Understanding the conversation around sustainability in the outdoor industry—manufacturers

The Kickstand 2009 Outdoor Industry Sustainability Audit takes a journalistic approach to understanding and accurately reporting the conversation that is occurring around the concept of sustainability in the outdoor industry.

We seek to provide a baseline understanding around what sustainability means to three segments—manufacturers, retailers, and consumers—and uncover best practices, motivation, and opportunities. We seek to find a collective level of understanding of the efforts, perceptions, and the resulting actions around the concept. This research does not make judgments favoring one company over another and it is not the intent of this research to place value on individual practices or motivations.

Using Kickstand’s fusion of conversation mapping and ethnography techniques, the project takes Kickstand’s proprietary method in working with individual brands and focuses it on the outdoor industry as a whole. It is our contribution to the conversation and like all conversations, is fluid.

Research thus far has unearthed a world of extremes leading us to expand our work and reporting approach before producing a final report. While research continues, this update provides insight into the broad spectrum of actions that one of our segments, manufacturers, are taking to address the concept of sustainability. We chose to report our findings in a fluid, step by step process that subtly mirrors the evolution of the wider conversation that is occurring.

First, of the 75+ manufacturers that we’ve spoken to, each and every one has a story—some big, some small—but it shows that this concept of sustainability is so prevalent that effort has been put into creating ways to address it. The volume of the conversation is such that it shares bandwidth with other conversations key to business such as sell through, social media, and the economic downturn for example.

While research continues with the other segments, our conversations with manufacturers have unearthed loose categories that we’re using to understand how companies are attempting to affect the concept of sustainability. The degree to which any company operates within or between the categories varies widely. Likewise, how individual actions affect other actions varies from company to company and is unique to each brand—every business is different, therefore there is no one size fits all approach.

The examples below are by no means exhaustive. These categories may evolve but for now, those loose categories are: 1) Low Hanging Fruit—addressing the immediate surroundings that companies interact with on a day to day basis. 2) Component Approach—making targeted impacts on specific aspects of the company’s business. 3) Holistic—green from the inside out

1) Low Hanging Fruit—addressing the immediate surroundings that companies interact with on a day to day basis

This category can be understood as simple actions that can easily be affected each and every day by individual employees or company management. This includes “greening” the office (turning off computers, turning off lights, changing light bulbs, using “green” paper, using “green” inks, or reducing printing), offsets (travel or energy use), or offering employee incentives (bike to work programs or paid days off for community service projects).

2) Component Approach—making targeted impacts on specific aspects of the company’s business.

Here there are two sub categories, a) incremental actions as the company seeks to make further strides and b) opportunistic actions that address the volume of the conversation around sustainability both in and out of the outdoor industry.

This is the most variable category in that it covers a spectrum of diverse concepts. Generally though, this theme can be understood as actions that have a start and end point (though the end point is often renewed or evolved for companies that are attempting to aspire to theme #3) from shipping efficiencies, providing limited “green” product offerings, supporting causes, and changing packaging.

3) Holistic—green from the inside out

Here, addressing the concept of sustainability goes to the core of every part of the company’s business and is integral in making overall business decisions. In this category a “green lens” is used to decide key issues such as where product is produced, how it is produced, materials used, packaging, shipping, and delivery.

*It’s worth noting that size of company is not a factor in which category they operate from within most often. Likewise, business stability or monetary success can not be linked to any one category. These two factors point to the complex nature of the conversation and the diversity of business success matrixes.

As Kickstand continues research over the next couple months, we will continue to publish our ongoing findings in a fluid manner. When we find a suitable endpoint, we will publish our findings into a report that will be available to the public. Stay tuned.