An excerpt transcribed with permission from National Geographic's "Outdoor Retail Solutions Take on Global Problems." Read full article.
At its heart, the outdoor retail industry is a world of solutions for survival.
Their client is a backpacker who plans to live remotely in the Alaskan Chugach Wilderness for two weeks and needs a stove that burns on minimal fuel, light unrefrigerated food packed with calories, and clean drinking water.
Another customer is a kayaker on the Grand Canyon who is traveling for three weeks and needs to charge a cell phone without access to electricity, to send a message home when there is no phone reception, and to use dependable gear that can make the journey.
But what about a villager in rural Bihar, India who needs access to clean water, a food refrigeration system, electricity, phone reception, and a clean cooking stove that doesn’t produce household air pollution?
Emerging markets in Asia, Africa, and South America are ripe for basic living solutions and their populations of customers are far greater than the number of backpackers and kayakers in North America and Europe. Over 4.3 million people a year die from illnesses related to household air pollution caused by dirty cooking stoves, and over 2.2 million people a year die from illnesses attributed to unsanitary water.
With solutions in hand, a few companies in the outdoor industry are paying attention to these statistics and rising to the challenge of meeting global needs.
So where are they?
The main floor of the 2014 OR (Outdoor Retailer) Summer Market show in Salt Lake City is a pulsing grid of commerce that has been the premiere exhibition of outdoor gear and clothing for more than 15 years. It is four days of handshakes, gear demos, and streams of people shuffling through florescent-lit aisles of brightly colored apparel. Hovering above the main floor are suspended banners of brand names everyone has heard of, promoting exploration, innovation, discovery, and fulfillment through their backpacks, raincoats, and camping stoves.
Adventurers who wander beyond past the main attractions into the pavilion will find the booths of upstart new brands. At these booths, the trends in gear are solar electricity, clean energy designs, biodegradable packaging, and cause-focused products funded by Kickstarter and good ideas. For these companies, the bottom-line is measured by more than just a profit, but by global impact as well.
Here is an introduction to some of the newer brands at OR and how they are approaching global problems with their outdoor solutions.
BioLite: In 2006, BioLite founders Alexander Drummond and Jonathan Cedar identified a problem - most of the world cooks with wood-burning stoves that cause deforestation and fatal illnesses associated with indoor black carbon emissions. BioLite also noticed that people worldwide are cooking in the dark. So they invented a solution, a clean wood-burning stove that not only cuts wood consumption by more than half, but it also reduces smoke by 95%. And their stoves generate enough electricity to charge a phone and an LED light. The stove uses thermal heat to power a fan that makes the fire ultra-efficient and produces extra electricity to give the whole situation a bit more light. They sell a variety of products fueled by this technology, such as a light BioLite CampStove: a stove the size of a one-liter water bottle that charges an iPhone and burns the small amount of debris a hiker collects from the trail. Profits from the CampStove retail subsidizes low-cost sales of the BioLite Homestove to emerging markets in Asia, South America, and Africa.
GoSun: GoSun is out to prove to the world that all you need is sun. Founder Patrick Shirwin is a solar design veteran and 14 years ago he started cooking hotdogs in the empty cylinder tube conventionally used for heating water with the sun. What he discovered was that these “evacuated solar tubes” can be used to boil clean water, cook a meal, and maintain thermos-like insulated heat all day long. The GoSun Stove is for campers and outdoor enthusiasts, but it’s also finding its market in Guatemala. Shirwin believes, “it’s the foot in the door for an all-solar livelihood. My goal is that in the next 10 years, I want to prove that we can power our entire life through the sun.”
Lifestraw: Most outdoor retailer innovations start by marketing to the outdoor enthusiast to generate a profit, and then move to the developing world, not Lifestraw. Produced by Swiss company Vestergaard, Lifestraw has been distributed at nearly every natural disaster worldwide since 2005, and only in the past few years has it been released to the outdoor community in North America. TheLifestraw is a battery-free personal water filter in a portable tube form designed to give the user safe, clean, drinking water in any situation. Vestergaard calls its work “humanitarian entrepreneurship,” meaning doing good is good business.
SunBell: Hailing from Norway, Kristian Bye is set on designing the “Swiss army knife” of the solar charger world. He saw that people from low income and rural communities need access to sustainable and user-friendly electricity. He found that while there are actually many low cost new innovations being pushed on the developing world, far too often they break or are awkward to use, and as a result, people are becoming weary of new technology. So he designed the SunBell, a solar charged lamp that can be worn and used at least 10 different ways that also charges small electronic devices. His product is widely popular with midwives who need to work hands-free in the dark as well as backcountry campers.
goTenna: goTenna has been on the market for about three weeks, and it is already one of the top outdoor gear innovations for disasters and the remote backcountry. AgoTenna is a small device that allows you to use your smartphone to send and receive messages and share your GPS location with others even when you don’t have service. It’s the size of a finger and it works anywhere by using long-range radio waves (151-154 MHz) to transmit basic messages, even when a phone is in airplane mode. Founder Daniela Perdomo came up with the idea during Hurricane Sandy when everyone’s cell phones stopped working when cell towers were down, but the transistor radio played on. goTenna’s device isn’t looking at the developing world yet, but as a direct invention of climate change and natural disasters, it is only a matter of time before it moves well beyond the hands of backpackers and travelers.
GEAR & FOOD
Cotopaxi: Cotopaxi is a three-month-old gear for good company rooted in guerilla marketing, transparent production, and remarkable stories from around the world. At every stage of his business model, founder David Smith is out to do something different. Each gear item (backpack, water bottle, or item of clothing) is directly connected to the story of a charity working on a humanitarian cause that has personal connections to Smith’s experiences living abroad and to his customers. Each gear item can also be traced transparently back to a specific production facility with full disclosure of working conditions and pay. And perhaps most interestingly, Cotopaxi is a direct-to-consumer sale model that uses 24-hour adventure races called Questival that have a social component to market and sell their products. In the most recent Questival (April 2014), over 5,000 people participated in flash mobs that picked up trash, volunteer time in a soup kitchen, or hiking up a mountain. The top three winners won service trips to destinations across the globe.
Klean Kanteen: Of all the companies on the main floor of OR, no one is changing the conversation around single use products like Klean Kanteen. Their product is simple: a clean, stylish, cool, hardy, BPA-free, reusable stainless steal container. It could be a thermos, a happy hour glass, a tumbler, or a bottle. But more than their product, which reduces waste, provides a healthier consumer experience, and fuels lively happy hour conversations around single-use products, Klean Kanteen prides itself on being a cause-focused company that also just happens to make a useful product. Rather than a one-for-one cause marketing model (one glass of clean water to an underprivileged child for one item sold), Klean Kanteen commits one percent of all of annual sales towards non-profits working to rid the ocean of plastic, remove dams, or educate youth on the environment. In everything they do, they strive for a healthier environment and a healthier business.
Oru Kayak: Too often our favorite gear that we use to enjoy the great outdoors - our tents, our packs, and our kayaks - are made with petroleum and end up in a garbage dump. Oru Kayak is dedicated to reducing waste with a product you can’t help but love. It’s a made-in-America origami kayak constructed with 100% recyclable materials that use 70% less petroleum than a standard kayak. And by making their kayaks even easier to transport on a plane than a bike, it’s making portable water transportation a viable option.
Justin’s: Justin’s all natural nut butters are a common household name. But their social and sustainability model is quite unusual. Justin’s has worked hard to develop a food product that is organic, non-GMO, and all-natural locally sourced. But they recognize that for far too long, the food industry has focused on the product and not the packaging. Justin’s is working on shifting their signature squeeze packaging from petroleum based materials to a 100% renewably sourced film barrier that is compostable and will change the way we package food. In addition to tackling issues of ethical food sourcing and packaging, Justin’s also goes the distance to work locally with low-income communities. Founder Justin Gold explains that eight out of the 10 poorest counties in the United States are Native American, so Justin’s has begun working with one of them – the Pine Ridge Indigenous community – to support skills development and help youth revive their historic language and culture.
For the outdoor enthusiast, the main floor of OR can feel crushing. There is waste, poor packaging, and too many single use products that won’t be recycled or repurposed. There is also a growing trend of green-washing, one-for-one business models that use “social good” as a marketing device, and in the process, create dependency in emerging economies. In general, industries are slow to respond to a consumer that wants to feel good about what they buy and this can be frustrating. But new companies are building their models around a cause, a mission, or an innovation that seeks to do things a bit better, and they are pushing the industry standard in the process.
The outdoor industry has the survival solutions for more healthy, environmental, and ethical products. And even if they are on the fringe right now, these companies are poised to make global solutions mainstream.