Renewal is in the Air

Estimated reading time: 10 min

“Outdoor Futures” is a think tank of sustainability managers and experts, working on a vision that could mean a total make-over for the outdoor industry. It seems that their timing is just right.

About a hundred post-it notes cover the wooden walls of our meeting room, along with A4 and A3 sheets of paper and colorful small stickers. These handwritten texts address everything from visions, solutions and challenges to collaborations and knowledge banks. Are the answers to the questions that we’ve been wrestling with for the past two days there, in the myriad of notes? Are there patterns linking the ideas? Hidden pitfalls?

The scene is reminiscent of a detective movie, in which a group of police post their theories and suspicions on the walls but have somehow lost the overall picture. At this point, no one knows how the movie will end.

The energy and enthusiasm in our group has been sky high. But as the work session draws to a close, the level of creativity begins to falter. Foreheads begin to wrinkle, and some participants radiate frustration.

Half the group has now been tasked with compiling a first draft for a long-term sustainable vision for the European outdoor industry. Where do we want to go over the next few years? One of the premises for the workshop: continuing on the current trajectory is not an option.

The other half tries to define what we think should be covered by the concept “Net Positive.” How can the outdoor industry become a force that gives more than it takes, from nature and the communities in which we work and play?

After the workshop, the proposals will be fused into a road map that large portions of the industry in Europe should want to follow, toward completely new and common goals.

It is not entirely surprising that the mood is a bit solemn …

An Institute with a View

The vision group – to which I belong – gathers outdoors for the session. We’re meeting at the Monviso Institute, located on a south-facing slope 1,480 meters above sea level in the Italian Alps south of Turin. In 2015, the founder, sustainability scientist Tobias Luthe (whom we wrote about in Suston no. 1 2019), purchased an abandoned mountain farm here, with six dilapidated stone buildings and a spring-fed freshwater well. Since then work has been underway to convert the farm into a prototype for sustainable innovations. For example: the wooden walls of the new main building have been joined together by wooden screws, yet the house is still so tight that it needs no central heating.

A few kilometers below us is the mountain village of Ostana. The Po River meanders along the valley floor, and continues on its route to Venice. On the other side of the valley a steep forested mountainside rises, where beautiful banks of fog drift upward through the woods. Although we are here in late May, the weather has mainly been cloudy and cold.

Now, occasional rifts form in the clouds, revealing the lower snowcapped portions of one of the most iconic peaks in the Alps – Monte Viso, or Monviso as the local people call it. The 3,850-meter high pinnacle soars far above its neighbors. The peak is a landmark dating back to antiquity and is even mentioned in Dante’s Inferno.

As our group outlines our embryo for a vision, however, our gazes remain focused on our notebooks, completely ignoring Monte Viso and the beautiful Po valley below. Instead, my thoughts wander to the US company Interface, the world’s largest designer and maker of carpet tile.

In retrospect, I can’t help but feel that some of the answers to our ruminations were right there, hidden in the mist.

But they could also actually be found in the flooring company, Interface.

From uphill to downhill?

“As head of sustainability, you should never take defeat personally,” says Peter Hollenstein with a smile, as we traveled in our rental car two days earlier, heading for the Monviso Institute.

It was Hollenstein’s idea to form the working group that is now about to meet. He is Senior Corporate Responsibility Manager at Mammut, the largest outdoor brand in Switzerland.

“Mammut has taken many steps in the right direction in recent years. But I’ve still been frustrated. In some areas we can only make progress through cooperation with other companies. That’s why two years ago I started to ask my colleagues at other companies if we could cooperate on a more long-term basis – and received an extremely positive response.”

Collaboration related to sustainability in the outdoor industry is nothing new. Examples include development of microfiber knowledge, standards for responsible down and wool sourcing, chemical management, the HIGG Index and more.

“But many of these working groups are re-active, not pro-active. We also need something more strategic and visionary,” says Hollenstein.

Seated next to him is Melanie Kuntnawitz, Head of Vendor Control at Jack Wolfskin, Germany’s leading outdoor brand. Her company has worked systematically with sustainability since 2007, but like Mammut, has kept a fairly low profile to the outside world. And like Hollenstein, Kuntnawitz wants to take a long-term approach – together with others.

“We must fundamentally rethink our industry.”

But despite a feeling of frustration about the pace, both Hollenstein and Kuntnawitz are on the way to the Monviso Institute with a tingling sense of optimism.

“The times have started to change. Today, I think top management in our industry wants to join the journey,” says Kuntnawitz.

A new industry vision

The workshop is a reflection of this change in attitude. Hollenstein began his reconnaissance with people he believed might be interested on both the personal and professional level. Rebecca Johansson, R&D Manager at Helly Hansen, one of Scandinavia’s largest outdoor companies, was quick to come on board. So too were Pamela Ravasio, Head of CSR & Sustainability at European Outdoor Group (EOG) at the time, and sustainability expert Joel Svedlund, who is active in several international collaborations in the outdoor industry.

“We wanted to create a fairly informal work group, where we could set high goals and look far ahead,” says Hollenstein.

Before the ISPO Munich 2019 trade show, the group had grown to around fifteen members, including both brand representatives and external experts. The group got together for the first time in one of the meeting rooms at the convention center – and received an unexpected visit. Arne Strate, the new General Secretary at the EOG, arrived with good news.

The timing for what the group wanted to achieve was perfect, he shared. In the days prior to the ISPO fair, the EOG held its Annual Assembly. A new board of directors had been elected, including several prominent names within sustainability. The EOG’s new vision was presented to the members: a three-pillared vision of 1) “Doing business right”, 2) environmental protection and 3) attracting and helping Europeans to adopt a more active outdoor lifestyle.

In other words: top management within the European outdoor industry was ready for a change.

Hollenstein relates:

“Our group was prepared to devote considerable energy to convince the EOG that we had a good idea. But Arne Strate essentially said ‘go for it!’ and expressed his desire to participate – and that this group would become an EOG sustainability think tank.”

The first seeds are sewn

Following the ISPO meeting, the group has held teleconferences every other week. Representatives for small pioneering companies such as the Italian company Aku, Swedish Icebug and French Picture Organic have joined in. After a voting, the group was named EOG Outdoor Futures.

On Sunday, May 26, 14 people are now meeting adjacent to a meadow at the Monviso Institute. The first task of the workshop is practical, as well as symbolic. Luthe has, along with sustainability experts Melanie Rottmann and Anna Rodewald, prepared a small crop of hemp here since a few years back.  We will now clear the weeds and then plant this season’s hemp seeds.

Hemp has been cultivated for thousands of years – and may be a suitable material for a new, more sustainable outdoor industry. For example, Luthe has used hemp in his prize-winning backcountry skis under the Grown brand.) Rodewald explains:

“Hemp does not require pesticides, herbicides or irrigation, and it also enriches the soil instead of depleting it. Furthermore, it absorbs carbon dioxide and attracts loads of bees!”

We are given hoes, rakes and other tools. We dig, pull weeds, and level the ground, after which we carefully plant our seeds, row after row. The work is strenuous and time-consuming, but it is also enjoyable.

Then, the two workshop facilitators, Kristoffer Lundholm and Emil Hast from the consulting firm Sustain In Time, arrive. We gather together indoors in front of a makeshift projector screen made from a sheet.

“Thank you for the 45 pages of background material you guys provided me with… I don’t think I have to show the scare slides, right?” asks Lundholm rhetorically.

Tacitly understood: no one in this room needs to see photos of starving polar bears to be convinced of the crisis in nature.

Back-casting from a successful future

Next follows a workshop divided into an evening session on Sunday, a ten-hour session on Monday and a closing half-day on Tuesday.

Lundholm, who heads the workshop, has worked using similar procedures for over ten years. It is obvious that he usually must first sell his message about why change is necessary. Here the roles are almost reversed. The group patiently waits for Lundholm to finish talking about how a company or an industry can become “Future Fit” and how the “back casting” method works. The aftermath of each such presentation can be likened to the release of a group of hunting dogs who have been pulling and tearing at their leashes and are now finally allowed to run free.

The workshop purchase is not just about a better world – it is also about better business. One topic that is frequently brought up concerns the increasing competition from the fashion and the sports industry. These industries, with far greater resources available, give high priority to sustainability and are very vocal about it.

What happens if the fashion giants discover sustainable innovations that can be scaled up to meet their volume? What happens if Nike or Adidas develop functional, inexpensive shells that receive higher ratings than those of the outdoor companies listed in the HIGG Index?

This discussion can also be viewed from the opposite side: if the outdoor industry becomes a true pioneer, then perhaps informed customers who currently shop in the fashion and sports stores may gravitate toward the outdoor retailers instead?

On the same day that we arrive at Monviso, the EU election is being held, where a green wave is sweeping over northern and western Europe. Two days earlier a Global Strike for the Future was organized in over 1,400 cities across 110 nations. With the textile industry rated as one of the most polluting in the world, this movement hardly views the outdoor industry as one of the good guys.

And many participants in this new green wave belong to an urban, well-educated middle class that enjoys outdoor activities.

They already climbed one mountain

One of the presentations is about pioneering companies that have also succeeded in being profitable. Among such companies, the flooring company Interface, with net sales of USD $1.18 billion last year, garners the greatest interest.

As early as 1997, Interface CEO Ray Anderson presented his vision, which is still bolder than that of many of today’s companies. “If we’re successful, we’ll spend the rest of our days harvesting yester-year’s carpets and other petrochemically derived products, and recycling them into new materials, and converting sunlight into energy, with zero scrap going to the landfill and zero emissions into the ecosystem. And we’ll be doing very well by doing good.”

The company then formulated a road map that can be likened to conquering a high peak, with different pitches along the way. The peak is called Mission Zero and was to be reached by 2020. There is just one caveat – the progress of the company was faster than planned.

“Interface realized that they needed to visualize an even higher peak beyond the first one,” says Lundholm.

Interface calls its new expedition “Climate Take Back,” in which they commit to running their business in a way that creates a climate fit for life, while calling on others to do the same.

As we listen to the presentation, it is almost somewhat embarrassing. Here we are in an industry that has equipped alpine expeditions to climb peaks all over the world. But while Interface conquers mountains in sustainability, at this point we are still wandering in the foothills.

Forward to the roots

On the last day of the workshop we walk through the rooms, searching for favorites among all the proposals and ideas. “We need comparable KPIs to create positive competition.” “People pay us to regenerate nature and make the world a better place.” “We can pool our resources, such as a centralized research and standardization center.” “Our factories should mimic the forests, cleaning CO2 from the air.”

Looking at the collection of top ideas, Johansson from Helly Hansen nods approvingly.

“The results from the workshop can definitely be integrated into our company’s new sustainability strategy.”

When the time comes to formulate the draft for a common vision, into which the concept Net Positive must be incorporated, the task at hand seems almost overwhelming. So many ideas, so little time. Our two groups each make their presentations, and our sheets of paper now cover the very last wall. Applause and brief thank you speeches follow.

During the summer, the group will then continue to work and try to recruit more interested parties. The next step is to present the vision and the road map at the European Outdoor Summit at the end of September.

Should the group dare to choose the steeper, more courageous route, I am sure large segments of the outdoor community will also applaud. But will top management do the same?

After the adjournment, the participants hurry home to their offices in cities all over Europe. I am fortunate enough to spend two extra days at the Monviso Institute and have time for a great hike. The intensity of the workshop slowly fades away, overshadowed by the scents of rain-drenched wildflowers and foliage.

Then the clouds break up to reveal Monte Viso in all its majesty. I marvel over the steep North East Ascent route, which was used to summit the peak already in 1881.

‘So many outdoor brands were born from courage, perseverance and innovation,’ are my thoughts, as I view the mountain. ‘God forbid a flooring company beat them to the top of the summit!’

 

Photos: Maren Krings

Gabriel Arthur
gabriel.arthur@norragency.com