I follow the outdoor industry closely, visiting trade fairs, and reading relevant blogs and mags. A gear shop owner, I care about the direction this industry is heading. Lately, I have been concerned with some market trends, that I would like to discuss here.
“Speed to market”
Today, the time needed to reach consumers with new products determines the success or failure of a company. “Speed to market” is the credo of all businesses. In order to reach maximum speed, companies cut on research and development. Only large corporations invest in new technologies while the rest use ready-made materials, or copy what’s already been invented. Brands are incorporating Gore-Tex and eVent in garments, much as Vibram soles often decorate outdoor boots. Asked “Why not your own membranes and soles?”, producers answer the question with the logical “Because Gore-Tex and Vibram are what the market wants”.
The big ones
The Vibram sole was invented in 1937 in Italy. Backed by the auto-tyre giant Pirelly, it quickly became a leader in boot sole production. 16 years earlier, in 1921, a german craftsman, Hans Wagner, started manufacturing quality boots and soles equal in quality to Vibram. Today, Hanwag is pushed into using Vibram soles in many of its models. I believe the consumer is responsible for this predicament. Looking for the yellow label under the boot, consumers increase cost of products, without necessarily getting better quality.
Similar story can be seen in outdoor clothing. Today, over 120 brands use W.L.Gore fabrics in their garments. In order to grant usage of its membranes, Gore meticulously regulates the manufacturing process and even controls the size of its logo on items. The “Guaranteed to keep you dry” promise lures outdoor enthusiast to buy online without even trying the products. Brands that opt not to use Gore, often end up buying similar (maybe less expensive) fabrics (eVent, Scotchguard, Nanotex, etc.). You will rarely find a brand that applies own experience and know-how in outdoor apparel production.
Of course, one can hardly argue the benefits of waterproof membranes and DWR treatments in regards to hypothermia prevention and lifesaving in harsh environments. Membranes and DWR coatings are the most effective way to keep water out of garments and boots (if breathability is to be ensured). But how many garments and boots really need such robust waterproofness?
The uniformity in outdoor clothing is growing. Brands are reduced in their creativity to selection of colors and sizes. Yet, there are of course leaders and followers in this homogenous market. Companies like Norrona and Arcteryx set the trends, while many others rush to copy their collections in the following seasons.
“Facelift is just around the corner”
This brings us to the controversy: every product we buy is in many ways similar to other models. What is worse, a product is obsolete at the time of purchase – the new Norrona catalogue makes it look “so yesterday”. This is a situation known from the technology and automotive industries – the facelift is just around the corner and we are engaged in a constant race to buy the newest model.
What happened to Chouinard’s (Patagonia) and Tompkins’ (North Face) vision? Advocates of sustainability, they cared about the outdoor community and nature. It is nice to see Patagonia still trying to sustain good practice with their “Common threads” initiative. But isn’t this initiative serving some impeccable marketing plan more than the people and nature?
As of today, Patagonia and North Face are among the largest users of Gore-Tex products in their lineups. Patagonia uses the membrane in 38 products, North Face in 92 (source:http://www.gore-tex.com/brands/). Each of these products is produced in large quantities, while the carbon footprint related to global production is substantial. I am not going to preach about the hazardous properties of the PFC agents used in these productions. If interested in the topic, you can find a short description here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfluorinated_compound#Environmental_and_health_concerns
The different brands
The silver-lining to this story follows: Not all are blind to what is happening in the industry. There are still sensible CEOs who refuse to follow trends. Their brands are built on decades of experience and serious know-how. Customers appreciate the durability and sustainability of their products.
Fjällräven (Sweden, since 1937), Hestra (Sweden, since 1936), Aclima (Norway, since 1939), Hanwag (Germany, since 1921) – some of the brands we found in our crusade for function, durability, and sustainability. It has been hard to sell these brands on the Bulgarian market until now. Maybe lack of customer maturity is to blame, or simply low income. But our market is changing. The customer is more knowledgable and more responsible. Bulgarian outdoor enthusiasts travel abroad and bring the wind of change every time they land on Sofia airport. I believe that people need and will continue to look for durable, functional products, made from sustainable materials, by socially responsible brands.
Life is outdoors. Enjoy it.
Roumen | Skisharki
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