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Small Business Trends for Making and Selling Sustainable, Affordable Outdoor Gear



Fact: Outdoor activities keep our mind and our body health. Another fact: The gear and clothing we need for many outdoor activities often cause severe sticker shock. We’re not just talking about full-suspension hardtail mountain bikes and downhill skills with a titanium backbone. A good winter jacket and “breathable” T-shirts aren’t exactly cheap.


One reason for the steep price tag is that outdoor gear makers increasingly are trying to manufacture goods in an earth-friendly manner. It makes sense that an industry devoted to enjoying and, thus, preserving, the great outdoors is using natural, sustainable materials and non-toxic chemicals and dyes, as well as supporting fair labor and ethical trade practices. But all those great decisions mean higher costs for consumers.


In response, some forward-thinking entrepreneurs are finding ways to make outdoor gear more affordable while also being kind to the environment. The inspiration starts with a shift in mindset from today’s #1 consumers: Millennials.


Trend alert: Buy less but buy better


Millennial consumers are the biggest and fastest growing consumer demographic, and, as a whole, they are both eco-conscious and laid-back. According to Matt Powell of the market research firm NPD Group, Millennials want affordable, earth-friendly apparel and gear that can multitask like a pro: mountain bikes for riding on the city streets and the backwoods, shoes that stand up to rocky trails and an urban trek, a hoodie that goes from a morning jog to an afternoon coffee date.


I describe it as good-enough products,” says Powell, describing a shift in the outdoor clothing industry. “A product that will get me through most of what I want to do, and a product that is versatile." The upshot? Millennials are taking a “pack light” approach to shopping in the outdoor industry.


Trend alert: Natural and affordable


One company that firmly embraces this philosophy is outdoor retailer Patagonia.  Founder Yvon Chouinard has long strived to leave a zero-carbon footprint in the manufacturing of their clothes. His solution to cutting down on manufacturing waste? He wants consumers -- yes, including his own -- to buy fewer items at a higher quality so they will last longer.


Admirable philosophy aside, the price point for Patagonia and other high-end outdoor retailers is out of reach for many people who just want to be active and comfortable outside while still supporting sustainable practices. That’s where small businesses making eco-friendly activewear basics that look good, perform well (or, at least, well enough) and use some natural textiles made with organic cotton, wool, hemp or bamboo.


Retailers like Alternative Apparel sell sustainably made tanks, tees, hoodies and jeans at reasonable prices, while PACT sells workout clothing made from organic cotton for prices on par with mega-clothiers like Old Navy or Gap. Groceries Apparel based in Los Angeles is using recycled plastic, vegetable dyes and even eucalyptus in their beanies, hoodies, joggers and tees.


Trend alert: Swap or sell


Here’s another way entrepreneurs can offer customers affordable options for outdoor gear and apparel: Provide a platform for exchange where users can sell used clothing and gear so others can score a lightly-used parka or a high-tech tent at a fraction of the full retail price. The sellers make a bit of money to put toward a new purchase and have the satisfaction of knowing their gear is enjoying a second life, while the shop owner retains a portion of the final sale.


A group of entrepreneurial outdoor lovers in Utah who saw the need for more affordable ways to get gear started Gear Trade in 1999. The site now sees everything from bikes to snowboards to kayaks come and go online. Burlington, Vermont-based created an outdoor gear consignment platform where the store keeps 25-35% of the sales price of an item.


Public awareness is growing well beyond the mindful Millennials about the environmental damage of plastics, toxic dyes and unfair trade, and so too grows the demand for affordable and ethical goods -- in all industries, not just the outdoor recreation gear business. Entrepreneurs who strive to meet the demand for both eco-friendly and cost-accessible goods will, no doubt, become kings and queens of the retail mountain.


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QB Community members, what are your ideas for offering both affordable and ethically-produced products?

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