Major Greenness at Outdoor Retailer Conference

outdoor retailer conference 001 Major Greenness at Outdoor Retailer Conference

<My only quandary after attending the Outdoor Retailer Conference is finding a way to capture the essence of the event in just a few paragraphs. The conference, which converged on Salt Lake City last month, represented the $289 billion dollar outdoor industry and featured major players like Patagonia and Timberland.

From the moment you entered, you could see that green was a major theme, beginning with the Green Steps Initiative, whereby companies could pay a $500-$2,500 premium on their booth to stand out from the crowds and display a green footprint in front of their booth that highlighted their environmental prowess. All net proceeds from these premiums would be used to buy wind credits to offset the environmental cost of the show. Here’s an additional green thought: maybe the show should offset its footprint in full anyway — from regular booth fees — simply as a cost of doing business. And maybe they could even discount prices for companies leading the way in environmental stewardship instead of charging them a premium? But overall, the intent is good, and I’m sure the program will continue to be refined and grow in participation with each show.

outdoor retailer conference 002 Major Greenness at Outdoor Retailer Conference

In any case, the message was clear that major attention needs to be paid to all stages of a product’s lifecycle with regards to its overall environmental impact. Throughout the space were posters, banners and personnel promoting various green, ecological and environmental initiatives versus the core brand. But of course, the devil is in the detail, and facts often lead to more questions: Just what is an environmentally-friendly fabric? And does it maintain the same level of performance? What about wool? Is it sustainable? And who’s monitoring all this?

I may not have the answers, but I can report the determination I saw in the faces of company bigwigs, consultants, press and interested parties at several eco-focused discussions. The outdoor industry is pulling together a multi-team panel to develop an eco-index to help make the complicated process of greener products more clear to the consumer. Not an easy task, for sure, but with visible commitment from trusted brands like REI, Timberland, New Balance, Levi’s, Go Lite, Merrell and others, resources and brain power shouldn’t be a barrier.

But while companies are heading in the right direction, I look forward to the day when environmentally forward products dominate the shelves and all companies believe in a multiple bottom line in which profitable favorites and green items are one and the same. And I believe this will happen. Meanwhile, there are a handful of companies who are already giving it their eco-all. And, in my opinion, they deserve a mention. (Hell, they deserve an award.)

Which brings me to the “Coolest Small Fry Soon To Be on the Heels of the Big Guys” award. This goes to Outdoor Retailer first-timer Merle O’Brien, whose one-woman enterprise has created a wonderful line of handbags from unused yoga mat scraps. Companies that make cool stuff from trash (like hers and Tom Szaky’s Terracycle) always make me smile.

The “So Right-On That Everyone Should Take Notes” award goes to Nau. These guys are trying to “change the world one biopolymer fabric at a time” and have custom developed 27 of the first 30 fabrics used in their launch lines. Extremely costly, I’m sure, but done out of their steadfast belief in staying away from environmentally hazardous materials. They’re creating products that will help us live longer on this planet. Which I believe is the only approach.

The “Kick Ass Footwear” award has to be shared, since green footwear is very prevalent these days (a North Face representative told me that green apparel “is starting from the ground up”). One of my favorites is Vibram Five Fingers. It took a few tries to get my foot into this barefoot enabling shell/shoe contraption, but my feet loved me for it. They say you can run a distance in these. I guess I’ll just have to find out.

With their cool, funky designs and use of latex, recycled car tires and hemp, Simple Shoes proves that eco-sneaks work. From a mere two styles at the time of their launch to their current 95% sustainable line, Simple Shoes is a good example of what can be achieved.

EnvironmentallyNeutralDesign (aka END) has a former Nike designer as a co-founder and green in its core. Their shoes blend style, design, performance and sustainability, and the company plans to report on their increased use of sustainable materials until 100% is achieved, thus reaching the END.

While scientists say we have five years to correct the environment, others say it’s already too late. We have the ability to make the change happen now. So, let’s (continue to) get it done.

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