We used to come to Outdoor Retailer just to ogle gear, but these days, we’re devoting just as much attention to our industry’s environmental and social impacts. “Responsibility” may have been the biggest buzzword from last week’s convention: Attendees rallied against climate change, resolved to pursue diversity and equality within outdoor companies, and displayed innovations that challenge the dominant fossil-fuels paradigm with sustainable manufacturing and recycling methods.

These initiatives aren’t perfect—but fortunately, the outdoor industry isn’t allowing “perfect” to stand in the way of “better.” Here are five of the hottest outdoor industry we observed at the show last week.

Gear disposal is the new frontier

Recycled content used to be niche, but no longer. As of winter 2019-20, Patagonia’s entire shell line uses recycled fabrics, and recycled content is making its way into packs and duffels as well. Insulation is also on board: For winter 2020-21, every Rab puffy uses recycled materials for every component but the zippers and pull tabs. Nearly 25 percent of all Gore-Tex Pro Shell options—spanning about 12 fabric options—use recycled face fabric.

But as recycled content becomes the norm, manufacturers are now shifting their focus to cleaning up products’ end-of-life impacts. Crescent Moon introduced biodegradable versions of its Eva and Luna snowshoes, which will now be made of eco-plastic foam derived from inedible foodstuffs (such as corn and potato starch). “End of life is important when specifically working with foam snowshoes, because just like running shoes, the foam in snowshoes of this design does eventually wear down,” says Crescent Moon Snowshoes VP Tanner Dunn. “Because of this, it’s important to our business values and ethics to be creating as little waste as possible as we're designing and sharing new innovations in the snowshoe market.”

Two pairs of folded Patagonia corduroys with sewn multi-colored patches and tags

Good gear is meant to last and last, and Patagonia's Worn Wear Program supports that notion with its mobile gear-fixing workshop.

Additionally, Salomon presented a high-performance running shoe concept that can be recycled into ski boots—a circularity that judges found worthy of an Outdoor Retailer Innovation Award. PrimaLoft’s collaboration with adidas Outdoor on a fully recycled—and recyclable—concept jacket also speaks to both companies’ commitment to circularity. PrimaLoft’s new P.U.R.E. insulation results in 48 percent fewer carbon emissions in its manufacturing process, and the company is looking into partnerships that could produce recyclable waterproof/breathable technologies.

And Patagonia’s Worn Wear team was slammed for the duration of the show, sewing, patching, and reviving well-loved gear that show-goers brought in for fixing. It’s a good example of the industry’s eye toward looking at sustainability with a long lens by keeping good gear in circulation and out of the landfill.

Companies are sharing secrets in order to save the environment

a man with long blonde hair and a green ball cap fills up his water bottle from a Stanley jug. A Plastic Impact Alliance sign hangs above the jug.

The Plastic Impact Alliance, which now numbers 350 outdoor companies, is one example of outdoor brands uniting behind a common cause (in this case to eradicate single-use plastics).

When SNEWS' editor invited outdoor companies to join the Plastic Impact Alliance to eliminate single-use plastics, they accepted—and went above and beyond that call. Not only were PIA signs on full display throughout the show and water stations plentiful, reusable cups are becoming the norm at happy hours as exhibitors switch away from plastic. Nikwax, an early adopter who recently switched to 100 percent recycled (and recyclable) containers for its treatments spearheaded a partnership with neighboring brands (such as Osprey, Stanley, and Sunday Afternoons) to host a plastic-free Outdoor Retailer happy hour fundraiser for Protect Our Winters. Mountain Hardwear brought in dozens and dozens of gently used (and sanitized) cups from its HQ to serve beer during its happy hour event.

It’s just one example of how brands are linking arms to solve problems that often seem too big for any one entity to tackle. “Companies seem more willing than they used to be to share their strategies and resources,” says Corey Clark, a field marketer for Nuun Hydration. While at the show, she attended workshops and educational sessions that invited brand reps to swap leads and success stories on topics that ranged from packaging to diversity and inclusion (see #3, below). “Companies are still keeping their proprietary secrets,” she explained, “But there’s an increasing willingness to collaborate on sustainability and other important values that we share in common.”

Case in point: The joint SIA/OIA breakfast on Day 1 highlighted the industry’s willingness to come together to tackle climate change. The Climate Action Corps, a coalition that was announced at that breakfast, involves REI and other companies that resolved to beat back climate change by sharing strategies for actionable sustainability improvements within their manufacturing facilities and supply chains. “We can’t be territorial. It’s going to take all of us,” says OIA’s Jennifer Pringle. “We’re going to learn better from each other, and advocate better together.” Because, Pringle adds, the outdoor industry may not have a lot of money compared to other sectors, but “We have a voice and a lot of heart and values, and sometimes, that can trump inaction.”

Companies are also uniting behind diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)

Just as sustainability is a daunting topic to us all—but especially smaller companies with limited resources—so is diversity. Most businesses would claim to want a just and equitable environment for their employees and business partners. But developing best practices is hard to do in a siloed environment, and that’s why four leading outdoor organizations committed to DEI collaboration.

SIA, OIA, Camber Outdoors and Outdoor Retailer issued a joint statement declaring their intent to make the outdoor world more inclusive. It lays the groundwork for collaboration and expansion, as more entities are expected to sign on. And it indicates that DEI isn’t a passing fad: In fact, the leadoff session at next year’s OIA breakfast meeting will be dedicated to DEI.

Be sure to read the special three-part package on DEI in The Voice. Part 1 is about looking in the mirror and opening the gates, part 2 is about representation versus tokenism, part 3 is covers how the high prices of our gear prices many marginalized groups out of participation.

Wool rules

Wool’s popularity isn’t new, but it’s growing—and its use is expanding beyond merino base layers. For winter 2019-20, Black Diamond incorporated Lavalan wool into insulated jackets such as the Aspect Wool Hoody and the BoundaryLine Mapped Insulated Jacket. There were the Wool + AID Merino Adhesive bandages, a biodegradable and hypoallergenic alternative to plasticky standbys. And several companies exhibited insulated jackets filled with wool and other natural fibers. United By Blue and Blackyak are making padding from bison wool and yak hair, respectively. Fjallraven debuted the Vidda Pro Wool Padded Jacket filled with a lofted blend of traceable Swedish wool and plant-based synthetic fibers (see #4, below). For fall ’20, the brand is also offering its iconic Kanken backpacks in fabric made from discarded wool. “It fits our brand aesthetic,” says Fjallraven Head of Sustainability Christiane Dolva. Beyond that, wool marries functionality with sustainability. “It ticks all those boxes,” she explains.

“More and more companies are dabbling in wool,” says Jeff Russell, co-founder of the Ridge Merino apparel brand. “For us, there isn’t a single item in our line that doesn’t contain merino wool. But bigger companies are also turning on to wool, so that now, even brands that aren’t wool specialists feel they need to include at least a few wool pieces in their line.”

Ridge is enjoying strong annual growth. Established brands such as Patagonia, Burton, and Daehlie are growing their wool programs, and OR newcomers such as Houdini (an apparel brand from Sweden) are also leaning hard on wool to combine outdoor performance with improved sustainability: Not only is wool biodegradable, but it tames odor and manages moisture without the need for chemical finishes. “It’s low-fi,” jokes Greg Fitzsimmons, rygr’s associate PR director. “It’s about going back to the earth for stuff that works.”

Petroleum alternatives are big news

There’s a growing trend to tap more than just wool’s renewability renewable resources in place of petroleum. To that end, apparel companies are turning to plant-based synthetic fabrics: Picture’s three-layer Demain Jacket uses fibers spun from sugarcane byproducts, and although its waterproof/breathable membrane (Xpore) isn’t plant-based, its pores open using mechanical stretch instead of chemicals. 

"From day one, we’ve used a lot of recycled PET in our products, which is good," says Julien Durant, Picture co-founder. "It’s better than using new synthetics. But those plastic bottles, even though recycled, are still a petroleum-based product, and therefor don’t truly remove petroleum from the equation. The more bio-sourced products we can implement the less petroleum-based products we’ll need to rely on, and every bit makes a difference.” 

DuPont Sorona Fabrics displayed a recyclable ski jacket (see #1, above) that’s made from corn sugars (used to manufacture the fabrics, insulation, and even the faux fur trim).

Two electric bikes on display at a trade show booth with "explore with respect" sign on wall behind them

Cake electric bikes are on just about everyone's "covet list."

Beyond apparel, companies displayed ways to lessen our dependence on gas-burning engines. Yakima won the Outdoor Retailer Innovation Awards’ Product of the Year for its CBX Solar Cargo Box, a rooftop carrier fitted with a solar panel and USB ports to charge electronics stored inside. Over in the Scandinavian Village, Sweden-based Cake displayed the Kalk and the Osa—two models of electric motorbikes that turn sustainable transport into a wild joyride. With a shocking power to weight ratio, the Kalk is the performance offload model, while the Osa lets commuters zip along sidewalks and dirt paths.

Even ski wax now offers petroleum-free options. MountainFLOW makes a full line of iron-on and rub-on waxes suited to a wide range of temperatures—and it’s made from plant oils that are biodegradable and non-toxic. In fact, the MountainFLOW founder’s daughter accidentally ate from a test pot during the product’s development period, and she experienced no ill effects. It’s hard to imagine the same happy ending from petroleum-based fluorocarbons.

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