Did you take part in ‘Takeback Tuesday’ this week?  Royal Mail dubbed Takeback Tuesday the day when people go back to work and take unwanted packages into a Post Office for return to the retailer.  It’s estimated that 15-20% of goods bought online are returned, worth £2.5bn in the pre-Christmas shopping frenzy.

What’s this got to do with the outdoors industry, you may be asking?  While it’s true that high street fashion is probably driving this growing trend, my own experience in buying a new mountain jacket suggest that the outdoor industry is subject to the same cost pressures and retail trends as the rest of the retail sector.  I think this begs important questions about the outdoor industry’s sustainability and environmental credentials.

A sustainable model?

Back in the olden days (let’s call this the 1970s/80s), things were much simpler.  There was much less competition between manufacturers and this tended to be overwhelmingly domestic (ie competition within the UK).  The innovation cycle was measured in months and years, and manufacturers tended to produce a limited range of ‘standard’ products which were tweaked every year or two.  Manufacturers made stuff and shipped it to high street shops, who sold it with a reasonable mark-up to customers.

Nowadays, with the advent of online channels, competition is global and the barriers to entry for new competitors are far lower.  Global shipping costs account for a relatively minor share of total production costs, with materials and labour far more significant.  Manufacturing is globally distributed, with much outdoor gear current produced in Asia (with all the water consumption and transport emissions that entails).  Retailers blend ‘bricks and mortar’ with online marketing, sales and distribution, and web-savvy customers know how to get the best deal using a combination of traditional shops and online methods.

With this stiffer competition has come both the mushrooming of customer choice (as manufacturers try to differentiate themselves) as well as the acceleration of the innovation cycle (as new materials, designs and so on are rapidly prototyped).  The North Face and increasingly Rab, Jack Wolfskin and others are arguably becoming fashion brands, subject to the multiple product changes demanded of retailers each season.  Outdoor magazines (and let’s not forget bloggers) are used by manufacturers to push their latest gear, promoting it as the latest must-have purchase.

It’s a model that feeds excessive consumption.  And a pretty complicated one at that.

All this complexity adds additional ‘cost’ – to manufacturers, retailers as well as to the planet.  Satisfying online orders costs extra compared with distribution via high street shops, given each product needs to be labelled and packaged individually before armies of white vans deliver them up your driveway.  Any returns incur an additional cost in transportation and postage as well as the labour involved in repackaging the product before it can go back out on sale.

 

A case study – Buying a new mountain jacket

My recent experience in buying a new mountain jacket illustrates well some of the issues around choice and sustainability.  Having done my research online I narrowed my selection down to three all-season jackets, the Alpkit Definition, the Arcteryx Beta and the Mountain Equipment Lhotse.  These are all ‘technical’ jackets designed to withstand winter mountain conditions in the UK, selling for between £230 – £370 full price.  (After 15 years, the seams in my old Mountain Equipment Lhotse have started to come apart and it’s now no longer fully waterproof).

However, the three jackets were only available to buy from three different retailers which presented an issue in making an accurate comparison.  I travelled to Edinburgh and Stirling to try on the Arcteryx and Mountain Equipment jackets before discounting the Arcteryx owing to it being a poorer fit.  I needed to actually buy the Alpkit Definition online given their nearest store is a 200 mile+ round trip away in the Lake District, confident that they have a very respectable free 123 day returns policy.  That meant I could physically compare the Alpkit and Mountain Equipment jackets in my local Cotswold store in Stirling.  I ended up selecting the Mountain Equipment jacket but ordered it in a different colour to the only example they had in stock.  It took five days to pick it up using their ‘click and collect’ process and in the meantime, I returned and received a full refund from Alpkit.

All a bit of a faff, to be honest.  For me, the whole manufacturing, sales and distribution process poses some serious questions about choice and sustainability.

 

Who’s serving who?

First, who’s asking for so much customer choice?  The Arcteryx website is currently selling six different versions of their Beta jacket (all-round, lightweight, superlight, durable …) in a wide range of colours and sizes across the range.  By my calculations there are around 150 permutations available of the same jacket.  As it turned out, Tiso in Edinburgh only stocked one version and not the superlight version I was most interested in.  Retailers seem to have a deliberate policy of only stocking a very limited range (presumably given the cost of backroom storage) and rely on being able to order other products in.  So why do some manufacturers go overboard?

In contrast, Alpkit produce their Definition jacket in just four colours and five sizes from S to XXL.  Mountain Equipment are the same with the Lhotse: four colours and five sizes.  I essentially bought the same jacket 15 years later with lighter materials, improved performance and similar features.  It seems to me both companies know their market and rely on in-depth market research rather than wasting money on over-complex manufacturing processes and unnecessary costs of product returns.  My over-riding concern is function, not fashion.  I’m not interested in the 2019 colour or design variations.  Just sell me a jacket that does the job effectively.

Secondly, when manufacturers are eager to display their green credentials, have they really through through the process from a customer’s perspective?  I can research functions and features online so what I really want is to check the fit of a jacket and to compare rival products before I part with a significant pile of cash.  So when it comes to the buying process, having to transport products or (worse) me around different cities is great for distribution companies but not so good for emissions, congestion and retailers’ profits.  I’d much prefer to go into a single shop rather than organise the  logistics across three separate retailers – or a cluster of adjacent outdoor shops, with Aviemore the best example I can think of.

My perception of manufacturer’s and retailers’ green credentials will be improved if I know that they’re focusing on a limited range of tried-and-tested products rather than contributing to over-consumption by marketing ‘this year’s model’.  While stocking the full range in every size/colour combination might be prohibitive, a ‘click and collect’ model is more sustainable than a home delivery approach that simply serves to employ more ‘white van men’ (and women). I would be much more likely to buy from a particular retailer if they demonstrate circular thinking and operate a product re-use scheme (such as Gift your Gear) to allow outdoor gear to have ‘second life’ with another owner.

Reasons to be cheerful

Some manufacturers and retailers are making a good effort to address these issues – Cotswold Outdoor and Alpkit are good examples – but more can still be done across the outdoor industry as a whole.  There’s been a focus on material sustainability in recent years (such as ethical down, PFC treatments and microplastics) but cradle-to-cradle thinking demands a much broader approach that includes choice editing and logistics.  Outdoors enthusiasts are (or should be) inherently environmentally conscious, so they should be driving improvements as much as manufacturers and retailers.

We can ill afford ‘fast fashion’ when it comes to outdoor gear, so please let’s have a wider debate about what good practice looks like for the industry.

 

3 Comments on “Outdoor gear – Some thoughts on customer choice and industry sustainability

  1. I’m totally with you on the overwhelming amount of choices in color and style for jackets! If everything was just plain black making a decision would be a lot easier. Your points about packaging and delivery are valid issues too and with Amazon business skyrocketing we should definitely start thinking about environmentally friendly ways to send packages.

  2. I think you have some great points! Didn’t they used to do special orders through mail order catalogs though? Pre internet days and pre mall days? I wonder how they dealt with this (albeit on a smaller scale).

    • Hi there, my own perception is that there was much less choice in the past compared with today’s market, and competition was much less. Back then manufacturers tended to be more local/domestic but I think you’re right that new products could be customised to order and defective products much more easily repaired by simply sending it back to the factory. I think this was viewed as personalised ‘service’ – and it’s sadly a rare company today who can afford individualised service. A generalisation perhaps, but my perception.

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