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Outdoor Brands Grapple with Limited Consumer Interest in Environmental Efforts

Companies across the board are doing more than ever to address their environmental impact, and for exhibitors at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, the mission has proven personal.

Many brands across the showroom floor were built upon the tenets of environmental stewardship and appreciation, making those issues as much a part of their brand identity as the products they now provide.

Apparel

“At this convention center, if you look left and right, you’re surrounded by brands that are talking about this,” said a representative for Fjallraven.

But whether these trade show or even boardroom discussions trickle down to the consumer is another issue altogether.

As sustainability and circularity become mantras across outdoor retail as a whole, the category still struggles to address a disconnect with the shoppers who purchase their products.

When asked about how sustainability stacks up as a factor in marketing, he explained, “There are studies out there that show that it’s not really a decision making factor for consumers, and that’s the hard thing—it comes in much lower on the list.”

The brand’s representative went on to opine that the issue is a polarizing one—even though sustainable, environmentally-friendly practices seem like common sense. “Some people are in favor of environmental issues, and some people don’t think as much about it. They live in the moment and don’t think deeply about the future,” he said.

“As humans, we don’t have a long life span and we’re not going to be around to see those changes that impact the people who are coming behind us.”

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Living in the moment is an admirable philosophy when it comes to adventure and exploration, but for those whose work centers around building an infrastructure to address problems like climate change, water waste, carbon emissions and more, the issues feel all-consuming.

Swedish-born Fjallraven is known for trekking gear like backpacks, jackets and clothing, crafted from recycled polyesters and wools, along with organic cottons.

Pulling scraps from previous production runs has allowed the brand to reduce its footprint and use fewer new, raw materials. And, there’s a special focus on repair and re-use. Fjallraven offers a limited lifetime warranty on its products should seams split or buttons fall off, ensuring that products last.

The brand’s website also highlights its upstream sustainability efforts, like revamped production processes and relationships with leading environmental organizations like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

“Our mission is to tell people our story, so that they can utilize it to make their decision if they want to. I think more people are starting to grasp the importance, even though it’s a slow curve,” said the brand rep, who admitted that many consumers flock to the brand based on style alone.

“We’re talking about it, shining light on it, and getting the word out so that people can use it as a decision making tool.”

Footwear

On the footwear side, environmental specialists at Keen are equally dubious about the modern consumer’s interest in—or understanding of—sustainable brand practices.

“I’m going to say that Pareto’s law of 80-20 applies, here. I would say that 80 percent of consumers out there are not so conscious about this subject,” said Kirk Richardson, the brand’s sustainability expert.

And the 20 percent who do want to know more want to be treated with kid gloves, said Chris Enlow, Keen’s corporate responsibility director. “The granularity of the details of what goes on behind the scenes— there’s a real small percentage of people who want to hear about that,” he explained.

“I’d like to get nitty gritty, but we only have 4-6 words that we can fit into a marketing claim, and 12-15 seconds to capture their attention—if that,” Enlow continued.

Richardson credits the complexity of the work as a reason for brands’ reticence to broach environmental issues with consumers.

“When you get into something as tricky as water conservation connected to tanning leather, it gets really complicated, really fast,” he said.

“You almost need a PhD or a master’s degree in chemistry to start to unravel what the impacts to the environment, human health and worker safety are. It requires time, which is a precious commodity. Not a lot of people have the desire or the freedom to dig into it.”

For shoppers who are just looking for the right pair of boots to support a weekend excursion, a lecture on water waste is not on the agenda. But using “simple, broad brush strokes,” is Keen’s objective for keeping conscious consumers engaged and aware of the brand’s substantial efforts to streamline its supply chain.

One of those strokes is a suite of new point-of-purchase marketing materials that highlight the brand’s upstream advancements.

A key initiative for Keen is cleaning up the waterways surrounding its tanneries (all of which are Leather Working Group-certified). To illustrate the benefits of environmentally preferred leathers, the brand is bringing representations of the affected water to its retail distributors.

Of the display, which hits stores this year, Enlow said, “It’s highly visual. It shows you a dirty jar that looks like Guinness Stout, all the way to a clear substance that looks like Finlandia Vodka.”

The cleanest depiction, of course, represents the water that now flows out of Keen’s partner tanneries, versus the affected water that used to contaminate surrounding waterways.

Enlow said that even though brands like his are having trouble connecting with consumers directly on issues like sustainability and circularity, his hope is bolstered by retailers demanding change.

“There are almost a dozen retailers who want more information, who want to associate environmental values with the product on the shelves,” he said, naming retailers across the Americas and Europe like REI, Zalando, Globetrotter, Mountain Equipment Co-op and Schuster, who have pushed brands to examine their environmental standards.

“I can imagine in the future, them being able to say, ‘All the shoes here are made from recycled content,’ or ‘All the shoes here don’t have PFCs,’” said Enlow of the retailers’ motivations.

A bright spot for brands like Keen and the retailers that sell their products is that the upcoming group of consumers, Gen Z, has developed a deep social and environmental consciousness that will someday match their wallet share.

“As you get younger in demographics from X’s to millennials to Z’s, the notion of buying products from brands that have a stance on the environment becomes increasingly important,” said Ash Williams, Keen’s head of global marketing. He believes that Gen Z consumers will refuse to do business with brands who don’t match good intentions with action.

Still, the majority of Keen’s current consumers are older—Boomers, Gen X-ers, and some millennials.

“Do we talk to Gen Z right now? Some, maybe. It takes a shift—an oil tanker shift, not a quick shift. You have to have the product and the distribution to support that younger demographic,” said Williams.

Still, Richardson believes that Keen’s values are in line with what younger consumers are looking for, and he thinks the company is prepared to deliver.

“We know deeply that authenticity for this generation is paramount, and that being safe and trusted and believable is important to them,” he said.

“They’re inquisitive. They want to know that they can trust that claims are real. And that their values are being respected in the ways that we go about building product, marketing and presenting ourselves publicly.”

Expert analysis

Having helped lead Nike’s sustainability efforts and worked with brands and environmental organizations across the board for nearly two decades, sustainability consultant Michael Sadowski has definitive views on whether consumers are interested in the issues brands are facing.

While companies have experts who are doing the critical work to understand complex problems like climate change, Sadowski said that those efforts don’t often translate to consumer engagement.

“Having this robust understanding does not mean companies should then share the details with consumers,” he asserted, citing a number of reasons, like “information overload, declining scientific literacy” and “the political polarization of certain sustainability topics.”

“Many consumers don’t have the capacity to go deep on the issues,” he said.

Still, those same consumers have lofty expectations of brands and retailers, who they believe should be at the forefront of innovation when it comes to sustainability.

“They do expect their favorite brands to be on top of such issues. And, consumers want to feel like they are making difference by supporting them,” Sadowski said.

Some issues resonate more deeply with consumers than others, he explained.

Typically, complicated supply chain problems like water contamination or carbon emissions fall flat with the public, while more outward-facing issues like material innovation inspire interest and loyalty.

That’s one reason that Adidas’ Parley for the Oceans campaign has found such measurable success, Sadowski implied.

“Certain issues like ocean plastics seem to resonate more with consumers than an issue like climate change,” he said, adding that it’s easy for individuals to grasp how they themselves could reduce plastic waste. On the flip side, it’s much harder for consumers to mentally grapple with a complex issue like climate change.

And with brands working on highly scientific and nuanced solutions to these problems, there’s a natural disconnect that occurs between supply chain and shopper. Until consumers find themselves entrenched in these issues in real, daily life, brand efforts may continue to fall on deaf ears.