Suston’s Editor-in-chief Gabriel Arthur has just returned from ISPO Munich, where he was able to check the pulse of the outdoor community’s sustainability efforts. Read about what it was like to come back to Messe Munich after the pandemic, and the 5 themes he uncovered there.

The first time I visited ISPO Munich, in the winter of 2005, I asked one exhibitor after another, “how do you work with environmental issues?” At the time, this was well before Sustainability became the buzzword we know today. Apart from a few pioneers, the most common response was: “Hmm, what do you mean?” Since then, a lot has happened.

This winter’s version of ISPO Munich was both familiar and different, at the same time. With about half as many halls as before the pandemic and hardly any representatives from the ski industry, it was given the epithet “OutDoor by ISPO Winter” by some participants. But even though the outdoor industry characterized this year’s fair, many well-known brands chose not to exhibit. However, several brands that are at the forefront of sustainability were present, such as Patagonia, Picture Organic, Vaude and Houdini Sportswear.

This year, The Sustainability Hub had a record-breaking poster exhibition curated by Greenroom Voice, where some forty companies and organizations presented their most important messages. Overall, the “hub” was a popular meeting place with positive energy (I myself had the privilege of discussing sustainability communication with some younger fair participants, in connection with a workshop aimed at “Young Professionals” that Puya’s founder and I moderated for The Sympathy Lab).

On the stages, one talk followed another, but many were more mainstream than in previous years. I skipped these and focused instead on the seminars in conference room B32, arranged by the European Outdoor Group, as well as countless meetings and interviews with various sustainability managers and experts. Here, I was happy to find that ISPO Munich was like the fairs before the pandemic – no other European event gathers so many key people in outdoor and sustainability.

It is a challenge to summarize all the impressions and conversations from the days in Munich – but here are five themes that stand out.

Retail is on the move – but still an outsider

Several market-leading retail chains around Europe – both in brick & mortar and e-commerce – have advanced their positions in sustainability in recent years. And they have set ambitious goals ahead that affect the brands and their suppliers. But even if, for example, the German retailer Globetrotter presented part of its work in the Sustainability Hub and the Outdoor Retailer Climate Commitment (ORCC) was highlighted, the retail sector is still quite invisible at the fair when it comes to sustainability.

What do end-consumers ask for in stores? Does the brand’s communication work, or is it confusing? How can you work more systematically with take-back systems? You have to look for those answers elsewhere. The retail sector wants to be involved and influence the outdoor industry in terms of sustainability, but the international fairs have not yet become the meeting places where this happens on a larger scale. And representatives of end-consumers are conspicuous by their absence. Outdoor Retail & Sustainability – perhaps there is a free slot here on the international event map?

A widening gap between specialists and generalists?

“What happens in B32 stays in B32.” That’s how you could describe the talks in the conference room hosted by the European Outdoor Group a little pointedly. A series of very interesting talks attracted only a few listeners. Partly perhaps because the program was not available on the ISPO website. But also – I think – because sustainability work has actually come so far in many areas, and thus become increasingly complex. Many outside the “sustainability bubble” simply do not really understand what is going on inside. And those who are inside the bubble forget to educationally convey what they are doing.

In addition, many of the most important things today take place within various collaborations and joint projects within the industry. The participating brands focus more on bringing out their own messages, rather than being ambassadors for such projects. With the result that important messages that are communicated, for example, at lectures in B32 do not really get out. The insight is also important for Suston’s own part. At Suston, we want to bridge such “communication gaps” in our own reporting. Suston should be a door opener between specialists and generalists – both groups are equally important in creating momentum.

From self-delusion to greenhushing

As a journalist, I have followed the debates about greenwashing for around 25 years, since I started my career as a volunteer reporter and editor for Friends of the Earth Sweden’s member magazine. Besides sheer lying – which is not so common nowadays – there are some main types of greenwashing, that you still see. For instance to develop a kind of “hero product” and boast about it while not mentioning the other 99 percent of the assortment.

But the absolute majority of greenwashing rather comes from self-delusion, than strategic decisions. As a company – or an employer – you want to do good, and you try your best, and you get a nice feeling about it. And then you start telling others about it. “Hey, look what we have done!” And then you realize that everything was a bit more complicated than you first thought, and you get afraid of getting your fingers slapped, so you back down and start the “greenhushing.”

This was also a topic at ISPO Munich. With the growing awareness of the upcoming EU legislation around Green Claims, I see that many pioneering companies within the outdoor industry now are leaning more towards greenhushing than the other way around. Which I think is a pity. Greenwashing has been around for at least 25 years – but the same can be said of good, grounded and engaging communication about sustainability. Instead of being afraid, I think pioneering brands should learn from the pros and be a bit more confident!

…But many suppliers need to be clearer

At ISPO Munich, however, there was one big exception from the greenhushing trend: The majority of the suppliers. In many booths presenting textiles, filling, zippers etc, terms like “SUSTAINABLE” and “ECO” were all over the place. As a visitor not knowing so much about these companies, you get a bit concerned. “Are these the suppliers that the outdoor brands rely on when they make their green claims?” Or is this just another communication gap, between manufacturers and suppliers in markets far away, and us in the EU and other markets where the greenwashing discussion is constantly going on? Perhaps these suppliers have done their homework perfectly when it comes to what they offer, just not when they communicate? This being said, I was also able to find several suppliers with very reliable communication.

A trade show for the industry – or for the outdoor community?

At ISPO Munich, I met many engaged and interesting representatives for industry organizations, suppliers, brands and retailers, discussing different aspects of sustainability, CSR and environmentalism. But besides Protect Our Winters and some more activists, I couldn’t find many representatives from the broader outdoor community. This is just my personal belief, but I think it is crucial to involve them much more also at events like this, if this industry wants to take the lead. Instead of talking about “end-consumers” or “customers” – why not see them as partners and stakeholders? I am sure many want to know more about what’s going on behind the scenes, and to take part.


Photos: Messe Munchen (Lead Image), Gabriel Arthur

Gabriel Arthur
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