Outdoor Market’s Biggest Failure: Inability to Communicate Sustainability

Sustainability is a critically important pillar of the outdoor industry. And yet, it has trouble communicating eco-friendly messaging to its consumers.

Last week during the Outdoor Retailer winter trade show in Denver, The NPD Group senior industry adviser Matt Powell lambasted the efforts put forth by brands and retailers concerning eco-friendly initiatives.

“This industry has been at the forefront of sustainability as an idea. I think we’ve done a terrible job of telling the consumer what we’re doing with sustainability,” Powell told a room full of the market’s major players during NPD’s biannual industry breakfast. “We need to be much more overt.”

Its inability to communicate effectively may be hindering its chance to capitalize on a tremendous opportunity.

According to data provided by NPD, more than one in three consumers say they’d pay a premium for eco-friendly products or brands, a number that increases to nearly one in two for Generation Z and millennial shoppers.

Finding this project on shelves, however, may be difficult for consumers.

“One of the things this consumer has told us is they want to buy sustainable product, but most of them can’t figure out what is and what isn’t sustainable in the store,” Powell said.

Xero Shoes CEO Steven Sashen told FN that the industry would benefit from a system similar to nutrition facts on food labels.

“We need to have some sort of real live measure of what we’re going to call sustainability, something that’s an actual metric to show what the real effect is,” Sashen said.

Beyond products, informing customers of the eco-friendly sourcing and manufacturing practices employed is also difficult, according to Forsake marketing director Jack Knoll, who told FN that the language used may be confusing to some.

“There’s still so many people that don’t understand what carbon offsets are, what the impact that could make is, even different types of carbon offsets and the difference between a verified offset and what’s not verified,” Knoll said.

Also, when marketing initiatives do work, Sashen said they often promote things that aren’t actually environmentally friendly, such as the materials used.

“Most of the sustainable materials take more energy to produce than something virgin or not sustainable and a lot of the recycled stuff isn’t lasting as long so you have to replace it more and more. Where is the sustainability in that?” Sashen said.

The exec said companies should tout sustainable practices more often, using Xero shoes as an example, which he explained use fewer materials, are not constructed with midsoles that wear out and feature outsoles with a 5,000-mile warranty. “We’ve got people who have been wearing the same sandal for eight years,” he said.

And if communication wasn’t difficult enough, the industry may be pricing out some consumers who are interested in environmentally friendly footwear. Sashen proclaimed that the shoes labeled as sustainable are so pricey that “they’re only being sold to rich white people” And there is a clear price gap between sustainable shoes and their less environmentally friendly counterparts across the industry.

For some companies, however, this may be changing.

Michael Kadous, head of Adidas Outdoor North America, explained to FN that its working to one day ensure price will be a nonissue.

“Moving forward, I don’t think there’s going to be too much of a decision tree for consumers around price and sustainability,” Kadous said. “Our mission is to make sure we bring sustainability all the way down to the highest turning product that we have and in due time we will have that.”

And this effort from Adidas Outdoor may already be underway. The retail price for arguably its most popular look, the Free Hiker, is the same for regular versions and iterations featuring Parley recycled ocean plastic.

Given people’s willingness to spend more on sustainable goods, devoting more time and energy to communicating efforts to consumers could be beneficial and provide the industry the boost it needs.

Although the greater footwear industry was up 2.5% to $76 billion for the 12 months ending September 2019, according to NPD, outdoor footwear sales declined. NPD said the outdoor footwear market was down 2.2% — a drop of $78 million — for the 12 months ending November 2019. 

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