Two sides together

Can retailers and brands put competition aside and instead focus on finding sustainable solutions? The results of the pan-European “#RMB Single Use Plastics” project’s first year seem to prove they can.

In November 2017, representatives from four outdoor companies met up with Anny Cardinahl and Pamela Ravasio from European Outdoor Group (EOG) at Patagonia’s office in Amsterdam. The working title for the meeting was “#RMB – Retail meets Brand” and the main topic on the agenda was sustainability.

“At that point, we only knew that we wanted to bring retailers and brands closer together and collaborate more. We wanted to launch a project series that the EOG would facilitate, with retailers and brands as the driving force. As a kick-off, we invited two retailers and two brands to discuss pre-competitive market challenges in a very informal meeting,” Anny Cardinahl recalls.

One idea was also to try working on a pan-European level. On the brand side of the table were Ryan Gellert, GM EMEA from Patagonia’s European headquarters and Peter Ottervanger, GM Europe of Icebreaker. On the retailer side were Tim Wahnel, CEO of Outdoor Profis and Daniel Peters, E-commerce Manager from A.S. Adventure Group.

Outdoor Profis is a buying group including around 160 independent outdoor specialists in Germany and Luxembourg, with the head office in Limburg between Frankfurt and Cologne.

“We also run a shop ourselves, in Limburg. So both from our own experience, and from our members, we know that sustainability is a big and very complex topic. There are so many certificates, labels, projects etc., so that the individual store owner or manager can easily get lost,” says Tim Wahnel, and continues:

“Instead of everyone fighting their own battles, we saw this collaboration as an opportunity to join forces and find solutions for all.”

The omnichannel and multibrand retailer A.S. Adventure Group has over 265 stores in the Benelux-countries, France and the UK, including chains such as A.S. Adventure, Cotswold Outdoor, Bever, McTrek and more.

With a background in retail, Anny Cardinahl had expected that she would need both diplomacy and persuasion to get the two sides to start collaborating. As she explains:

“I have seen so much ping-pong between retailers and brands over the years, where one part thinks the other should take action and vice versa. A lot of valuable ideas and content never reaches the customers at the point of sale.”

Yet this time, Anny Cardinahl was happily surprised – “I was overwhelmed by the positive energy from the very first minute” – and following the meeting in Amsterdam the participants agreed on two things: they all wanted to go ahead with the Retail meets Brands-project and they wanted to get more companies on board.

Polybags are everywhere

After ISPO Munich in January 2018, the group had grown with retailers like Transa and Bergfreunde.de and brands like Keen and Marmot. The next step was then to pin down what they wanted to collaborate on, which turned out to be rather easy. Steven De Beul, buying manager at A.S Adventure in Belgium, is today the company’s representative for the project.

“As retailers, we are meeting the end-consumers on a daily basis. One problem that is getting attention is the huge amount of single use plastics in our daily lives,” explains Steven De Beul and continues:

“On the retail side, we have other insights than the brands. We receive all these polybags and have to deal with them. It is not a problem that a single store can solve – but if we could address these problems on an industry level, we would have much bigger possibilities.”

Brands too see the potential in collaboration on this issue. Michaela Zeuss, office manager at Icebreaker’s European headquarter and part of the steering group, agrees that single use plastics is the obvious first step.

“Single use plastics as our first project is important because we wanted a concept that is relevant, accessible and understandable for businesses and consumers alike. The topic of plastics is everywhere – in TV documentaries, on the EU legislation level, etc. – and nature is our playing field. We definitely felt that we as a group wanted to take a leadership position around this.”

Keen Footwear, represented by Perry Laukens, the brand’s EMEA Marketing Director, was similarly enthusiastic to the choice of topic.

“As a footwear brand, we don’t use polybags in the same way as the apparel brands, since we have shoe boxes. But we still want to take part in finding solutions. At first, a project like this might sound easy. But it’s not like there are hundreds of solutions just waiting for us,” says Perry Laukens.

A roadmap for 2019

Today, the #RMB-group consists of nearly twenty companies, in collaboration with the European Outdoor Group (EOG). They try to meet in person every three months, and via conference calls on a monthly basis. The group has been divided into four focus teams; looking at economical, ecological, legal and communication aspects. An international survey has been undertaken to understand what quantities of single use plastics are used in the European outdoor market today. A project manager, Scott Nelson, has also been recruited to manage the project during 2019 and is working together with the steering group on developing a roadmap to “significantly reduce single use plastics in the value chain,” as stated in the latest white paper from the EOG.

“This will involve a lot of research and looking at what other industries are doing to tackle problems of this size. We want to bring in as many options as possible into the discussion. The goal is definitely a challenge – but we are optimistic that we will find meaningful solutions that can push an entire industry in a positive direction,” explains Scott Nelson.

Another challenge is the size of the project, which went from four companies and the EOG at the start to around twenty today. With the hope of many more joining during 2019, there is always the potential that different perspectives and agendas will collide.

“The size can be a pitfall, also when we are many nationalities with different situations in each country. But on the other hand, we have more things that unite us. One of the characteristics of the outdoor industry is that we are more conscious of the nature around us. I think we can take a lead together,” says Steven De Beul.

Tim Wahnel agrees, and talks about “coopetion” – cooperation and competition hand in hand.

“I have been surprised by how easy we have managed to move forward so far, and also be transparent within the group.”

Compared to the sports and fashion industries, the outdoor industry is still a small player. But Perry Laukens believes that in a project like this, outdoor’s size could be an advantage:

“I have a sporting goods background, and I am not sure it would be possible there. We in the outdoor industry, however, are good at finding common ground.”

As many have pointed out before, sustainability in general is an arena where it can be easier to find such common ground between competitors. The problems are too big – and too expensive – to tackle without collaborations and, for the outdoor industry, protecting the environment is or at least should be a paramount concern.

“Size matters. If we can join forces and move the industry, from the supply chain to the end consumer, we can have a real impact. And I think working together for the greater good brings out the human side in people,” says Michaela Zeuss.

Photo: Karin Alfredsson

 

Gabriel Arthur
gabriel.arthur@norragency.com