By Lou Dzierzak

At the 2007 Outdoor Retailer Winter Market show, the Outdoor Industry Association launched the Eco Working Group as a formal response to the outdoor industry’s interest in addressing the environmental impact of products manufactured for outdoor recreation. The group’s mission and vision statement were later introduced at the 2007 Outdoor Retailer Summer Market show.

At present, there are 31 voting members and more than 100 companies involved in the initiative. Ninety people from 50 companies attended a recent meeting in Boulder, CO.

Creating an environmentally friendly marketplace is a daunting task for any organization. Marshalling the unique business interests of brands that compete head-to-head on an outdoor specialty retailer’s shelves may leave people thinking the initiative is more of a superficial treatment than a paradigm shift.

Kristine Carey, Sierra Designs brand manager, is first vice chair of  the Eco Working Group and also chairs the apparel work group. She does not believe that competitive issues have hampered progress.

“What we’ve tried to do with the working group is not make it about competitive advantage, but part of what this industry is about,” says Carey. “We should all be collaborating and moving the sustainability project forward. We’ve had a lot of people creating the framework that are truly competitors like Nike, MEC, Timberland, NAU and Patagonia. Ultimately, we are not giving away trade secrets, but moving forward on how we can collaborate to help our suppliers and product designers look at all the different elements of the value chain where we can make a difference and change for the future.”

Eco Working Group chair Kevin Myrette of REI adds, “From the get-go it was critical to establish this as a collaborative effort. Companies that have come to the table are absolutely adopting that perspective. We are realistic in how huge of a task this is. But we are really clear that if we don’t take on this effort, the alternative to not doing it is way more unattractive. The important thing is we are building the organization and structure recognizing we are in a multi-year process. We’ve built a very good solid organization. That’s helped us make some enormous progress in the last six months.”

The group’s current task is creating a comprehensive framework that will identify what, and how, to measure in the shift to more sustainable business practices. The OIA Eco Working Group glossary defines the framework as “a basic conceptual structure used to solve or address complex issues. A conceptual framework is used in research to outline possible courses of action or to present a preferred approach to an idea or thought.”

Myrette explains how the framework will influence future discussions and the way the Eco Working Group’s work will be evaluated: “We’re not competing on the way to talk about sustainable. We should compete on being sustainable. Once we have the framework and platform in place, we should compete like crazy to make our products less impactful. The beauty of that is it becomes a win-win-win. The organization wins, the consumers win because they get better sustainable products, and the planet wins because we are doing things right.”

As thought-provoking as the creation of the framework sounds, the group has also moved quickly in some areas, agreeing to adopt packaging guidelines and working with REI to adapt the company’s existing standard across a broader scale.

Like REI’s packaging contributions, every member of the group has something to offer.

Myrette says, “The wealth of knowledge in the room is overwhelming. The beauty is there are people bringing in things that complement each other. The ability to debate issues is enhanced because people bring different perspectives.”

Carey points out that while some members are sharing past experiences, many are learning how to influence the future. “There are many different levels of experience and knowledge on this working committee,” she observes. “There are people who don’t have a lot of experience in anything sustainable and that’s why they are here. They want to learn and want to help their companies move forward. It’s a three-pronged approach that involves the person, the company and the industry.”

When the industry gathers at ORSM this month, the Eco Working Group will continue the discussion and debate, looking for common ground to create a framework for environmental sustainability.
“We’re mindful of the fact that the outdoor industry is a collection of companies of all sizes. It’s very important that as we incubate and build this set of tools and mechanisms to reduce our environmental impact, it works for the big companies and small companies and all the companies in between,” says Myrette. “Ultimately, it needs to be a success for the entire industry.”

Carey adds, “This is something that changes our industry and changes the world in how things are built. There will be other industries behind us that will look to us as a benchmark down the road.”

Myrette notes that Sally Jewell, REI’s CEO, calls sustainability a ‘team sport.’ “That embodies what we are doing,” he says.