Successful sustainability initiatives are not just about nature and the environment. They are also about people. How can outdoor companies take greater social responsibility – and why should they do it?

One Saturday in mid-August, fifty employees from the American shoe company Keen and the Chinese tannery Isa Tantec met up next to the Xi River near the city of Heshan, where Isa Tantec has one of its major production facilities. The tanning of leather is considered to be one of the dirtiest industrial practices in China. However, Isa Tantec stands out as a positive example to the contrary. The company was founded by German investors in 1995 and has a distinct environmental profile. At Isa Tantec’s tanneries in China, Vietnam and the United States, the water that is discharged has been purified and the production processes are water as well as energy efficient. The company is primarily a pioneer in the industry in reducing its impact on the climate.

This day, however, is not about emissions or chemicals.

The group from Keen and Isa Tantec are picking up trash in a park area next to the Xi River, and are all wearing T-shirts with the text “Strong community. Healthier Planet”. They also have time to plant their own tree next to the river.

Keen Footwear stands as a pioneer of sustainability in the American outdoor industry. The person responsible for these issues at Keen is Chris Enlow, Corporate Responsibility Manager. He explains that the cleanup and planting day next to the Xi River is one of many ways to take responsibility. Through the classic environmental movement saying, “Think global, act local”, Keen wants to help preserve the nature in which it operates. For example, Keen has sponsored local garbage cleanup projects around the Alps. The company also wants to protect nature in areas where production takes place. And this also counts for materials supplier Isa Tantec.

“We want to involve our entire supply chain in creating real change,” says Enlow, who is also out picking up garbage, and adds: “We have a long way to go.”


The John Muir Trust is a UK conservation charity dedicated to protecting wild places. They work to restore the rich wildlife and habitats of wild land, helping native woodland and peatland to thrive. Over the years, EOCA has contributed to many of The John Muir Trust local projects. For instance, the Bla Bheinn Path Repair on Isle of Skye in Scotland. Trust volunteers helped maintain the first 2.1 km of the Bla Bheinn trekking path in 2016. New interpretation boards, leaflets a short film and online materials have all introduced the topic of path management to a wide audience.

Social responsibility is nothing new

When the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) became popular around the turn of the millennium, the business community was divided into two camps. There was a large group that believed this was a trend that would soon pass, just like many other “buzz words”, and a smaller group who believed that this was only the beginning.

Some skeptics argued that the job of a company was to generate maximum profit for its owners – end of discussion. However, most skeptical voices suggested that the business community has already brought great social responsibility, which in many ways was right.

Back in the late 1800s, several major companies in the US and Europe offered their workers what was then called “welfare facilities”.

Factories received schools, sports facilities, ventilation systems and more. The reasons varied, but one important reason was that employers wanted to give workers incentives to avoid costly conflicts. The union movement was growing stronger, and strikes were common.

In several European countries during the 1900s, trade unions and employers began to agree on rules for working hours, holidays and more. In parallel, welfare states were developed, where much of the social work was transferred to the public sector. The companies contributed – in varying degrees – to the financing through taxes.

The history and forms have then developed differently in Scandinavia, Germany, France, etc., but the results have still been various forms of welfare societies, where businesses have contributed to an extent. After the planned economies in Eastern Europe collapsed in the early 1990s, the Western European model was thought to pave the way forward for the world.

So why was there a small group of enthusiasts who went ahead with the term Corporate Social Responsibility more than fifteen years ago? And why is it such a large group today?

Globalisation requires game rules

The short answer to the question is globalization. When the production of the West’s products spread to poorer countries around the world, politics was not able to keep up. Many of these countries were and are dictatorships. More democratic, yet poor, countries knew that if they introduced environmental and working conditions similar to those in the West, investments would end up elsewhere.

Laws, regulations, wages and taxes varied between countries. Some international companies saw this as an advantage. The more responsible companies had a harder time. How would they navigate this global jungle of rules, exceptions, corruption, values, etc.? And would customers choose their products, instead of the cheaper options? Taking responsibility costs money.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos in 1999, the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan invited the international business community to unite behind a dozen rules, summarized in the UN’s Global Compact. The UN wanted companies around the world to sign this agreement, and thus promise to follow the rules.

After a tentative start more and more international companies began to see the benefits of the UN Global Compact. Clearer rules are favoring “the good guys” and vice versa. Instead of the unions, NGOs like Save the Children, the media and – perhaps most importantly – consumers became the driving forces. The market and society in the West demanded more responsible international business.

A bumpy road ahead

There have been many pitfalls, setbacks and adversities in the CSR movement since the turn of the millennium, but there has been even more progress.

The journey is similar, in many ways, to what businesses have done and are doing in terms of environmental issues, but with a ten to fifteen year lag. The work has become more systematic. Experts and scholars are becoming more important. The media examines things closely. Various certifications have been introduced.

Karolina Windell is a Swedish researcher in business administration with a focus on CSR. She says:

“An important change is that many companies have started to see CSR as a business advantage. For many, there is no contradiction between taking responsibility and doing good business. On the contrary, one is seen as a prerequisite for the other.”

Another change leading to new challenges is that the perception of sustainability issues has widen, says Karolina Windell.

“How far back in the supply chain should you go? When does tax planning become a sustainability issue? Should a company take responsibility for integration and diversity?”

Without a clear roadmap, it is difficult to prioritize the right things. And certainly there can be a limit, where a customer sees a swarm of small certifications on a package of coffee and thinks: “Wouldn’t it be easier if I just buy the cheapest coffee and donate ten Euros to the Red Cross instead?”

In the end, after all, it is the customer that pays for a company’s sustainability.


EOCA is the nonprofit association representing European outdoor companies, with over 120 members. Every year, EOCA collects money from the members and distributes them to conservation projects through an online vote that is open to the public. One of the projects that has been voted for is the Icelandic Wildfjords, which in 2016 received 28,500 Euros. Wildfjords will restore native boreal birch forests by planting 10,000 native tree seedlings. The wetlands will also be restored and cairn restoration will create a network of walking trails.

The outdoor industry and suppliers

Among the companies that work systematically with sustainability there are several similarities. The UN Global Compact is a kind of foundation – and lowest level – for the work. Keen, Fjällräven, Patagonia, Haglöfs, Vaude and others specify the issues concerning working conditions, animal welfare, the use of chemicals and more in contracts with subcontractors. Independent inspections should be allowed in the workplace. Sustainability reports should be made annually.

Fenix Outdoor, which owns brands like Fjällräven, Hanwag and others, as well as the retail chains Globetrotter, Naturkompaniet and Partioaitta, is one of about 9000 companies that have signed the UN Global Compact. Aiko Bode is Chief Sustainability Officer at Fenix Outdoor and according to him, the outdoor industry has an advantage over the fashion industry, for example. The often-criticized minimum wages are much rarer and working conditions are better.

“Our products often require higher skills among those who produce them. This makes many outdoor companies seek long-term partnerships with their suppliers. It is in both our interest and in the interest of the suppliers that those doing the work stay in their jobs – and staff turnover is actually lower than in many other industries.”

The long-term cooperation also makes it easier to communicate with suppliers, says Aiko Bode.

“Within Fenix Outdoor, we see them more as partners and can say: You are part of the family. It will be good for your business to work with these issues.”

“At the same time, we must be humble. Sustainability, especially the social aspect, is a young discipline.”

Nature, children and the youth

Another clear pattern in the outdoor industry is a focus on conservation, such as Keen’s garbage pick-up days. The logic is simple: without a living nature, many outdoor products lack a sensible use.

In parallel, the European Outdoor Group has identified another important area where the industry can and should take more responsibility: to attract children and young people into the outdoors. This is also a win-win scenario. The fact that today’s children and young people get so little exercise is a growing health problem in the western world. If they are motivated to get outside, they will become healthier – and become potential customers for outdoor companies.

In other words, there are many reasons for the outdoor industry to take more responsibility, reasons that may be lacking in other industries. In short: sustainability can be both profitable and good for society as a whole.

Gabriel Arthur
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