Does the Outdoor Industry Need to Change? How?

adventure journal industry change

For at least the last decade, and maybe longer, I’ve watched as small, independent startups have attempted to break into the outdoor gear industry, and I’ve tried to support them, first in my role at National Geographic Adventure and then here in the pages of Adventure Journal, and more often than not they struggled for a few years to find a home, either with traditional outdoor retailers or from the industry at large, before giving up and closing down. Retailers said their customers didn’t want new styles, the larger brands sniffed that their products weren’t as well made, and the big trees blocked out the sun for the seedlings.

Times have changed. The internet has enabled small startups to step right around the gatekeepers and reach potential customers directly, and, wow, are the indies thriving. In 2004, I might have been able to point to three cool little brands (blurr, Topo Ranch, Mission Playground), but today the list of rad new lines goes on and on: Poler, Seea, Aether, Outlier, Triple Aught Design, Without Walls, Huckberry, West America, Snow Peak, Alite…

Meanwhile, the bigger brands look down their nose at the startups and sneer dismissively that the indies are nothing more than Instagram accounts with merchandise. To which a critic might say, “And your point is?”

As outdoor veteran Scott McGuire (The North Face, Kleen Kanteen, Keen, Teva, Mammoth ski patrol) points out in his essay, “The Outdoor Industry Is Old and Tired. Will It Change?” the industry has long struggled to grow and diversify, to reach out to people of color, to break outside the traditional white male dirtbag demographic, to be the answer in a sea of questions. And despite this wave of new brands bringing energy, enthusiasm, and style to the outdoors, nothing within the traditional space seems to be changing.

But should it?

Twice a year when I go to the Outdoor Retailer trade show, I think, “Oh, jeez, more jackets that look the same as they did two years ago, and five, and 10.” But the flip side is that those jackets are almost universally well made, technologically advanced, and functionally superb, so why should they change? You can even muster a pretty decent argument that classic styling is more sustainable than prints and fashion-forward pieces, because they’ll be used a lot longer. Is it a bad thing that outdoor styles hardly change? Or that Ueli Steck and Alex Honnold are considered the model heroes to appeal to a broad audience? Or that brands are dismissive of people who aren’t core but will happily sell them a $400 jacket to wear while walking the dog?

When I was discussing these same issues with friends a decade ago, the stakes didn’t seem very high but today the outdoors are on the edge of what will very likely be profound change. Global warming is going to carve up the environment and our recreational use of it in ways we can only begin to imagine. The baby boomers are slipping into retirement and in a generation or so will be gone, taking their spending habits with them. America is becoming less white. And parks at both the national and local levels are facing unprecedented pressures from budget cuts and environmental change. My bet is the macro landscape on which the outdoor industry has fed for so long will be a very different place in 20 or 25 years.

So, back to, or on to, the question at hand. Should the outdoor industry change in order to bring in new people, by which I mean change broadly, profoundly, and proactively? Or should it continue to evolve at its own natural pace? And, if it should change, how?

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adventure journal smith optics serpicoThis week, one poll participant will receive a pair of Smith Optics Serpico sunglasses. We’ll pick the winner via random number generator (and announce it here) – all you have to do to enter is vote and leave a comment so we have your email to contact you. Must have a U.S. or Canadian address. Contest ends Sunday, December 21, at midnight PST.

Congratulations to James Markell, who wins the Smiths this week!

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