Wednesday 19 May 2010

Innov-Ex 2010 Conference on Sustainability

At the end of last month I attended the 2010 Innovation for Extremes conference in Lancaster. I’ve been to these conferences, which are organised by Mary Rose of Lancaster University and Mike Parsons (innovative gear designer, formerly of Karrimor and then OMM), before but not for quite a few years – it is a long way south! This year I was invited to be a judge for the Design Prize, along with Graham Thompson from Trail magazine and outdoor blogger and writer Pete Macfarlane (Petesy), so I took the train down to Lancaster. The theme of the conference was sustainability and the outdoor industry and there were many excellent and thought-provoking speakers, including ones from Japan and Canada who spoke via video links. There’s good coverage of the conference on the Innov-Ex site and Petesy blogged his thoughts during the event (I was making notes on paper!) so I’m not going to write a review of the whole day here. However I have been pondering some of the issues and difficulties raised and considering how they affect everybody concerned with the outdoors and the environment.

The first thing that became clear was that assessing the environmental impacts of producing, selling and using gear is complex and not necessarily intuitive. Whilst CO2 production and climate change dominate environmental concerns at present there are other matters that should be taken into account such as pollution and the use of scarce resources. Impact cannot just be measured in terms of carbon output. And there always is impact of course. There’s no way of making anything that does not have an impact just as there’s no way of going into wild places without having an impact (or even just living, come to that). The question is whether impacts can be reduced and what is the best way to do so whilst still making and using gear. And assessing this is difficult and requires looking at the whole process from the raw materials through production methods, transport and sale to the final disposal of the product. In the talks on this two points struck me. The first was that it’s possible for the use of a product to be the main impact on the environment rather than its manufacture – whether this applies to any outdoor gear I don’t know, the example given was of aircraft. The second was that the more modern method of manufacture may not be the most environmentally friendly so that even with the transport involved manufacture overseas by an older method may have less impact than a more modern one closer to home. The example given here was steel-making in India and Western Europe with the former apparently being the more environmentally friendly. So to really do anything to minimise impacts companies need first to have a detailed understanding of every aspect of their business, including what happens to their products after they’ve been sold.

Of course in the greater scheme of things the outdoor industry is very small and even if it reduced its impact to a minimum it would have little overall effect. However setting an example and showing that industries can be cleaner could well be useful, as is argued by Yvon Chouinard, whose company Patagonia has been considering all this for many years. (I recommend Chouinard’s book Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman). To this end the European Outdoor Group, which represents outdoor companies, has set up a Sustainability Working Group. Speakers from this group pointed out that one thing needed was a common language and understanding of words and common expectations. To this end the Group is producing a tool for outdoor businesses with guidelines for communicating to customers. Actually, “consumers” was the word used but I much prefer “customer”, which I find far more friendly and accurate – words do matter! And I’m not that happy with “sustainability” either – I know what it means in the Innov-Ex context but it’s become far too misused and twisted by developers. It seems everything can be sustainable now, even destruction of wild places.

There were many representatives from the outdoor industry at the conference. Just by taking a day out to attend they showed their concern. What will be the long term effect is another matter. But the feel at the conference was that something was happening, however tentative and slow.

The Design Award went to Veronica Legg for her Women’s Winter Climbing Trousers, which I thought the most practical of the entrants, a simple but innovative solution to an obvious problem. Looking at the different designs and discussing them with the other judges was a useful exercise for me. It’s always worthwhile taking in other points of view.

Photo info: Proof that I don’t spend all my time outdoors! Cortney McDermott, Chair of the European Outdoor Group Sustainability Working Group, addressing the conference. Sigma DP1, 1/25@f4, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.7.


  1. Nicely thought-provoking, many thanks Chris.

  2. Thanks for this Chris - you captured so many of the issues of the day. I agree re- Yvon Chouinard's book. We have an excellent piece from David Labistour (Mountain Equipment Co-operative) from the 2008 conference - like this year's MEC speaker really open and honest about MEC's approach worth a listen

  3. Was the problem of sub-contracted manufacture addressed. This is used by many European and US manufactures to get around international agreed child labour laws. One of the many hidden costs of clothing and equipment manufacture. comments Chris?

  4. John C, yes, it was mentioned in the context of how one company managed to turn out masses of low cost fleece made from high-cost materials and the context of having to choose between recycled materials and ethical labour practises to keep costs competitive.