I'm off to innov_ex this morning, an outdoors industry conference at Lancaster University Business School which is focussed on sustainability. It's always an interesting event with some fascinating insights both from inside the outdoors industry and from other fields.
In some ways it's all a bit overwhelming. Sustainability and eco-friendliness doesn't always lurk where you think, making waterproof jackets out of recycled cardboard might sound super eco-friendly, but if you produce them with a process which burns fossil fuels, exploits isolated tribes in the depths of the Amazonian basin and then uses colossal resources in packaging and shipping, things suddenly don't look quite so sustainable.
Slashing The Gordian Knot
So here's a brilliant bit of Gordian Knottery from remarkable performance clothing guru, Jane McCann. When the fella from Nike on his trans-Atlantic video link asked for any questions, Jane launched the thermo-nuclear missile of sustainability: 'Shouldn't we just make less stuff' she asked...
Genius. No matter how sustainable your products and processes are, they're never as sustainable as simply not making stuff in the first place. Full stop. Fact. Undeniably.
But of course, for the outdoors industry, there's an issue with that. It exists to make more stuff. New stuff. Better stuff. Stuff that you and I want to buy.
Things That Work Better
And there's a further driver. Innovation and performance. Not only does the industry want to make new stuff, so it can put food on the table, it also focusses on better stuff, better performance. Things that make your old stuff outmoded, so you feel you need new stuff...
As an example, I had a recent e-mail chat with innov_ex organiser and innovator Mike Parsons about bicycle frames. Mike, as you'd expect, was extolling the virtues of carbon fibre as a frame material because it's functionally brilliant. Can be manufactured to high standards and ultimately with superior or, at least, equal, performance to conventional metal frames.
Modern Cars Are Rubbish
But here's the thing. Not only do I dislike the look of carbon frames in the same way as I dislike modern cars with their identikit looks and bland feel and therefore choose to drive a Mk2 Golf GTi - as bonus, that's one less new car produced - but I like titanium and steel because ultimately it's easily repairable if it cracks. And repairable is sustainable. Not only that, I don't see the point in replacing a perfectly good steel frame with a carbon one.
And that means one less carbon frame with all the resources it's used. Sure, it may perform marginally better, but does that matter to me at my less than Olympic levels of cycling. And does that matter more than looking after the world we live in? Personally I reckon not.
And the same's true of outdoor kit and clothing. How many packs or jackets are upgraded not because they're genuinely worn out or broken or irrepairable, but simply because an outdoors industry and media - yes, we're included in that - tell you that you need the latest, bestest, more breathable fabric and advanced pack design?
How many jackets are thrown away not because they really leak, but because they haven't been properly maintained? The original factory DWR is worn out, but we simply, as an industry, don't focus enough on helping people to keep their kit working to optimum levels with proper care?
The good news is that the industry is working towards stuff like that. There's a great project called Explore RED - RED stands for Re-Use, Explore, Discover - aimed at reviving and re-using clothing, footwear and equipment once its primary user has had their use of it and upgraded - 'I wanted to know just how long outdoor gear could last and indeed how many people could benefit from such gear if it was given by its first owner to a ‘new owner’ and then again ‘passed on’.'
So there you go. It's both incredibly easy - make less stuff - and incredibly difficult to be sustainable as an industry which depends on making more stuff for its survival. But then again, that's the world we live in, the outdoors industry is just a small part of it, and until things change in a massive way on a world level, sustainability will continue to be the most sustainable story out there.
Innovation versus re-use. Performance improvements versus longevity and repairability. Capitalism versus the survival of the world and its resources.