Retailer of the Year - Best Conservation Business: The Alpine Experience makes conservation center of marketing plan

Typically, a business owner doesn't want to receive a call from prison. But Joe Hyer, owner of The Alpine Experience in Olympia, Wash., was happy when the Washington State Department of Corrections phoned him a few years ago. "They were throwing away thousands of pairs of shoes each year," said Hyer, explaining that the Department of Corrections wanted to know more about the store's reuse-a-shoe program. The winner of the 2009 SNEWS®/Backpacker Retailer of the Year award for conservation, The Alpine Experience four years ago became the first outdoor specialty store to participate in the Nike reuse-a-shoe program.
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Typically, a business owner doesn't want to receive a call from prison. But Joe Hyer, owner of The Alpine Experience in Olympia, Wash., was happy when the Washington State Department of Corrections phoned him a few years ago.

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"They were throwing away thousands of pairs of shoes each year," said Hyer, explaining that the Department of Corrections wanted to know more about the store's reuse-a-shoe program. The winner of the 2009 SNEWS®/Backpacker Retailer of the Year award for conservation, The Alpine Experience (www.alpinex.com) four years ago became the first outdoor specialty store to participate in the Nike reuse-a-shoe program. Basically, stores collect old shoes from consumers and send them to Nike, which recycles them into sports surfaces and consumer products. The problem for prisons is that they issue shoes to new inmates, who discard the footwear when they're released.

When he got the call, Hyer put the corrections officials in touch with Nike so that they could apply for the reuse-a-shoe program. But this referral marks just one of the many ways that Hyer and The Alpine Experience have influenced conservation efforts in the state of Washington.

Hyer not only owns a retail operation, but also serves as a member of the Olympia City Council. As an elected official, he led the charge to create the "Green Business" program for Olympia and Thurston County, which includes efforts to make business more sustainable and reduce waste going to landfills.

"All of our garbage ends up in eastern Washington. It gets on a truck, a train, a second train and a truck again until it gets to the landfill. That's some serious carbon emissions," said Hyer, not to mention a lot of unnecessary trash going into the landfill.

Hyer scrutinized his own store and realized that only about 30 percent to 40 percent of its waste was being diverted from the landfill, and much of this was plastic. "Just about every garment we receive comes in a plastic bag," said Russ Gilsdorf, inventory manager for The Alpine Experience. Adding to the plastic pile is the film wrapped around every kayak that the store receives.

Hyer solved the problem by finding a trash hauling company that would pick up the plastic and recycle it. "Our hauler created a pickup program for us because it is recyclable, and they get enough of a commodity price out if it to make it worth their while." Now, any business in Olympia can recycle its plastic, but Hyer didn't stop there.

"Nearly 20 percent of garbage is compostable food waste," he said. So, he found a private-sector composting facility that now does curbside pickup of organic materials for Olympia residents, and will soon do the same for businesses.

Hyer estimates that nearly 70 percent of his store's waste is now diverted from the landfill.

"Now we're trying to get vendors to reduce their waste," said Gilsdorf, who seeks out company leaders at the Outdoor Retailer trade shows and the Outdoor Industry Association Rendezvous and encourages them to make changes with packaging and shipping methods. A few years ago, he packed up all the waste produced by one particular manufacturer and presented the considerable mound of material to one of the company's higher-ups during an Outdoor Retailer trade show. That person was shocked to see the amount of garbage, and Gilsdorf said, "We have seen a bit of reduction in waste from them."

"We're feeling the push from retailers like Joe to do a better job," said John Connelly, who launched Oboz, an environmentally conscious footwear brand (which, by the way, was not the manufacturer presented with the pile of waste). "We're able to push up the supply chain now with warehousing, logistics partners, so we can get greener products to consumers. I've known and worked with Joe's team for about as long as the store's been open. He has a knack for spotting tends, and he's always been willing to take a risk and try new things."

Hyer said The Alpine Experience has always worked at the grassroots level to promote conservation, but it has become much more effective in the last two or three years. Hyer re-crafted his marketing plan, realizing it would be much more effective to invest in conservation programs rather than pay for radio, TV and newspaper advertising.

Each year, the Alpine Experience gives thousands of dollars to the Nisqually Land Trust (www.nisquallylandtrust.org) and the Capitol Land Trust, which conserve land in the Puget Sound area. Capitol Land Trust (www.capitollandtrust.org) just completed three projects to conserve 160 acres of land, and is now working to protect 500 acres of wetland as well as two 100-acre properties along Puget Sound. Kathleen Ackley, membership and outreach coordinator for Capitol Land Trust, said that Hyer understands that the land trust receives plenty of in-kind donations, but what it needs most is cold, hard cash.

Ackley said that The Alpine Experience increases its cash donations to Capitol each year, but the store also serves as the sole sponsor for an annual fundraising gala. In addition, the store donates staff for kayaking trips hosted by Capitol. "We like to give people an opportunity to see land we have preserved. Alpine Experience gives us staff for free and provides shuttles," said Ackley. "There's an amazing number of ways they support us.

Hyer has used co-op dollars from The North Face to create fleece jackets with embroidered logos of the store as well as Capitol Land Trust. "The store sold them during Christmas," said Hyer. "We went through a hundred units at $50 each, and all $50 for each went to the Land Trust. More importantly, they got their name out there permanently."

He noted that land trusts aren't marketing organizations, nor do they have the time and resources to sell promotional items. In a sense, The Alpine Experience serves as a retail arm for the non-profit and gives it valuable exposure. And the store benefits as well.

Gilsdorf said the store made a wise move in shifting marketing dollars toward conservation groups. "We've seen a much better return on that money as far as customers coming in and saying, 'We heard you guys sponsored this event, and that's really cool.' It does really well for us to have our name in the paper, and we're known for doing good things in the community," he added.

Connelly said he's not surprised at the success of The Alpine Experience and its positive impact on the surrounding community. He attributes much of this to Hyer's infectious enthusiasm. "I'm sure if you've been around him, you know he just has an endless amount of energy," said Connelly.

Hyer's latest project is to reduce automobile commuting. This is part of a statewide effort to create growth and transportation efficiency centers, one of which is downtown Olympia. "Usually they do all these programs for large employers, but this program is targeted at small businesses," said Hyer. "It will reach the people that most need commute options -- the bartenders, the waiters, the retail employees that make minimum wage. It will get them out of cars and onto bikes and busses."

Of course, Hyer wants to lead by example.

"I walk to work every day," he said.

And that may be the only time that the man slows down.

--Marcus Woolf


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