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New State of the Outdoor Sector Report Shows Steps Forward for Sustainability

Each year, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) uses the Outdoor Retailer show as a platform from which to inspire industry members to play a bigger role in sustainability, land management and natural resource preservation. For more than a decade, OIA’s members have been collectively tackling supply chain issues important to the industry, including chemicals management, animal welfare, social responsibility, fair labor practices in factories, microfiber shedding in oceans and waterways, and carbon reduction strategies.

Taking that collective industry responsibility a step further, the association is now asking companies to get together and measure how well their products and supply chains are advancing the protection of the earth, its people and resources.

Concurrent with last week’s Outdoor Retailer Summer Market show, the OIA released its first-ever State of Sustainability in the Outdoor Industry report, the results of a survey of more than 100 companies in sector to quantify and benchmark the industry’s efforts to reduce the environmental impacts of its products and processes and provide guidance for future initiatives.

“The outdoor industry has done a fantastic job flexing the muscles of the $887 billion outdoor recreation economy to protect our public lands; now it’s time to showcase how we have led on another core effort that directly connects to environmental conservationproduct and supply chain responsibility,” said Beth Jensen, senior director of sustainable business innovation at OIA.

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Regardless of company size, those in the outdoor industry have proven their dedication to less impactful products and processes. Seventy-five percent of those surveyed said there’s at least one person in their company who’s personally responsible for sustainability efforts. But more than that, some of these companies are attracting employees dedicated to the cause of sustainability because they’re creating lower impact workplaces. Eighty-five percent of the companies surveyed have built-in waste reduction efforts, 59 percent are working on conserving energy and 51 percent offer incentives for staff who bike or walk to work.

What may perhaps be of greatest note for companies still unsure about whether consumers will agree to pay more for sustainable products, OIA cited a Nielsen study that found 72 percent of Gen Z respondents are willing to pay more for products from companies that are committed to their social and environmental impacts.

The report indicates that companies of all sizes prioritize materials and design as well as product use and end-of-life strategies. For small companies, packaging was prioritized, likely because this is a highly visible area in which relatively quick wins and cost savings can be seen. Midsize companies identified manufacturing as a key priority, which indicates that they are recognizing the increased impacts of their manufacturing practices. And for large companies, chemicals management–a more complex, advanced area often managed by dedicated staff members–was highly ranked.

As much as 91 percent of apparel’s impact on the climate happens in the raw materials as they pass through the dyeing and finishing stages. For footwear, 77 percent of the impact happens there. As such, OIA pointed out, “A sustainable materials and product program is key to addressing the largest impacts.”

Outdoor companies surveyed outlined their four main priorities when it comes to sustainability at the product level: design and materials (69 percent), product use and end-of-life (39 percent), chemicals management (33 percent) and manufacturing (33 percent).

When looking at carbon emissions, just 25 percent of companies have formally set carbon reduction goals, but according to the report, 63 percent are taking steps to invest in renewable energy, and 35 percent are participating in a carbon-offsetting program to help lessen their emissions.

Eighty-seven percent of those surveyed said they use the Higg Index—a suite of tools that helps brands, factories and retailers measure and score their company’s (or product’s) sustainability performance—to guide internal sustainability conversations or benchmarking efforts. Fifty-two percent believe they’ve benefited from improved brand perception thanks to the Higg Index.

Outdoor companies are particularly motivated to implement sustainability practices because they believe the outdoor industry has a role to play in environmental and community stewardship.

“REI was founded upon a love of the outdoors and the pursuit of a better way of doing business,” said Matt Thurston, director of sustainability, brand stewardship, and impact for REI. “Today, we continue that model by working with our brand partners to advance more sustainable business practices. The OIA State of Sustainability in the Outdoor Industry report will help us gauge progress across the industry and engage partners around the most relevant advances in sustainability practices.”