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Greening Gear: Q & A with Eco-Friendly Outdoor Gear Leaders

Imagine eco-friendly equipment that offers superior performance to today's gear. The future is bright, but how do we get there? A BACKPACKER roundtable discussion.

Extra question directed at Kevin, Bill and Kim: Sustainable products have been commonly touted as green, eco-friendly, and low-impact—terms widely used to hawk everything from gas grills to shovels. Is the message being diluted? Does the movement need rebranding?

Kevin: Interesting question as I’ve never thought of it as something that requires a brand. I think that a big issue with the “movement” is that semantics and marketing have often gotten in the way of—rather than support—the message. For example… there is no such thing as a sustainable or eco-friendly product in the range of things that we offer. The most environmentally considered product is no product at all. So if everyone/thing starts from a negative, the goal is to work very hard to bring it back to zero (or lesser) impact. The term sustainable actually is a continuum reflecting degrees of compliance rather than an on/off attribute.

The challenge is that sustainability is immensely complex and in order to speak of impact one must understand impact. That is what the Eco Working Group (your question below) is working so very hard at doing. We have resisted—at every turn—to taking this work towards consumers at this time. Not because we don’t want to share the information and be transparent about our process, but because in a marketplace where there is money to be gained or lost, when you make the information specific to a product or brand the incentive to look good radically alters the process of purely learning about impact. Learning and understanding throughout the supply chain is what matters the most at this critical time.

How can/should the consumer be part of this process? I am not sure—but it is a huge undertaking. A big obstacle to having a frank conversation with consumers is that the message was co-opted early by those with not a lot of understanding on the issues. This is not always because they were trying to be deceptive—it is because the understanding on environmental impact is/was not universal. So, I think what the consumer needs the most right now is transparency. The Federal Trade Commission has issued—just two weeks ago—updates and new rulings to their Green Guides and I think this is actually a very good thing. Essentially what they say is that no unsubstantiated claims of “green”. This could be one of the most significant turn of events that underscores the importance and value of the work of the Eco Working Group. The EWG is working directly on tools of understanding and substantiation.

Bill: “Green” may be over used, but I think in general it’s good. I think the issue is that the mass consumer truly doesn’t care, so businesses themselves need to go green. It’s OK if “eco-friendly”, “green”, “low-impact”, and “sustainability” are all becoming “marketing” terms. The USDA’s “organic” certification is more popular than ever. Have people taken advantage of it? Yes. But has the “organic” label helped to clean up some farming practices? Yes.

Does the movement need rebranding? If we re-brand it I think it will become another micro-group with an elitist feel. The Outdoor Industry has remained true to the cause.

Kim: What you’re getting at is a much larger issue that is plaguing all industries, not just the outdoor industry, and that is a lack of common language and standards around what constitutes a “green” or sustainable product, and yes, as a result the message is being diluted. As a result, we are all as brands struggling to say things about our products that are meaningful, true, and that consumers can understand. The movement doesn’t need rebranding so much as it needs commonly agreed-on and commonly-understood terms and statistics, in the same way that we all now understand food labels such as calories, protein, and fat.

That’s why the work of the OIA Eco-Working Group is so vital to the future of our industry: it is using open source collaboration between brands to devise language and standards that we can all agree on and that will eventually filter their way out to consumers in ways that consumers can understand. Governments will also eventually also step in with more specific guidelines on how to describe the green-ness of products.

We already have some specific guidelines from the FTC called the “Green Guides” around how to best and most accurately describe green claims to consumers. Every month that passes, these standards are getting clearer and more broadly understood by manufacturers. Without such standards and language, we’re all just making claims that can’t be easily verified or understood by consumers. What does “eco-friendly” mean anyway? We’re unfortunately a few years away from having such standards and language out there for consumers.

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