD.
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MERRELL’S ONE TRAIL CAMPAIGN DOCUMENTED HIKERS ON A SINGLE DAY ACROSS THE GLOBE.
The endgame for diversity advocates is reforming hiring practices, a move that would address the gaping absence of BIPOC representation at the highest levels of companies and the industry as a whole.”
PHOTOS BY COURTESY
A Slow Awakening
Only recently have outdoor businesses begun to confront this historical foundation. “[The industry] has to look better than it did, because a year and a half ago there was nothing,” says Teresa Baker, who founded the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge. “So any progress looks promising. And I think that’s where we are: promising.” So far, such promise comes primarily from companies diversifying the people who appear on their Instagram feeds or trail running in an ad. Diversity advocates and industry observers like Baker have encouraged this visual approach as low-hanging fruit because of its ease, zero incremental cost, and potential to break the self-perpetuating barrier of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) individuals not seeing themselves represented, and therefore not entering the organized outdoors. This outward-facing shift is a baby step toward more meaningful internal developments, such as better representation in decision-making suites. During the past couple of years, a few brands have exemplified this first wave of change. Merrell, for example, created its “One Trail” online exhibit depicting trails around the globe on a single day and also substantially diversified its ambassador ranks. Peak Design, maker of outdoor bags and accessories, also began telling more stories of outdoor athletes of color in its “Field Notes” blog.
Beyond the digital realm, Mammut has entered into a DEI partnership with The Lady Alliance that includes a company-wide audit, along with workshops and trainings to ensure a more inclusive environment for employees. Merrell created a short- and long-term action plan it calls “The Trail Ahead,” which includes internal and external inclusion measures. It has conducted an internal culture audit, and this year, will introduce a footwear collaboration with Jenny Bruso and her Unlikely Hikers group.
Merrell was also the first brand that had signed the Camber Outdoors CEO Outdoor Equity pledge to also join Baker’s pledge in 2019. That was after a very public kerfluffle in which white-led Camber Outdoors generated considerable backlash for appropriating Baker’s BIPOC-led pledge established nine months earlier. Many consider the dispute an awakening for the outdoor industry. “It rammed down the throat of this industry that we’re not going to stand for this stuff anymore,” Baker says. Her Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge saw a surge of interest last year, prompted by national social justice protests. It had 89 signees at the end of 2019, but piled up another 100 between March and September 2020 alone.
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Four Ways to Meaningfully Invest in DEI
Here are four examples of how outdoor companies have effectively put their money where their mouths are where DEI is concerned. The first two, done in isolation, can be performative if not part of something like the third and fourth, which drive more significant change.
Turn Up the Star Power Jimmy Chin, the climber, photographer, and Oscar-winning director, arguably has been the highest-profile outdoorsperson of color for years. And now he and Lena Waithe (left), the director and Emmy-winning actor (“Master of None”), have been tapped for The North Face’s “Reset Normal,” an awareness and funding campaign. The two will lead the brand’s new Explore Fund Council, a $7 million effort to advance equity and access in the outdoors. Teresa Baker says, “They’re bringing in freaking celebrities now. That’s not to say every brand has the financial ability to do that, but this is huge step.” Advocates like Baker have hoped for the use of higher-profile models or spokespeople, especially BIPOC individuals, to draw more attention to the diversity issues in the outdoors. Companies that can’t quite shine Hollywood-level klieg lights on DEI can still partner with better-known athletes or activists of color. One example is Chad Brown, who is Black, a veteran, and the founder of the nonprofit Soul River. He is a brand ambassador for Marmot, Mystery Ranch, and Ruffwear, and has been featured in social media by companies such as Columbia Sportswear and KEEN.
Make it Personal It was 2016, and the Trump administration had Rob Coughlin fired up about diversity and the mounting attacks on the environment. So he rounded up his colleagues at Granite Gear, the Minnesota-based backpack and gear brand. “We need to make a bigger difference,” Coughlin,
PHOTOS BY COURTESY
Still, the embrace of DEI has had its limitations. Out of the 58 companies that signed the Camber equity pledge, only 17 have also signed Baker’s. That’s significant, diversity advocates say, because the Camber signees are considered among the largest and most influential brands in the industry. In fact, the two brands with some of the most presumed influence, Patagonia and REI, have been criticized by industry observers for not doing enough (both signed the Camber pledge, but not Baker’s). Scott Briscoe, a member of the first all-Black team to attempt to summit Denali, left his post in 2018 as an inclusion and equity coordinator at Patagonia out of frustration, he says, for its reluctance to attack the issue of diversity. Briscoe, who has since founded WeGotNext, a nonprofit that elevates outdoor stories from typically underrepresented communities, says Patagonia disappoints because it has otherwise earned renown for its activism. “Patagonia is so successful at so many things—saving the environment, conservation, policy, sustainable apparel, impacting businesses worldwide,” Briscoe says. “But they weren’t willing to apply that same boldness to DEI that they applied to other things.” Last September, Patagonia posted an acknowledgment of its shortcomings on DEI work. And when asked about the brand’s future plans, CEO Ryan Gellert told The Voice, “Our urgent task is to listen to and support our fellow employees, our industry, and our global community.” Similarly, an REI spokesperson provided a statement noting, “Both REI and the industry at large can and should be doing more in this space.” The co-op has updated its public commitment to racial equity, outlining a plan for workforce practices, industry leadership, nonprofit partnership, and advocacy. And last December, it updated its Product Impact Standards to include DEI measures. The hesitancy in the industry is not confined to the powerhouse brands. Many companies are paralyzed when it comes to DEI, saying they don’t know what to do or fear doing the wrong thing, inflicting unintended but significant harm. This frustrates diversity advocates, who say doing nothing is worse than making mistakes. “It’s not like the industry doesn’t know how to exercise leadership,” says José González, founder of Latino Outdoors. “Facing some of those questions brings up uncomfortable things, but it’s not a question of capacity. If it’s an incredibly challenging science policy issue, like climate change, they’re willing to go to bat for that. But when it comes to racial justice, all we get is, ‘Let’s save all these other things.’” Walking the “woke capitalism” line—taking only low-cost, high-profile measures that contribute more to the bottom line than true reform—also frustrates advocates, who call such gestures “performative” or “check-box.” True reform takes commitment and time, something Carpenter knows firsthand. Back in 2003, at a meeting of Burton’s global directors, she noticed that of 25 executives, two were women. Carpenter started the internal Women’s Leadership Initiative that year; it took 10 years to start gaining traction. “We know we haven’t gone far enough, fast enough with diversity,” she says. “But, with gender, we came from behind and became a leader. I hope it’ll be the same here.” At stake, she asserts, is survival—of company, community, and industry. “This is a big boat we have to move. We’re all in this together.”
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the company’s vice president of sales and product development, told them. This wasn’t a small ask because, with 24 employees and $5 million in annual revenue, Granite Gear is a relatively small company. The team would have to do more with whatever it had—like its Instagram account with only a modest following. The brand began by increasing representation of marginalized communities on its social media channels, which led to the weekly Instagram TV hit, “A Hot Minute,” and helped Granite Gear’s following increase by 25 percent. The show is pure Coughlin—humorous, open, and welcoming to people not normally depicted in an industry that he’d discovered upon entering is “incredibly white.” Coughlin’s show is trading wisecracks with Teresa Baker. It’s Coughlin crying as Amiththan Sebarajah, the Canadian thru-hiker, describes seeing his uncle hanging from a streetlight during civil war in his native Sri Lanka. Or staying up all night to read The Unlikely Thru-Hiker in preparation for his session with its author, Derick Lugo. “Rob takes elevating the stories of people of color to a level nobody else has reached,” says Scott Briscoe, a Black climber and founder of WeGotNext. José González adds, “Rob is sticking his neck out. He’s willing to try things with different people.”
PHOTOS BY COURTESY
Go Where BIPOC Are The birthplace of Aretha Franklin, the Soulsville neighborhood of Memphis, Tennessee, remains one of the Blackest stretches in the country. Lately, it has also been among its poorest. So it might be the last place you’d expect to find something as emblematic of white experience and privilege as a climbing gym. “Nobody invests in a climbing gym in a neighborhood like this,” says Jon Hawk. “We came here on purpose. We’re breaking down as many barriers as possible.” Hawk is the director of operations at Memphis Rox, a nonprofit climbing gym founded by local director and writer Tom Shadyac (“Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “The Nutty Professor”) that opened in 2018. The pay-as-you-can gym is, Hawk says, “an access point to our relationship” with Soulsville’s people. It has served 30,000 free meals, offered professional development programs, hired half of its staff from the surrounding area, and served as a safe space in a tough environment. Memphis Rox cost about $10 million to open, but Hawk says other programs can be effective without rising to that scale. For example, The North Face has invested in climbing walls in underserved areas through its “Walls are Meant for Climbing” campaign. And brands can reach out to underserved communities by opening stores or even or pop-ups in urban locations.
They’re bringing in freaking celebrities now.” Remake Company Culture Having been chased off slopes during the early decades of their existence, snowboarders at least have a sense of what it’s like to be excluded. That history has helped push Donna Carpenter (above) to go all in for DEI at Burton. Its ambitious plan includes internal demographic auditing and hiring reform, cultural education and revision, increased internal anti-racism infrastructure (a JEDI committee and employee resource groups), and charity/foundation work. Among other things, it’s donating $100,000 to the NAACP and expanding the company’s Chill Foundation, an award-winning youth development program. Such a comprehensive approach is far more likely to move the needle on diversity. Many companies tend to deal with DEI as if choosing a gesture from an à la carte menu. The result, says Scott Briscoe of WeGotNext, “is not affecting any sustainable change at a cultural level.” José González of Latino Outdoors, adds, “If you want to focus on a grant-giving program or being more inclusive in terms of your design process for gear—excellent. Just don’t pretend like that’s all of the work.” The endgame for diversity advocates is reforming hiring practices, a move that would address the gaping absence of BIPOC representation at the highest levels of companies and the industry as a whole. But this includes a difficult process of first preparing company cultures to embrace employees from outside the usual circles. As difficult as hiring may be, retaining employees of color is an even bigger challenge. One study found that the tech industry, which is struggling with similar issues, spends a mind-boggling $16 billion a year on retention. Enlightened companies have landed on a process that begins with hiring an outside consultant of color who can help audit company demographics and policies, and devise and help execute a DEI plan that includes anti-racism training appropriate to the organization. Companies should be prepared to engage such consulting on an ongoing basis for years because cultural transformation and DEI work is not a single goal. It is a continuum, countering the centuries of colonialist white supremacy that got us to this point.
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REI’s ever-expanding ambitions have earned it plenty of fans— and critics—as it’s grown to dominate the outdoor industry. But many feel the retail giant has been made vulnerable by its own hubris. And now that the pandemic has rocked its fortunes, we’re faced with an uncomfortable question:
What if the $3 billion co-op isn’t too big to fail? By Marc Peruzzi | Illustration by Judith Rudd
he story of REI begins and ends with an ice axe. In 1930s Seattle, ice axes, the kind you would climb Rainier with, were hard to come by, and expensive. Early ski shops sold knockoffs for $370 in today’s money. So Lloyd and Mary Anderson pooled some cash with a group of climbing friends and used that collective buying power to source finer Austrian axes for an inflation-adjusted $65. There were no retail middlemen. Just like a local farm co-op today, those first co-op members were buying goods at just above wholesale. As origin stories go, the ice axe has staying power. Even after many decades of REI selling all manner of recreation equipment for pretty much the same retail price as the rest of the outdoor industry, the mystique of the co-op persists. Consumers see value in it. Today, thanks in large part to its 19 million members, REI is a $3 billion business with 168 stores. It has a similarly grand mission, built around outdoor inclusivity, the protection of public lands, fair treatment of employees, and, increasingly, vendor accountability and sustainability. All of which earn REI well-deserved kudos. There’s fallout when a business cloaks itself in its own mythology, however. If REI’s climbing-obsessed founders were around today and found themselves in need of an ice axe, they almost certainly wouldn’t walk into an REI to buy one. The box-store feel just doesn’t resonate with core enthusiasts. And besides, REI long ago realized that large-scale success hinged not on serving the most passionate, but rather the most numerous—the masses of outdoor dabblers. Ironically, that strategy has chipped away at the image behind the ice axe story. Despite REI’s 2019 store opening in North Conway, New Hampshire, local heritage climbing and outdoor shop IME (International Mountain Equipment) is confident that its business will survive as it has since 1974. IME’s future rests in part with the idea that no self-respecting ice climber would buy ice tools from REI. If REI stays in its lane servicing tourists and newbies with its “experiential” shop, so the theory goes, IME will be fine. Other specialty shops across the country hope for the same. It’s as welcoming as a theme park, but as a business, as a voice, as a consumer experience, as a portal to the outdoors, as a vehicle for the industry to peddle its wares, REI is milquetoast. It doesn’t sell much in the way of high-end gear to elite adventurers, nor, to its credit, does it sell much in the way of shoddy detritus to the bargain-basement crowd. REI does a lot of public good, but never at the risk of offending the public. The shops’ “Green Vests” are often indefatigably friendly, but true expertise—the kind that frequently
comes along with sharp-edged personalities—is just as often scarce. If the outdoor industry were a triangle, REI would own the middle 60 percent—as an executive confirmed with me. If REI were a square, it would be blue—the skier’s shape and shade of terminal intermediacy. In normal times, that warm and fuzzy positioning is either spoton or total blasphemy, depending on your worldview as a consumer, competitor, vendor, or activist. But these aren’t normal times. The country is suffering through the largest public health crisis and economic threat in a century. How REI weathers the day—and adapts for the future—matters. REI is the single biggest force in the outdoor industry, with the economic health of a thousand vendors and 13,000 REI employees depending on its vigor. As the fallout from 2020 continues to be calculated, it’s high time to reflect on the company and ponder what it is and what it will become. This is especially true now, as mutterings of REI’s decline— among both vendors and independent retailers—coincide with a ramp-up in competition. Amazon thrives when people stay at home; smaller online outlets have been booming of late; and in December, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced that it’s launching a chain of outdoor shops (see p. 82). And while the rumors of REI’s 2020 struggles are almost certainly overblown, what is indisputable is that the times will fundamentally shift what, when, where, and how consumers buy. As vibrant as REI’s business was in 2019, a record breaker for the company, it isn’t above this societal inflection point. Unlike in banking or the automotive industry, in retail, you’re never too big to fail. Which begs another question. Is REI simply too big for its britches? Meaning, has the company’s hubris alienated the outdoor industry from which it sprung, and put its future at risk? Much of what follows consists of the distilled thoughts and comments of REI vendors, current employees, former executives, and outdoor industry observers. Though outdoor industry people are usually outspoken, the desire to protect their businesses and their employees means most of the sources I interviewed have chosen to remain anonymous. The story includes subjective criticism—from those sources, as well as my own observations after 30 combined years in the outdoor industry, early on as a ski shop manager and buyer, and later as a journalist. What you take from this story is likewise necessarily subjective. If you exclusively believe that REI only soft-peddles the outdoors, pushes too much low-quality product, demands too many
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concessions from its vendors, and avoids taking the hard positions of a Patagonia to protect revenues, you might need to check your bias. But if you think REI is the simple, benevolent co-op of yesteryear, that any critiques can be waved off as elitism, and that every move REI makes is “for the members” (a common refrain from corporate), you might need to pull the blinders off. The truth is never at the poles. THE SNOWBALL EFFECT
It’s easy to lob shots like “milquetoast” at REI. By outdoor standards it’s a mammoth corporation in an industry that harbors a powerful specialty retail bias. But REI’s positioning wasn’t always so vanilla. Until at least the 1980s, maybe longer in some markets, REI was vital to core climbers and backpackers. Credit that relevancy to the first store’s proximity to Mount Rainier. The volcano’s glaciated flanks demand more skill and gear than an Appalachian grunt or a Fourteener scramble. The crevasses require ropes. The ice necessitates crampons; the sheer grade, ice axes; the vertical gain, overnight camping. Seattle became the hub of U.S. mountaineering, with REI—and specifically store manager Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Everest—outfitting generations of alpinists looking to advance their skills on Rainier and the other Ring of Fire summits. REI’s growth was slow for 40 years. And, says Bob Woodward, the retired founder of SNEWS, when the company decided to open new stores it had an unwritten rule about not moving into areas already well-serviced by outdoor shops. Woodward was running the Sierra Designs retail store in Berkeley in 1975 when he heard that REI was coming to town to open its second store. He reached out to REI’s then-executive Wally Smith (later CEO) and happily showed him around Berkeley. Later, Woodward made a handout map of the area so his customers could price-shop REI and other stores. The outfitters would send each other customers. “It was the right kind of competition,” says Woodward, whose Sierra Designs store had an intentionally narrow selection of products. “REI brought more shoppers to the area. Our business grew.” Of course, that policy of giving established specialty shops a wide berth changed. When REI moved to Boulder, Colorado, in 2002, Gary Neptune of Neptune Mountaineering counted four specialty shops that didn’t survive. Historically, chain retailers are like snowballs: They grow slowly and then all at once, with growth begetting growth. REI started adding new stores in the mid-’70s, and by the ’90s, it ran 26 locations on $260 million in revenue. By 2010 it was 114 stores and $1.6 billion. In the decade since, revenue doubled again, to $3.12 billion
with 168 stores. Such growth is in line with the best performers in the outdoor space, like The North Face’s parent company VF Corp., but it’s highly atypical in chain retail today. For perspective, Walmart, the world’s strongest retailer, only grew by 7.8 percent (total revenue) from 2015 through 2019. In ten years, REI’s revenue essentially doubled, with near 100-percent growth. Still, size alone is not what critics mean when they say REI is too big. To them “too big” means the co-op has lost itself. That it no longer cares about the family-run shops and employees it might displace when it moves to a town like North Conway, New Hampshire, or Appleton, Wisconsin. Growth became a goal in itself. Residents of Santa Fe, New Mexico, witnessed this firsthand when REI arrived in 2008 and the much-loved Sangre de Cristo Mountain Works folded within three years. To many of the people I interviewed, that dynamic is REI’s original sin. There are other criticisms: By the early aughts, despite its history, REI no longer even pretended to appeal to the core users of the prior millennium. It was then that the climbing gear that had always fronted stores was moved to the back and REI’s discount bikes took their place. In the years since, bikes have given way to apparel and the camping tchotchkes of the comfort class. Those are just some of the subjective gripes. But what critics of REI’s aggressive growth might not fully understand is how vital such constant expansion is to the chain retail model. Many sustainable small businesses can get by with total revenue growth at exactly the breakeven point. Meaning, the new revenue covers rising costs like payroll, rent, and utilities. But with chain retail, those costs are compounded and added to corporate overhead and myriad variables (“known unknowns” in Rumsfeldian), making it incredibly risky to run the knife that close to the bone. In other words, retail is hard, and bigger isn’t always better. One-fifth of all U.S. department stores have closed since 2018. So can the co-op model sustain REI’s growth? It certainly can’t hurt. In addition to the cash they bring in at sign-up, membership helps lock in customers just like today’s multi-resort season passes lock in skiers. And as co-ops go, REI is unusual because of its footprint. The company is the size of a big corporation, but it’s governed like that local farm share. Co-op members aren’t the equivalent of stockholders or even traditional shareholders. REI is only obligated to pay dividends (points that can be used for future purchases or redeemed for cash) based entirely on how much each member buys over the course of a calendar year. Membership essentially works out to be a 10-percent discount. Because REI’s board of directors is pre-selected by its Nominating and Governance Committee, and then those curated picks are voted on by members, REI co-op members don’t have much influence on
It’s as welcoming as a theme park, but as a business, as a voice, as a consumer experience, as a portal to the outdoors, as a vehicle for the industry to peddle its wares, REI is milquetoast.
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REI FOUNDERS MARY AND LLOYD ANDERSON, 1946
the business other than how they buy. New memberships—you only pay once for a lifetime—still give REI a nice cash infusion each year, though. In 2019 a million new members signed on to the tune of $20 million. But it’s the company structure that matters. The co-op is like a for-profit nonprofit: The executives do quite well—in 2015, then-CEO Jerry Stritzke’s total compensation was $3.58 million— and the benefits are great company-wide, but then the extra cash goes back into the business or to worthy causes. With no stockholders, no multigenerational family nepotism, and no traditional investors to fatten, the co-op is freer than most businesses to invest in growth. As a former REI executive who didn’t want to be identified told me, as long as there’s cash to cover dividends and rising expenses with enough left over to perform some substantial public good (the co-op donated $8.1 million to outdoorsy nonprofits in 2019), the institution is happy. But even with the benefits of the co-op model, the cushion is small. In 2019, after allocating $210 million in dividends, REI only netted $21 million on $3.12 billion in revenue. For most businesses that would be a startlingly bad return. In 2019, Columbia Sportswear netted approximately $300 million, or 10 percent, on roughly $3 billion in revenue. Apple’s 2019 net was 20 percent. Even though 2019 was quite good for REI, net profits were just under 0.7 percent. That tiny margin speaks to a few things: One, it makes the case that the knife actually is at the bone. Two, it reveals just how vital growth—because it brings more members and more revenue—is to REI’s sustainability. And three, it proves the former executive’s case that REI can be “happy” with a very small net. In March of 2020, there were doubts that REI, like many retailers, would end the year happy.
PHOTO BY MOHAI/SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER COLLECTION/2000.107.008.02.02
RE SP ONDING TO A PANDEMIC
Few retailers will come through the pandemic unscathed, but REI has suffered setbacks that caused observers to question the company’s long-term health. First, there was the lockdown, which, because REI sells its in-store inventory online, meant that for a time the company couldn’t physically access that store inventory to send to online shoppers. Then came the news that the glamorous corporate campus that CEO Eric Artz once said “embodies [REI’s] co-op values” was up for sale. When stores reopened, customers took the atypically sparse shelves as a sign of imminent peril. The widely circulated Early Payment Program also unsettled many. In it, REI offered vendors faster payment in exchange for a discount on their invoices, a naked ploy to reduce costs. And then, in fall 2020, the marketing marvel that was #OptOutside’s Black Friday closure was revealed to be more of a boon to REI’s corporate office workers, and more of a shiv to store employees. According to an article in Business Insider, REI adusts part-timer hours for store employees in such a way that taking advantage of a paid holiday on Black Friday means the employee then forfeits holiday pay on Thanksgiving Day. Employees and former employees I interviewed backed this up. “The cutoff was 24 hours during a holiday week,” an employee told me. “They wouldn’t let a lot of people go a minute over 24
hours.” For a time it looked like an employee revolt was brewing. A Facebook group called REI Employees for Real Change had been vocal about its concerns on pay and how the #OptOutside campaign actually worked. All this news and more gave the appearance that REI was spiraling. “REI really blew it early on with Covid,” an active REI vendor told me on the condition of anonymity. I’ve condensed the vendor’s thoughts here with permission: “The first thing they did was make a show of announcing that they were paying all their employees to go home for a month or more and not work. But at the same time they quietly came to their vendors and extended their terms [accounts payable]. By sitting on the vendors’ money, it gave the impression that the vendors were paying REI’s employees. The delayed payments came at the same time the vendors were making their own tough decisions about how to scale back hours without losing good people. REI closed stores in mid-March and didn’t open them until the Fourth of July. Then they made a truly bizarre decision. Someone thought it would be a good idea to largely strip the stores of product so customers could socially distance more easily. It looked like a going-out-of-business sale. They reversed course quickly, but it was disconcerting. Later on, they ended up furloughing many of their employees long term. Nearly the entire outdoor industry
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[vendors] is dependent on REI. In April, everybody I talked to in the industry was like, ‘Oh, fuck. Will REI hold on?’” We won’t see the financials until spring, so we won’t be able to fully gauge what type of bite the lockdown and instant recession took out of REI. Other than admitting that its travel and casual apparel categories are down, the company will only say that since they reforecasted in March—and several more times in the months since—that they’ve consistently beaten those recalibrated marks. But there’s reason to believe the economic impact was not as severe as it could have been. Coming off its best year ever in 2019, the company wasn’t starved of cash. Plus, the sale of the unoccupied corporate headquarters infused REI with $390 million, nearly doubling its office investment by some estimates. Another vendor told me that REI was quick to regain control of its inventory when the stores reopened. (REI backs this up.) The company’s widespread scaling back of orders and subsequently sparse shelves reflected not a crisis, but a preemptive measure to keep cash on hand to ride out uncertain times. And the company was fast to reorder where it could. A vendor who saw 25 percent of its REI order cut said the company had backfilled, and now the vendor expected to be down only 12 percent by year end. And by no means was REI alone in cutting its orders early on. Keeping cash on hand was a move replicated by households and businesses globally. As for the pushback on employee relations, chain-wide raises for store employees announced on December 3 went a long way toward diffusing the situation. And finally, of course, the fact that outdoor recreation was some of the only recreation left to the world certainly helped drive demand. “I can’t speak specifically to the year end,” says REI’s VP of product, Chris Speyer. “But what I can say is that we have exceeded any expectations we had for where we would end the year. In March we approached the pandemic with a sense of pragmatism. It was a great unknown to all of us. But the business is in a healthy place. That’s not to say we haven’t seen categories like lifestyle and travel suffering. They have not performed as well. We anticipated that. But we’ve been really lucky because we had such a healthy infrastructure. Digital has grown significantly this year. And we’ve seen customers coming back to the stores as well. We’ve also learned a lot. Curbside pickup is an example of how digital and the stores can work together even more than they do.” To be fair: The disputes with vendors and employees aren’t unusual for a company the size of REI. A former REI executive told me that vendor negotiations in the outdoor world look like child’s play compared to retail at large. Many vendors gladly snatched up the early payment deal, seeing prompt payment as an easy trade for the
half-percent discounts. And even a slightly disgruntled employee I spoke with—the worker was upset about #OptOutside, feeling the campaign’s marketing image didn’t match reality—freely admitted that REI’s store workers are treated better than most retail salespeople. At what other chain retailer, the Green Vest asked rhetorically, could a person take the summer off to travel and not lose benefits—and have a promise of a job upon return? REI won’t give a specific number, but since the stores reopened in July, REI says it’s brought “the majority of the employees back from furlough.” CO-OPTING THE OUTDOORS
Regardless of how REI weathers the pandemic, critics will continue to say the company’s biggest liability is hubris. That it’s the Icarus of the outdoor industry. Typically this critique is tied to the company’s house-branded products—one of the primary ways, besides leaning on its vendors for discounts, that REI is able to manipulate its margins. Take backpacks, for example. REI sells packs from top brands, but like Whole Foods with cheese doodles, it also competes with those brands with its own line of thinly veiled knockoffs. The products might feature inferior stitching, flimsier fabrics, or a slightly more awkward fit—as an independent pack reviewer told me—but they often allow REI to offer only one value play to consumers: its own. “REI is famous for bringing in top-of-the-line products in small numbers,” a vendor told me. “I call them ‘show ponies.’ Maybe it’s a tent or a pack or a $750 Gore-Tex Arc’teryx jacket. Customers will walk in, see the jacket chained to the display, check the price tag as their jaw drops, and then turn to the Co-op house brand that has a similar look for a fraction of the price. It happens in camping, bikes, almost everything.” It’s a retailer first, so it’s no surprise that REI’s history as a manufacturer is checkered. Since it began making its own products in 1988, it’s seen success with many items. Others have bombed. At its best, the house brand supports greater outdoor participation with affordable, functional gear. At its worst, it does just the opposite. Take the brand’s foray into gravel bikes. Gravel bikes, if you don’t know, are drop-bar road bikes with mountain bike durability and more supple, fatter tires. Built from steel, titanium, or carbon fiber, they’re a joy to ride, transitioning smoothly from tarmac to dirt roads to rough doubletrack. But REI didn’t make its $1,100 ADV 2.1 gravel bike out of any of those chatter-absorbent materials; it used aluminum. Even the press has criticized the bikes as harsh. It’s the type of bike that would turn would-be gravel cyclists away from actually riding dirt. As curators of outdoor gear, REI should recognize that poor gear choices can actually discourage participation.
As curators of outdoor gear, REI should recognize that poor gear choices can actually discourage participation.
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REI defends its house-branded product on the grounds that it addresses the needs of co-op members and customers. But although much of what it builds is perfectly adequate, in some ways that company line is just cover. In grocery retail, house-brand goods net an extra five to 10 percent. In the outdoor space, a vendor estimated REI is making an extra 30 percent. Beyond the ( justifiably) feel-good messaging about economic inclusivity, REI’s house brand exists to make money. How they build those lines matters, too. “We had an employee who went to work for REI as a designer,” says a vendor. “We think they told him, ‘You have to make this product to compete with this item at this price.’ REI has sent our own items to our factory and said, ‘Make these.’ It must be so embarrassing for their product teams. How can you feel good about that? They hide behind the co-op thing.” Dubious expertise is not limited to REI’s house brand. One Green Vest told me that REI intentionally avoids hiring experts because they can intimidate customers. REI denies this, but plenty of observers believe it to be true. “I get it,” says Gary Neptune, who ran Boulder’s Neptune Mountaineering for 40 years. “My wife and I had family friends who said they were intimidated to shop in Neptune. I tried, but you can’t avoid that altogether if you value expert advice.” In some cases, it appears REI tries to compensate for this lack of authority by buying authenticity. In 2015, REI acquired the Adventure Projects group and, theoretically, the digital communities those mapping sites had tapped into. But it wasn’t long before the sites became muddied by a lack of vision in how to integrate their audiences into REI’s business, and perhaps more importantly, how to speak to core audiences. In 2020, the Adventure Projects founders bought it back (fueling still more rumors about REI’s troubles). REI’s publishing arm is another example. Uncommon Path is a digital magazine (early issues were print) and an online “content generator,” but it lives in a clouded netherworld. Neither magazine journalism nor pure advocacy, with weird smatterings of REIboosting advertorial scattered throughout, it’s a platform without a stance. It’s there that you can find normalizing stories about plussized white males who like to swim. At best, the content is tepid virtue signaling. At worst, it forgets that the outdoors are aspirational, and that passion is served by passionate storytelling. Again, much of this is well-intentioned. REI clearly wants to broaden the outdoor market. And as former CEO Jerry Stritzke once articulated quite well, today’s younger shopper doesn’t see the value in or have the expendable income for high-end gear. If REI doesn’t go low enough to appeal to that crowd, there are many that will, and have. Responding to that beginner/intermediate user makes business sense for REI and its vendors; that’s where you’ll find the most customers. And some of the vendors I spoke with don’t even mind getting knocked off as long as the orders keep coming. The upside of what REI can do for a brand and for the outdoor world is just too powerful to discount. But still: Did REI honestly believe it could build better bikes than Giant, own the digital map-sharing space, out-compete Amazon, make a magazine on par with the rest of the outdoor publishing industry, and build the type of corporate offices that would make
Google blush, without making itself vulnerable? The answer is yes. I guess. I don’t know. It’s also true that corporations like REI need to take risks. Risk-taking makes you nimble. And sometimes risks pay off. One could argue that erstwhile REI competitors like L.L.Bean and EMS didn’t take enough. If REI hadn’t taken a risk on online sales in the past, it wouldn’t have had the digital infrastructure it needed to weather 2020. Nor, without risk, would REI have had the sale of a self-aggrandizing corporate office to help bail it out.
FROM MYTH TO PROPHECY
So what does the future hold for REI? They say the three fatal words in television commentary are “I don’t know.” And here I am saying it twice in two paragraphs. Here’s what we do know. REI will survive the pandemic and might even grow as a result of it. There will be a tail to 2020’s rise in participation. And REI’s membership offer is still enticing. It cloaks itself in the myth of the co-op, but really what REI has done better than any outdoor retailer is build a loyalty program that could sustain the company for decades. So too with REI’s willingness to fund outdoor protections and demand change of its vendors. Consumers of the future will expect accountability, and REI is well-positioned to deliver. Sadly, we also know that 2020 will leave lasting effects. The virulency of Covid-19 trained even those of us who shop locally out of principal to purchase online. Some of those pre-pandemic shopping habits may never come back. Not to get too Rumsfeldian, but “unknown unknowns” also exist, and history is a guide. I grew up in a family of retailers. Both of my parents moved from chain store management and specialty shop ownership to working as professional liquidators when massive department store chains filed Chapter 11. My parents were gainfully employed until retirement because no chain retail business grows forever. And when growth ends, retail’s slim margins eventually give way and the snowball reverses itself, or simply melts. Only time will tell if REI can avoid this fate. It’s entirely possible that the department-store feel of generic REIs could lose its appeal, and experiential shops will replace them to drive digital sales. Or that traditional store traffic will return with consumers scarred by too much time at home. It’s conjecture, but perhaps REI will figure out how to avoid the pitfalls of chain retail and lock into sustainable growth. As prophecies go, there’s not much certainty here. REI is not the quaint co-op it was. It’s hard to justify its co-op status at all. REI is a loyalty club with a wide benevolent streak. Despite the collateral damage it delivers, it’s the most conscious chain retailer I’ve ever heard of. I hope the pandemic—and this story—will prompt REI to self-reflect. If the company addresses its suspect inclinations as well as its altruistic ones, perhaps it will one day again be the kind of store its founders would recognize—only bigger. But at least we can at long last dispel with the REI mythology. As with wooden ice axes, it’s best left above the mantle.
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PUBLIC L ANDS PL AY BY KR I STI N HOSTETTE R I LLUSTRATION BY KANOE WE NTWORTH
Dick’s is making a new push into specialty outdoor retail with industry heavy hitter Todd Spaletto at the helm. Here’s what we know, what we don’t know, and how industry leaders are reacting.
n the world of brick-andmortar, outdoor specialty retail, there are two main choices: You’re either an independent shop, or REI. If Dick’s Sporting Goods (DSG) gets its way, though, there will soon be a third option. When DSG announced in late Q4 that it would be launching a new “elevated” outdoor retail concept called Public Lands in 2021, the collective ears of the outdoor industry pricked up. As we went to press with this issue, plenty of questions remained. What will Public Lands look like? What sorts of products and brands will it stock? How will it fit into the larger ecosystem of outdoor retail? How many stores will it open and where? I called sever-
al of the DSG top brass to learn more. We likely won’t have all the answers until the middle of Q1 2021, and although the future is shrouded in mystery, the path that led DSG to this point offers a few clues. Filling the Gun Vacuum
After the Parkland, Florida, shootings in February 2018, DSG, then one of the biggest firearms and ammo dealers in the U.S., made the bold decision to curtail that side of its business. In the months that followed, it banned sales of military-style rifles in its stores, stopped selling guns and ammo to anyone under 21, and then made the choice to destroy more than $5 million worth of
assault-style weapons, rather than put them in civilian hands. These actions signified a commitment to gun control, but also a clear move away from the hunting market, which had previously driven a sizable chunk of DSG’s revenue: At that point, DSG operated 23 Field & Stream-branded stores, all of which were left in limbo when DSG began cutting ties with the firearms industry. Fast-forward to 2020, and we’re starting to get a sense of how DSG intends to fill that vacuum: specialty outdoor. DSG spokesperson Peter Land told me this concept has been simmering for a few years. “In 2019, we started framing out the broader strategy around a store that connected to our
values,” he says. “One that was focused on conservation and access and would help a broad range of people experience the outdoors.” Whereas DSG’s traditional “outdoor” department caters to the backyard picknicker and casual camper, Public Lands will focus on more premium price points, brands, and service, CEO Ed Stack explained on DSG’s most recent earnings call last November. He went on to say that Public Lands will “carve out a different niche” than REI, without explaining exactly what that niche would be. And, aside from selling high-end products and driving bottom-line growth for Dick’s, the new project will focus on protecting public lands and
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advancing environmental protections. The Spaletto Factor
A week later, an internal memo circulated within DSG that named outdoor industry veteran Todd Spaletto as president of DSG’s new retail arm. Spaletto brings substantial outdoor cred to Public Lands, heading off initial skepticism about DSG’s ability to authentically deliver on the project. He most recently served as group president of Wolverine Worldwide, and before that he was global president of The North Face. Spaletto has been on OIA’s board of directors for four years and currently sits as the vice chair. He knows the specialty market as well as anyone. Basically, he has the chops to make Public Lands a contender. But a contender in what? Retail? Activism? Both? While no one at DSG would divulge the formal mission statement of Public Lands, Spaletto did provide some hints when I asked him what compelled him to accept the new post. “I saw an opportunity with Public Lands to work on something that had a clear, purpose-led mission,” he said, adding that he was attracted to the notion of working on a concept that protects our playgrounds and directly enables people to discover the benefits of being outside. “We also believe there’s a real opportunity to bring to life a new kind of specialty retail concept that serves people who love— and are new to—the outdoors. We’re going to be able to drive real, positive change for people and places.” In 2021, Public Lands will debut in two markets: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (also home to DSG headquarters),
and Columbus, Ohio, where it will replace current Field & Stream locations. It’s unclear at this stage whether DSG will convert all 23 Field & Stream storefronts to Public Lands. No doubt that will depend on the success of the launch. But it’s not likely that Spaletto was hired to manage just two retail storefronts. Perhaps not coincidentally, Dick’s became a member of OIA in May 2019. And Spaletto, who retains his vice chair position, certainly gives the big-box giant an advantageous seat at the specialty table. So what does everyone else at that table think of this new venture and its fearless new leader? We surveyed some key figures around the industry to find out. Lise Aangeenbrug Executive Director, OIA When Dick’s became an OIA member last year, the leaders were particularly interested in what OIA was doing on sustainability. They also joined the Climate Action Corps. They felt it was important to engage with us because they knew that both their consumer and their employees had an interest in sustainability. The contributions that Dick’s has made to youth sports are also very significant. They do a lot with their charitable foundation, Sports Matter. My understanding is that that’s their desire with Public Lands—to bring that same energy to both protecting public lands and to engaging more youth in the outdoors. Plus, if a current Dick’s customer is comfortable with Dick’s, and then he or she moves over to outdoor [through Public Lands], and that adds to outdoor participation—that’s a good thing.
Rich Hill President, Grassroots Outdoor Alliance It’s very clear that there’s a ton of respect for Todd Spaletto among Grassroots retailers and vendors. And the prospect of seeing a new competitor for REI on the national stage is very interesting. Healthy competition is good for all of us. What’s not so clear about the Public Lands project is how it will differ from—and be more successful than—Dick’s previous forays into outdoor retail: Galyan’s and Field & Stream. In the past, when big retail ventures have made a splash in a local market and then retracted, it nukes those local markets for some time to come. The potential for this type of high-volume disruption is an understandable concern for anyone who’s looking at the long-term health and growth of the specialty outdoor industry. Christine Iksic Co-founder, 3 Rivers Outdoor Co. (Pittsburgh) It’s hard not to feel like this is a threat. People want to buy from [an independent shop like] us, but if Public Lands can [purchase inventory] at a much greater discount and isn’t going to stay on price point and margin, it will be hard to compete with that. And there’s the matter of availability—I can’t stock every Big Agnes sleeping bag and tent. Public Lands has the cash flow to do that. But there are two customers: People who want to shop at a big-box store, and people who don’t. REI and Public Lands will never provide customers the feeling they get when they walk into our store. People want to be part of our community. When you’re that big, you can never provide that.
Matt Powell Senior Industry Advisor of Sports, NPD Group If it’s successful, theoretically [Public Lands] could be a national chain in addition to Dick’s. Dick’s has always been aggressive in opening stores when they have found a successful formula. How long will it take? Hard to know. I think they’ll move deliberately in the beginning, but after they’ve found that formula, I expect it to ramp up pretty quickly. At that point, yes, it will be a threat to REI, as well as to specialty retail. Brady Robinson Executive Director, Conservation Alliance I think a name like Public Lands comes with big responsibility. If you’re going to call your store that, then it’s obviously going to have to stand up for public lands. It seems to me to be a bold move, but I’m certainly hopeful that the stores will live up to the namesake. Public Lands has already reached out to us and made a very strong commitment to becoming a member of the Conservation Alliance. I think retailers have an opportunity to really frame the issues. When people buy a jacket or climbing rope or skis, they want to know where to go [to use that gear]. If, as a function of that, they find out an area is on Forest Service land and there’s a bill that could turn it into wilderness—if that kind of engagement is part of the retail experience, that’s amazing. If this draws more attention to public lands and conservation issues, that could be a really positive outcome. Additional reporting by Corey Buhay, Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan, and Andrew Weaver
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PHOTO BY LOUISA ALBANESE
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breaking the bank A s yo u r e ad t his , yo ur li f e s av in gs is f un din g t hin gs t h a t p ro b a b ly r e p ul s e yo u . Yo u ’r e p ay in g t o r a ze t h e A m a zo n , l ay p ip e a c ros s A r c t i c t un dr a , a n d m a n u f a c t ur e t h e c i g a r e t t e b u t t s t h a t lin e t h e b e lli e s of f is h . Yo u di dn’ t m a ke t h os e d e c is i o ns . B u t yo ur b a n k di d . T h e g o o d n ews? T h e r e’s o n e t hin g yo u c a n d o ri g h t n ow t o h al t t h e t r aj e c t o r y of c lim a t e c h a n g e , s t a r ve o u t B i g O il , a n d ove r t h row t h e e c o n o m i c p owe r s t r u c t ur e f u e lin g o ur gl o b al c ris is : Sw itc h bank s .
PHOTO BY LOUISA ALBANESE
B Y C O R E Y B U H AY
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et’s get this out of the way: Banking isn’t sexy. It’s harder to talk about than solar power. It’s harder to sell than responsibly sourced down. It’s boring. But think of it like a good mob front: The more mundane the exterior, the more it has to hide. Last year, the Conservation Alliance made waves by leaving Bank of America after a two-decade financial relationship. Four years before that, the Sierra Club Foundation jumped ship on Union Bank for Amalgamated Bank, a little-known institution with limited services. Each of these switches was a cutting-edge, revolutionary statement—and a lot harder to pull off than you might think.
What’s the Big Deal?
For one, it’s a huge pain to switch banks. There are papers to sign, meetings to attend, payroll and bills to move over. Companies just don’t do it. So if you’re a big firm, gathering up your things and walking out is a surefire way to send a message that you’re not happy. And the aforementioned nonprofits were not happy. After all, Bank of America was providing more than $48 billion per year in financing to fossil fuel companies. A chunk of that money belonged to the Conservation Alliance, which had spent two decades working to prevent Arctic drilling. When the nonprofit asked Bank of America to pledge not to invest in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge pipeline projects, it refused the request. Like we said: not happy.
The Secret Life of Money
Here’s how bank investing works: You deposit money in your account. You start making interest, which is a fraction of the interest your bank is making on your money. That’s their business model: Banks keep your savings safe, and in return, they get to invest them in whatever they want—whatever they feel will be most lucrative. Right now, in this global economy, that’s fossil fuels. It’s fast fashion. It’s deforestation operations and palm oil plantations. It’s Big Tobacco. It’s single-use plastics. It’s all the things that the outdoor industry has rejected—at least, in theory. “We didn’t want our money to be leveraged to finance the very things we’re fighting against,” says Dan Chu, executive director of the Sierra Club Foundation, which pulled its $30 million in assets from Union Bank in 2016. At the time, Union had just merged with Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, which was funding the company behind the Keystone XL Pipeline. The Sierra Club Foundation could keep trying to stop the pipeline, but banking with Union would effectively undo every effort. So, it switched to Amalgamated Bank, which has high sustainability and social-justice investing standards. Likewise, the Conservation Alliance ultimately moved to Bank of the West, a 1% for the Planet member that has begun divesting from fossil fuels and other environmentally harmful industries.
What’s the damage? Collectively, the 11 outdoor behemoths we investigated (see right) had $5,885,159,000 in cash, cash equivalents, and short-term investments according to Q3 2020 SEC reports. If 5 percent of each portfolio goes to extractive industries, that’s $294,257,950 funding extraction annually.
Where’s Your Money Going? The S&P 500 index is one of the backbones of the U.S. stock market. If you have money invested in an S&P index fund (a mutual fund or an exchange-traded fund), you’re supporting:
Commodity fashion & apparel companies
Oil & gas companies
Top producers of single-use plastic
Big Agriculture companies
Aerospace & defense companies
These switches are great success stories, but in the outdoor industry, they’re rarities.
Where the Outdoor Industry Banks
In reporting this story, The Voice asked 15 brands where they bank. Brands with Bank of the West, Amalgamated, or credit unions were happy to reply. A few others, like Snowsports Industries America and Patagonia, revealed that they were shopping around for a new institution, but declined to mention their current banking partners. REI did point to its relationship with U.S. Bank, which hosts the REI MasterCard program. And VF Corp. acknowledged working with “many different banks,” including Bank of New York Mellon. Every other brand declined to comment. A likely truth is that most outdoor companies bank with the biggest in the US: JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citi, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and U.S. Bank (see sidebar). “The banking system is hard,” says Howard Fischer. Fischer is the CEO of hedge fund Basso Capital Management and co-founder of Gratitude Railroad, an investment firm dedicated to impact investing. “When you’re a company with hundreds of billions of dollars flowing in and out of the coffers, you need a pretty sophisticated bank. With that much money involved, it’s hard not to deal with mainstream banks.” But the status quo isn’t pretty. “For a big bank that’s a large financier of the fossil fuel industry, five percent of their portfolio might be in fossil fuels,” says Ben Stuart, head of growth and transformation and chief marketing officer at Bank of the West. “Five percent is a big number.”
The Carbon Footprint Fallacy
There’s another, more abstract problem with dragging your feet about a bank switch: The longer banks remain comfortable, the longer the power structure remains intact, says Auden Schendler, senior VP of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company. That means big banks keep funding Big Oil, Big Oil keeps funding lobbyists, lobbyists keep controlling policy, and things like carbon pricing—which
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Fischer sees as essential for real climate impact—never become law. Meanwhile, outdoorspeople remain hyperfocused on small, personal steps like biking to work and recycling—which, says Schendler, is exactly what extractive industries want. “The fossil fuel industry wants a ski resort to aggressively reduce its carbon footprint,” Schendler says. “It doesn’t impact them at all, and the power structure stays in place. Plus, it means the ski resort is taking responsibility for its own carbon footprint when it’s really the fossil fuel company that’s to blame.” Unless coupled with some kind of real power play, campaigns that encourage recycling and biking to work, Schendler claims, are just distractions. Conversely, when a big firm changes its bank, that sends a strong financial message—the only kind of message that can really push at power, Fischer says. The switch also sends a message to customers.
An End to Greenwashing
Are You Funding Climate Change? Here are the worst offenders among American banks, in terms of their financing of fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement in 2015. 300 250
200 150 100 50
ASE GO S FAR WELL CITI*
O F AM
$157 BILLION ERI C
S* LEY* SACH MAN G O LD
The Outdoor Industry’s Favorite Banks We looked into SEC reports from 11 of the industry’s biggest publicly traded companies: VF Corp., Clarus, Vista, Johnson, Wolverine, YETI, Go Pro, Emerald, Newell, Under Armour, and Columbia. 5 had a financial relationship** with JP Morgan Chase 3 with Wells Fargo 4 with Bank of America
As hard as it is, dumping your bank might be the easiest way to show your brand cares about the environment, says Chu. For one thing, it’s cut and dried. Ask brands about their DEI efforts or commitment to sustainability, and it’s easy to retreat into marketing jargon and greenwashing. But ask them where they bank? They’re either funding fossil fuel extraction, or they’re not. Responsible banking is the outdoor industry’s chance to get real—with itself and with its customers—about its commitment to the environment. In recent years, the industry has focused largely on greening up its supply chains. Robinson says brands can look at financiers and insurance companies as part of those supply chains—and subject them to just as much scrutiny as shipping or manufacturing partners. Plus, with increased awareness around responsible banking, making the switch can give your brand a competitive edge. Ryan Hartegan, founder of Golden State Guiding in California, moved his company to Bank of the West in the summer of 2020. “I just wanted to do it on a moral level,” he says. “I didn’t want my money, whether it was a drop in the bucket or not, supporting the fossil fuel industry anymore.” What he didn’t expect: the wave of support and attention his brand got after announcing the switch. “From a marketing standpoint, it was really good for the business. It gave us something else to talk about to show that we’re more than just a guide service,” Hartegan says.
banks bowed to public outrage and pledged not to fund Arctic Refuge drilling, Bank of America stayed its course for nearly a year, remaining the only major US bank to do so. It wasn’t until November 2020—about a month after Conservation Alliance left—that it formally pledged not to provide project financing for Arctic Refuge oil. “From a bank’s perspective, it comes down to how much revenue you generate from these activities that harm the planet,” says Bank of the West’s Stuart. “You have to get to the point where the revenue that’s leaving starts to outweigh the revenue the bank is gaining.”
The Tipping Point
For the Sierra Club Foundation, the whole process of switching banks took around 18 months. For the Conservation Alliance, the process is ongoing. But onerous paperwork isn’t the only hurdle. The responsible-banking industry is painfully young. Patagonia says it’s “actively researching” new banks, but few are big enough to handle a complex global business, CEO Ryan Gellert told SNEWS. “There are divestment activities happening at banks, but I would say there are no green banks of scale,” he says. “What we need is global banks to really embrace a different way of doing things ... The harsh reality is I think none of them are all that progressive.” One issue is that awareness surrounding clean finance is fairly new. Another barrier is that fossil fuels, Big Agriculture, and other “dirty” industries are so lucrative that many banks aren’t willing to kick them curbside, even under an avalanche of public pressure. Take Bank of America, for example. Even after a dozen global
*Bank of America, Citi, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs increased their financing of fossil fuels between 2018 and 2019. **Companies use different banks for different purposes. These may or may not represent where companies hold the majority of their assets. Sources: Banking on Climate Change 2020 Report, SEC reports
To save the planet, banks need to change. For banks to change, it’s going to take a lot: public pressure, bad press, big defections, and a landslide of lost customers, says Fischer. Fortunately, you don’t have to switch your entire operation to start rocking the boat. If a responsible bank doesn’t offer international wiring or other services you need, it’s probably because they’re not big enough yet, explains Chu. You can move the bulk of your assets to a responsible investing account without completely giving up your old bank. That still sends a message, and it kicks off positive impacts. Relocating your cash not only shrinks the pool of money that dirty industries can pull from; it also helps responsible institutions grow big enough to offer more services and attract other high-profile clients, he says. If you can start the process, start. And be vocal about it. “If your bank is doing something you don’t like, tell them,” Robinson says. “Banks need to know that consumers are paying attention.”
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E A R L B . H U N T E R , J R . WA N T S TO M A K E B LACK F OLK S FE E L SAFE OUTD OOR Sâ€” A N D L E V E L T H E E C O N O M I C P L AY I N G F I E L D IN THE PROCESS.
BY S A H R A A LI P H OTO G R A P H Y BY S T E V E N R E I N H O LD
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SUIT AND TIE: HUNTER’S BLACK FOLKS CAMP TOO MARKETING FIRM LOOKS AT INCLUSION THROUGH A BUSINESS LENS.
was born by the river in a little tent, oh, and just like the river, I’ve been runnin’ ever since.” The words seemed to fill the vastness around us, floating over the crash of Looking Glass Falls just beyond. “It’s been a long time, a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come…” Earl B. Hunter, Jr. is many things: entrepreneur, hiker, father. Add singer to that list—one who isn’t afraid to launch into a powerful rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” right there at a trailhead in the Great Smoky Mountains within an hour of meeting me. We were about to embark on an overnight backpacking trip on North Carolina’s Black Balsam Knob. Put simply, Earl’s job is to introduce others to the magic of the great outdoors, and though I’d hiked all over the U.S., this was my first camping trip. I’d grown accustomed to being the only Black thing besides a bear walking around in the wilderness; now, the best part about the experience was the prospect of camping with another Black person. I wasn’t nervous—instead, I felt at ease. Even in nature, it’s important to feel seen.
The Business of Black Folks Camp Too
Every now and then as we hiked, I’d turn around and notice that Earl was not there. He was making friends everywhere we went, stopping to chat with each hiker we passed. Some already
knew him: A woman came up to us and said, “I follow your company on Instagram.” That company, North Carolina-based Black Folks Camp Too, is a marketing firm built around helping Black people feel at home outside. He works with outdoor adventure companies and brands to remove fear, educate, and invite Black folks outdoors. But unlike most other inclusivity efforts, it’s not a nonprofit—it’s a business. For Earl, it’s as much about closing an economic gap as it is about fulfilling a need. “Every company wants to advertise their product,” Earl says. “I get asked, ‘How do we market to Black people?’ all the time by clients. I say to them, by virtue of consumerism, you are marketing to them, regardless. The real question is, what intentional efforts are you taking in your marketing plan to get your message across in a way that is not offensive?” Public lands belong to everyone in this country, so everyone theoretically has access to outdoor recreation. But, as we all know by now, the outdoor adventure sector is overwhelmingly white. Earl’s approach centers around collaborating with brands and outdoor companies to acknowledge that. His clients reap an economic benefit by doing so—after all, the more diverse a company’s consumer base is, the more likely it is to grow. Client education is a major focus for BFCT. Earl and his five employees conduct surveys and collect data about Black folks in the outdoors, then put together marketing strategies that can help companies reach Black consumers. The firm also consults on
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content creation and promotion that’s not merely performative. For example, BFCT has partnered with South Carolina State Parks, helping create ads and organizing Black group outings in conjunction with South Carolina State University. Both efforts aim to catch the eye of people who otherwise wouldn’t visit the parks. The South is a tough market for diversity and equity campaigns, Earl notes, so this initiative by the parks was especially meaningful.
Overcoming the Fear
I heard one of Earl’s favorite phrases over and over as we hiked through groves of balsam firs, sunlight dipping in and out of the trees: “You have to go through something to get to something.” Our packs were loaded down with firewood and camp chairs, plus all the normal backpacking gear, and we were still hiking up the mountain when night fell and a chill set in. I could feel the muscles in my lower back and glutes tensing up. When we reached the top, I turned to hear, “Hey, you have to go through something.” Earl paused. “To get to something,” I sang out. Perhaps the most compelling thing about BFCT is the invitation part of its mission. Earl recalls telling his white friends that the number-one deterrent for Black folks when it comes to the outdoors is not lack of finances or fear of insects. It is fear of white people. That’s a reality that many outdoor companies and enthusiasts are not used to hearing, let alone confronting. Historically in America, the outdoors have not been a safe space for Black people. “The image of enslaved people running into the darkness of the woods and being hunted down by whites is not too distant of a memory here,” Earl says. “I grew up with my mother warning me not to go into the woods.” Given that specter of racialized violence, it’s not surprising why a Black person might not be enticed to explore the outdoors. To Earl, this is a tragic missed opportunity. I found myself nodding my head as Earl told me this. My family thinks I am fearless for venturing out into the woods and making my life in gateway towns filled with white people. In reality, though I love the outdoors, I carry a quiet fear with me each time I set foot on a trail. Earl sees his partnerships with the outdoor industry as a crucial way to help Black people feel safe outdoors. “We want to represent our clients’ brands in a delightful, accessible way,” he says. “The industry has already invested so much money in the gear and resources, it’s time to put some focus on education and reaching out.” He knows firsthand how important that outreach can be. Though he’d been working in the RV industry and had been RV camping since 2014, Earl’s first backpacking trip didn’t come until years later, thanks to a chance encounter with two professors from Western Carolina University (WCU). After Earl struck up a conversation with Wes Stone and Andy Coburn, outdoor industry faculty liaisons for WCU, at a 2019 conference in Colorado, they invited him to emcee the upcoming Outdoor Economy Conference in Asheville. That’s where he took the stage and made the business case for outreach to Black people, wrapping up with an electrifying rendition of his anthem, “A Change is Gonna Come.”
“The tone of the conference changed,” says Wes. “When Earl spoke about economic inclusion in the outdoors, we knew we wanted to be a part of the vision. We asked, “What can we do?” Earl’s answer was simple: “Invite me along to do an outing with you.” In May of 2020, seven months after officially launching BFCT, Earl found himself on a multiday excursion in Panthertown Valley in North Carolina. “It was my first time hiking, let alone camping,” Earl says. “The soles of my sneakers came off and we had to tape them with duct tape. We trekked for ten miles after we set up camp.” But he loved every minute. “Wes and Andy did everything right,” Earl says. “They removed my fear, shared knowledge, and invited me. It showed me the BFCT model of overtly inviting people works.”
From Good Times to the Huxtables
Earl grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Columbia, South Carolina, one of six kids raised by his single mother. He struggled to make good grades at his majority-white schools, but excelled at football and baseball. And his boisterous personality helped with his earliest business ventures. “I always like to have fun,” he says. “Even when I was a kid selling candy to my peers at school to financially help out at home, I was having fun.” After attending Georgia Military College on a football scholarship, Earl later graduated from Appalachian State, then took his first job as an account manager at Nokia. After a decade there,
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HUNTER AND THE AUTHOR AT LOOKING GLASS FALLS ON HER FIRST BACKPACKING TRIP, NOVEMBER 2020
he moved on to various VP of sales roles, ultimately ending up at the RV company SylvanSport. “I am a Good Times kid living the Huxtable lifestyle,” he jokes. But while he was used to being the only Black executive in the room at work, he didn’t fully appreciate how white the outdoor recreation world was until 2017, when he took his then-7-yearold son along on a road trip. They embarked on a three-month cross-country RV adventure, camping all over the U.S. and Canada and visiting 49 KOA campgrounds. Still, they saw only one other Black family with an RV during the whole trip. That experience, coupled with his extensive knowledge of the outdoor industry and his love for the outdoors, planted the seed for Black Folks Camp Too. Two years later, he left his full-time career as a sales executive to launch his own firm. A little after 10 p.m., we noticed that the setting copper moon was about to make its way below the wide-open summit. Headlamps on, we walked closer to the edge of the bald to marvel at the North Carolina night sky. I didn’t climb into my sleeping bag until midnight. I tossed and turned, simultaneously uncomfortable (never could get used to the blow-up pillow) yet content to be sleeping in the wilderness. As I drifted off, I thought about all the mountains, woods, and national parks I now wanted to visit. I couldn’t wait to start camping on my own.
Unity Around the Campfire
Before I knew it, it was sunrise. We sat around the fire, watching the city of Asheville wake up far below. It was in the 20s, but
our early-morning blaze conspired with the sun to produce a fleeting warmth. We stared into the fire as Earl described creating the logo for Black Folks Camp Too: a simple image of two intersecting logs with a fire on top. He modeled it after two things: the blazes used as trail markers for hikers, and this feeling of sitting around a fire and connecting with others. BFCT makes stickers and patches with this logo, and they’re meant to send a strong message. If you see it in a store window, the logo communicates a store is committed to inclusivity in the outdoors. If you see it on a tent or someone’s backpack, you know that person is safe and friendly to everyone. (Granite Gear got on board last December with the release of the Unity Blaze Scurry Daypack, the first piece of gear to come with the logo.) There are ample ways to show up. Folks all over the country are doing the work to make the outdoors more inclusive. As a diversity and equity consultant myself, I know this work intimately. Still, sitting by the fire with just a few hours left in our trip, the experience felt surreal. I’d come so far in such a short time. I know we need more than just our willpower to hike up a mountain. Black Folks Camp Too wants to turn that will into action in a real, measurable way. As the sun beamed on us, glistening on our dark skin, I kept thinking about my own relationship with the outdoors and how Earl’s company affirmed it. After breakfast, back at the trailhead, Earl put the Black Folks Camp Too sticker on my Subaru. He thought it made me official. In a way, it did. But little did he know, it also made me feel safe.
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the classic files BLACK DIAMOND HAS SOLD MORE THAN 350,000 PAIRS OF TRAVERSE POLES TO DATE.
HOlding ON Products come and products go, but the true classics are always in style. Here’s how Black Diamond’s Traverse Series has maintained its pole position for almost two decades. BY KRISTIN HOSTETTER
oles have been part of Black Diamond’s line since the company’s debut in 1994. But when BD launched its game-changing FlickLock technology in ’98, the momentum really took off. “FlickLock epitomizes what we strive to do with all product launches: create innovation that becomes the category standard,” says Andy Merriman, director of ski and snowboard. The Traverse, a FlickLock pole born in 2004 as a single SKU, is now a family of four products that continues to fly off shelves at shops across the country.
Sales spike due to a product refresh– new graphics and multiple lengths.
The Traverse launches as a two-piece, adjustable ski pole at $69.95.
Coming in July: the threesection Traverse 3 ($99.95).
30K 25K 20K 15K 10K 5K 0
10,487 13,882 19,023 17,810 20,934 30,151 25,831 27,406 25,637 27,287 23,862 19,939 22,754 21,454 25,883 27,326 2004
PHOTO BY LOUISA ALBANESE
The Traverse family expands: The PRO ($99.95) has forged aluminum FlickLock mechanisms and breakaway strap technology.
The Traverse WR (which attaches to BD’s self-arrest tool, the Whippet) hits the market at $99.95.
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The Voice - Winter 2021 by SNEWS a Pocket Outdoor Media publication.