Green Scene: Outdoor Retailer Winter Market reveals more companies opting for sustainable business practices

A year ago Outdoor Retailer first announced the GreenSteps program, and started working toward making significant changes. While the enthusiasm seemed lukewarm at first, all indicators now suggest responsible corporate citizenship is here to stay, and at Winter Market SNEWS® saw more companies than ever taking visible steps to ensure a sustainable business.
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A year ago Outdoor Retailer first announced the GreenSteps program, and started working toward making significant changes, including powering both Summer Market and Winter Market shows with wind, incorporating organic food and drink into show activities, and encouraging exhibitors to become more public about what each was doing to be a better environmental citizen. While the enthusiasm seemed lukewarm at first, all indicators now suggest responsible corporate citizenship is here to stay, and at Winter Market SNEWS® saw more companies than ever taking visible steps to ensure a sustainable business.
 
Ensuring fair labor practices is the right step to take
Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) is, thankfully, helping to lead a very visible effort to promote fair labor practices. OIA delivered its new Fair Labor Toolkit to every booth at the show, and presented the kit at a lunchtime seminar to a standing-room-only crowd. As REI's Michael Collins introduced the kit, Marriott hotel staff kept setting up rows of chairs to accommodate the crowd until the room was full. Undeterred, more people packed in, about 100 in total.

Matt Hyde, REI's sourcing manager, shared REI's progress on the road to fair labor compliance, admitting that REI is not perfect, outlining its methodology, and sharing its experiences in trying to implement fair labor practices in the company's contract factories. Hyde gave case studies on how REI has worked with factories to achieve compliance, and how it occasionally stopped working with factories when they refused to take fair labor standards seriously. The power of cumulative pressure is but one reason that REI, OIA and a number of other industry companies teamed up to create the Fair Labor Toolkit. Hyde stressed the power of the team approach as a force for change.
 
"Fair labor practices are not a competitive advantage," said Hyde. "It's an advantage for all of us. We've tried to develop a tool kit that is easy to use and that will be broadly adapted, with progressive policies that are fiscally sound, with a supplier code of conduct and implementation standards."

The introduction of the Toolkit was followed by a panel discussion with Peter Metcalf (Black Diamond), Carol Petroski (Mountain Equipment Coop - MEC) and Paul Svrcek (Cascade Designs) moderated by Michael Collins discussing the whys and hows of making fair labor auditing a priority. Petroski's advice: "Don't be afraid. Be willing to be educated. This isn't as scary if you are honest with people."

Wandering the aisles of Winter Market
Back on the floor, we stopped by the Continuum booth, and while we were learning about Continuum's new line of organic cotton fabrics and Meritton fabrics (blended iMerino and organic cotton), Ibex representatives stopped by. Ibex told us it will have an organic wool sweater for fall 2007 made from wool supplied by Vermont Organic Fiber Company, and the company is reclaiming scrap from the factory floor and recycling it into wool batting, diesel fuel filters and wrap for major league baseballs. Continuum is now carrying cotton denim, an iMerino and organic cotton blend, and a T-shirt weight organic cotton/merino blend geared toward the summer market. It also showed a merino mesh fabric that is not sustainable yet, but will be soon.

Mission Playground was at Summer Market tucked away in the pavilion. This time around, the company was happily in the main hall and maintained a constant buzz around its booth. The apparel line that's inspired by the great outdoors is made with organic cotton, recycled polyester, iMerino wool and low-impact dyes. Pieces included knit and woven tops and bottoms, sweaters, jackets, vests, and denim, message tees and accessories. Mission Playground's line proves that organic doesn't mean beige and droopy. Its appliquéd sewing for both men and women is fashion-forward lifestyle wear that's all about treading lightly on our own playground, planet Earth.

Once again, Keen rocked the ballroom with an event that raised over $13,000 for the Conservation Alliance in just over an hour. Keen gave away a pair of shoes for every $35 donation made to the Conservation Alliance. Prana and Patagonia donated a limited number of higher ticket items to the event to help bump up the numbers.

After MEC told Blurr that the retailer would only be buying organic cotton tees, Blurr expanded its organic cotton program to encompass all Blurr long and short sleeve tees. While Blurr was looking at its materials choices, it also switched its pack line to 100-percent PVC-free construction.

Polartec collected plastic water bottles around the trade show floor to announce the company's renewed commitment to reusing and recycling. Polartec is once again using post-consumer and post-industrial recycled plastic in its fabrics, and has stated its commitment to bring "innovative recycled and renewable fabrics" into its line. To support its campaign, Polartec ran full-page ads in the Outdoor Retailer Show Daily. One ad was a blank white page with a plastic, single-use water bottle and the caption: "Introducing 2007 Polartec Power Dry." Another ad stated Polartec's commitment to use recycled material in "innovative next-to-skin fabrics," renewable fibers in new hybrid materials, and informed the industry that it is 100-percent Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certified, producing fabrics in energy-efficient mills.

Big Agnes was finally able to get the scoop on what exactly the environmental story is on the DAC Featherlite poles. DAC has been claiming environmental friendliness without explanation or substantiation for several shows. According to Big Agnes, the anodizing process uses a smaller quantity of toxic chemicals than traditional anodizing and its process uses no nitric acid. Big Agnes has committed to use DAC Featherlite poles in all of its tents.

Patagonia reported that it could not find organic wool in sufficient quantity and quality for the company's new base layer line, so instead it introduced a new line of sustainable, chlorine-free wool base layers.

Perhaps Fox River got to the organic wool first. The company was giving away organic socks that use a chlorine-free process that the company said actually strengthens the wool fibers instead of breaking them down. Fox River is also introducing an Ingeo corn-fiber blend sock soon. Fox River is the first company to pay the premium to put non-GMO corn into the pipeline for its production.

In what might go down as one of the more unique services offered at a trade show, The Sierra Club offered mercury testing in its booth. A crew of Salt Lake City hairdressers snipped locks from people interested in knowing their own mercury levels. According to the Sierra Club, in 2001 the EPA estimated that if current clean air laws were enforced in conjunction with the use of current end emerging technologies, mercury pollution would decrease 90 percent by 2008. Mercury bioaccumulates, and EPA estimates that one in six women of child bearing age in the United States has enough mercury in her blood to put her baby at risk for mental retardation, cerebral palsy and delayed onset of walking and talking. Scary.

Indigenous Designs, Green Steps, Organic Exchange and TS Designs paired up to present speakers Dan Imhoff, author of "Paper or Plastic," and Todd Paglia of Forest Ethics. In Imhoff's introduction, he said he feared he was better on paper than in person, and unfortunately, seminar attendees seemed to agree. While they loved Imhoff's book which was given to the first 50 arrivals, people who attended the seminar were hoping he'd take his message further with concrete suggestions for the industry on how to grab the low hanging fruits and how to start to tackle the more complex issues.

Paglia talked about the catalog industry, including Forest Ethics' high-profile campaigns against Victoria's Secret, Staples and Office Depot. Its warning to the outdoor industry: If we don't change our ways and stop cutting ancient forests to make catalogs, workbooks and hangtags, these campaigns could have our names on them.

Granite Gear told us the company had just revamped its packaging. It's now 100-percent recyclable, slat wall optimized, petroleum-free, is made from 85-percent post-consumer recycled paper printed with soy inks, and uses no adhesives.

Mountain Hardwear employee Cathy Wiedemer received the inaugural grant from the Mountain Hardwear Gives Back program to set up and pay for paper recycling during Outdoor Retailer Winter Market. The grant was used to pay for cardboard recycling bins that circulated throughout the show floor during setup.

Mion soft-launched its Ecometrics environmental labeling program last summer. This winter the company went big with the label, printing a sample label big enough to cover a full wall of its booth. The Ecometrics label will come inside its recycled plastic mesh shoe bag that accompanies every pair of Mion sandals. It will have data on electricity used in manufacturing, green house gases emitted and material efficiency. Mion also announced the launch of the Mion Solutions environmental film award program at Winter Market. The company will recognize three short films each year with grants split between the filmmaker and the non-profit of the filmmaker's choice, with a first place prize of $10,000. Mion also shared a few things that it is working on for the future with SNEWS®, including: increasing the percentage of recycled waste in its shoes (currently it's around 5 percent), a new flame lamination process for adhering materials without adhesives, and continued work with chemical companies to push the future materials agenda.

Mion's parent company Timberland hopped on the packaging bandwagon, too. Timberland redesigned its shoeboxes out of 100-percent recycled post-consumer paper waste. The boxes are embossed, chemical-glue-free, with soy ink labels. They are fully compostable, and each box has an exterior nutritional label that explains details such as: where the shoes were made (name and location of the factory), the environmental impact of producing the shoes (how much energy was used to produce the shoes and how much of that energy came from renewable resources), and a community impact rating, which has information on what percentage of factories meet Timberland's fair labor code of conduct, what percentage of the workforce that made the shoes are children and how many hours Timberland employees volunteer in their communities.

"We're looking for creative ways to get the consumer to ask us what we are doing and why," said Betsy Blaisdell, Timberland's environmental stewardship coordinator. "This label is one way to get consumers to ask questions about the environmental and social attributes of our business."

Timberland also told us that the company is nearing completion of a 500,000-square-foot, 2,000-panel solar array at its Southern California distribution center in Ontario, Calif. And, Timberland has exclusive licensing for manufacturing hiking boots using Vibram's Ecostep sole through 2007.

Footwear companies certainly seemed to be breaking trail on environmental issues. Simple launched the company's Greentoe collection. It uses less glue, less toxins and more natural materials. At El Naturalista, we saw the Nasca, a vegetable tanned leather shoe with reclaimed material in the midsole and petroglyphs molded into the natural rubber outsole. Every time El Naturalista sells a pair of shoes from its ProPeru collection, the company donates one euro to ProPeru, and it's matched 20 to one by the Spanish government. ProPeru is a non-profit that builds schools, and brings electricity and clean water into Peruvian villages. In the first season of this program, El Naturalista donated 20,000 euros, which translated to a 400,000 euro donation to ProPeru.

Last but not least, the Leakey Collection introduced its fair labor Zulugrass jewelry to the outdoor industry at Winter Market. The brightly colored necklaces are made from beads strung together by a cooperative of Kenyan Massai women.
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