Neighbor to the French Alps and a favorite hub for outdoor companies and nature-loving citizens. Annecy is one of Europe’s outdoor capitals. But to maintain this status, the city needs to move forward in one key area.

From the outside, there are no indications that the company at 5 Rue du Pré Paillard in Annecy is involved in outdoor activities. Located in the Les Glaisins business park, home to around 500 companies, the building exudes the same anonymity as its neighbors. But inside, there can be no doubt. By the entrance is a complete bouldering hall with a padded floor.

“Many of the French outdoor elite see bouldering as one of the most important forms of training. We attract them with a really good climbing gym. Our business is based on collaborating with the best professionals,” explains Julien Traverse, one of the founders of All Triangle.

Further into the premises is the large design studio. Julien Traverse gives a tour with Grégoire Laverty, the company’s R&D Manager, and introduces a dozen employees. Each one is deeply concentrated on some detail of footwear for cross-country running, climbing, hiking and more. I’m not allowed to take any photos.

“The models we are developing today will only be launched in two years,” says Grégoire Laverty.

All Triangles was launched in 2018 and got off to a flying start when The North Face wanted to make a comeback in ultrarunning and mountain running. The project lasted two years, working with The North Face design team and a group of elite runners. In spring 2021, the first models in the Vectiv range were released, with the new patented sole construction being a key element. Soon the sponsored runners started winning international races with Vectiv shoes on their feet.

“Since then, we have helped several international brands to develop very solid models. When a runner wins a big race with ‘our’ shoes, we celebrate with champagne here in the studio,” says Grégoire Laverty.

It is no coincidence that one of the world’s leading outdoor design companies is located in Annecy, says Julien Traverse.

“Our success is based on being part of a community, working with amazing outdoor athletes. Without their testing and feedback, we would never succeed.”

What about sustainability work?

“Durability is our entry door to sustainability. The more a shoe is durable, the less pairs you need to manufacture. We always work to limit the waste of materials on a shoe, and we’ll always take the most sustainable materials,” says Julien Traverse.

In many ways, All Triangles are representative of the local outdoor industry. Innovative, active, dedicated – but is this enough to be called pioneers in 2023?

Entrance to the French Alps

Annecy could exemplify the concept of “urban outdoors.” It is only ten miles from Chamonix, which for decades has been a base camp for the world’s best climbers, freeriders, mountain runners and more. But Annecy is also such a base camp, strategically located next to the large Lake Annecy with its surrounding mountain slopes. A natural Eldorado for people who enjoy activities such as kayaking, paragliding, mountain biking, trail running and rock climbing. At various points on the outskirts of the city, a fine-meshed trail system leads up to the mountains. Nearby are ski and MTB resorts such as La Clusaz.

The town has around 130,000 inhabitants, with another 50,000 or so in surrounding villages. It would be wrong to say that the city is entirely dominated by the outdoors; in the alleys of the old quarters, people look quite ordinary. In the parks next to the beaches, a few gangs of young people listen to music and smoke marijuana, and old men play boules under the trees. But the number of fit joggers with hydration belts is high, and no one reacts if someone comes carrying a SUP. And up in the mountains around the city, you’ll find lots of energetic hikers and runners who greet you with a friendly “Salut!”.

Clusters of outdoor businesses

Annecy is also the capital of the French outdoor industry. It is home to companies like Millet and Lafuma, as well as the French headquarters of several global brands. According to many people I spoke to, there is a historical reason why the industry has ended up here, namely Salomon. The company, which started out making ski edges in 1947, evolved into one of the world’s biggest brands in downhill skiing and outdoor activities. Today, 750 employees work in Annecy alone, and a cluster of subcontractors and partners surround Salomon.

Marie-Laure Piednoir has been the company’s Sustainability and Impact Director since 2020. As we visit the various design and prototype departments at the headquarters, she tells us that sustainability is now a high priority, as it is for several other outdoor companies in Annecy. Compared to Scandinavia, for example, the transition in France started rather late. But French pioneers such as Picture Organic have quickly become internationally successful and have been followed by others. At the same time, the resources in the region are vast, so once development takes off, a lot can happen.

“We come from the ski world, which has been a few years behind the outdoor world. We at Salomon started our journey by developing goals and plans around 2016. But in recent years the issues have become more and more important in France, and I think we have a good momentum today both at Salomon and other companies in Annecy.”

One challenge – not just for Salomon, but for the entire outdoor industry – is to move forward in footwear and equipment, especially for winter sports.

“If you work with textiles and clothing, there are now good methods and data to choose more sustainable materials, for example. But many ‘hard’ products in downhill skiing and outdoor activities are complex. It’s easier to recycle a t-shirt than a ski binding,” says Marie-Laure.

Cooperation within the sector

The French outdoor industry is brought together in the Outdoor Sports Valley (OSV) organization, with about 550 member companies and around 8,000 employees. It also includes companies in other major outdoor cities such as Grenoble and Chambéry. OSV is based in a large office building a stone’s throw from All Triangles. I meet the organization’s Executive Director Benjamin Thaller, who tells me that the size of the industry gives it influence (since my visit to Annecy, Benjamin Thaller has been succeeded by Céline Brunel). The industry is one of the Grand Annecy region’s four priority business clusters.

“Outdoor companies are important employers and taxpayers in the region, and as representatives of the industry, we can have good discussions with universities about, for example, design education, and with city politicians about what the outdoor industry needs.”

To maintain that position, Outdoor Sports Valley is on the same track as Salomon: The French industry, led by Annecy, must raise its ambitions in terms of sustainability. Being at the forefront of outdoor sports today is synonymous with moving towards a more sustainable future.

“To be an attractive industry for young talent, we need to improve. Our vision is for the outdoor industry to become a model for other industries in France. Because who should be at the forefront if not us, who live from nature in various ways?” says Benjamin Thaller.

As part of this, comprehensive strategy work is underway within Outdoor Sports Valley. Several stakeholders are involved, together with the board.

“Our new strategy will be presented to members in spring 2023.”

(Photo: Gabriel Arthur)

Wake up Annecy

Annecy is often ranked among the cities with the highest quality of life. There is a large influx of people who move here, mainly well-educated and/or wealthy people who are attracted by the proximity of the lake, the mountains, and the Alps. But that doesn’t mean Annecy can sit back and leave things as they are, says Benjamin Marias. He is one of the founders of Air Coop, a cooperative of sustainability consultants with offices along one of the pedestrian streets of the ‘Vieille Ville.’ Many of Air Coop’s consultants are passionate about the outdoors, with walls adorned with old wooden skis and vintage backpacks. Every year, they organize the Outsiders Weekend festival, which attracts environmentalists from all over France.

Air Coop was founded to help create “a thriving community,” as its vision states. Benjamin and his colleagues have been and are involved in almost every sustainability initiative of the major outdoor companies in Annecy.

But Benjamin Marias realized a few years ago that he wanted to drive change more and faster. He got involved in the local citizen-environmental movement and its political party Révellions Annecy (Wake up Annecy). The party was very successful in the last election and since 2020 Benjamin Marias is deputy mayor of Annecy (and continues to work as a consultant one day a week).

“One issue we’ve really committed to – and achieved results – is making Annecy more bike-friendly and improving public transport. Today, Annecy is ranked as France’s fourth best cycling city and we decided in 2021 to invest €600 million in expanding the bus and tram system,” says Benjamin Marias.

Two other areas where Révellions Annecy has been successful are the decision to green Annecy by planting around 400 trees a year and investing in squares and playgrounds. And significantly increasing the share of renewable energy in heating in Annecy.

Conflicts of interest

On a sunny evening we take a run up Mont Veyrier on the eastern edge of the city. The path winds upwards in zigzags and the higher we get, the more beautiful the view of the lake, the city, and the surrounding mountains. At a break, however, Benjamin Marias points in another direction, towards the ski resort of La Clusaz. He explains that snow availability has become so poor in recent years that the lift company wants to build a large dam to collect water for artificial snow. To do so, they want to drain wetlands that are located in a Natura 2000 classified area with highly protected flora and fauna. This has led to widespread protests, including from the environmentalists of Extinction Rebellion who have chained themselves to tree houses in the threatened area.

Both as a politician and in helping Annecy’s outdoor businesses, Benjamin Marias wants to raise awareness: That which makes the city a great place is also under threat.

“Climate change is already affecting Annecy in several ways, and we have never had such a low water level in Lake Annecy as this past summer. Those of us who love the outdoors need to realize that nature is under pressure from all sides. How should we act to ensure that Annecy remains a great place for future generations?”

While we continue running on the winding trails at Mont Veyrier, I am thinking that it is not only Annecy that must “réveillons” – wake up. All towns and cities that wants to be prominent on the global outdoor map should ask themselves the same question – and answer to it.

Photos: Richard Bord

 

Gabriel Arthur
gabriel.arthur@norragency.com
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