After many years of apparel demonstrating sustainability leadership and innovation in the outdoor industry, the hard goods sector is now making headway. Suston reaches out to Jane Turnbull from the European Outdoor Group to find out why.
At long last, the hard goods segment is coming out with one sustainability innovation after another. What took so long?
I think the apparel industry received a head start, thanks to the focus of NGOs on issues such as chemical use and animal welfare. For example, the Greenpeace Detox campaign’s impact on PFAS use, microfiber release reports that lead to the formation of The Microfibre Consortium, and the Responsible Down Standard to address issues in down collection methods. Hard goods, on the other hand, have largely gone under the radar of this type of scrutiny, likely on account of hard goods having much less use by the wider markets, and a smaller segment of the industry. Whether a person is outdoorsy or not, almost everybody will have a fleece jacket at the back of their closet. The same can’t be said for ice axes.
In addition, some hard goods producers, in contrast to apparel brands, are relatively tiny actors within the supply chains in which they operate, sharing suppliers with giants like the construction and electronics industries. This can make it very difficult to implement any changes further up in the supply chain.
In that case, what has happened now that has changed the equation?
I think there has been a mass mobilization of our sector in general, but the mix of brands that offer both soft and hard good products has helped ensure that hard goods brands have wanted to follow quickly. Those brands who had already developed advanced measurement and mitigation regimes for most social and environmental risks within their apparel product lines have found it natural to want to apply the same approach to their hard good products.
At first glance, hard goods do face much the same risks as apparel. You have chemical risks, carbon footprints, labor issues etc. The real difference – and one that has certainly led to some early frustration – is that while apparel has a whole array of programs, certifications and best-practices in place that make it relatively straight forward to jump on board, the ability to apply some of these tools to hard goods does not always work.
This is indeed a real challenge, but as more and more hard goods brands came to the same conclusions, the more they realized the need to collaborate. And it’s here I believe the breakthrough lies. Of all the European Outdoor Group’s collab projects, the hard goods brands were some of the first to show what can be achieved by joining forces and addressing shared issues. So, I think that we’ve reached a critical mass within this segment that is leading to the significant progress we see today.
Does there seem to be any hard good products that face an easier job on mitigating their impacts?
And which ones still have a tough road ahead? Certain textile products that are considered in the equipment category such as sleeping bags, backpacks, ropes, and tents can use many of the same standards, measurement tools and supply chains. Any brand with a vertical supply chain or that owns its own facilities will also likely have an easier job of implementing changes as they have better control, trust, and mapping abilities.
But in terms of the “harder” hard goods, there really is not a lot of low-hanging fruit to be had. These products may be made of durable materials that are often long-lasting, which can potentially reduce their overall impact.
Moreover, plastics and metals can be recycled and brought into a circular model. Theoretically in any case. Realizing this potential, however, has been met with the same challenges apparel faces in terms of collection and sorting. In addition, the necessity to meet and ensure safety standards for climbing equipment, mean the potential for circularity based on the currently available techniques is complicated further.
That said, it’s important to note that there is progress here too, as standards like Responsible Steel and the Aluminum Stewardship Initiative as well as various traceability tools are increasingly being made available. Similarly, legislation from the European Union on due diligence, and right to repair amongst others, are all set to significantly level the playing field for the better.
What advice would you give to hard goods brands? And what should consumers looking for more sustainable gear keep in mind?
To hard goods brands (or any brand for that matter), I’d say it is never too late to get started measuring impacts and tracing supply chains to identify risks. There are some brands already working on producing Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) data, and there’s a big need for more of this type of granular data in general, which in turn helps everyone make more informed material choices. So more of this please!
But the biggest wins are to be had with suppliers. This is also where some of the greatest challenges lie as well, and it will likely take a lot of collaboration. So, find other brands with shared suppliers and join forces.
To consumers, I’d give the same advice as for apparel: Research the issues, understand and look out for certifications and ask questions at the point-of-sale. And of course, buy the one product that you actually need, that will best suit your purposes, and that will last the longest!
Illustration: Nadia Nörbom