How Outdoor Gear Companies Ignited a Sustainable Business Revolution

Photograph by Tommy Wooh, My Shot

You might think that the outdoor industry is a bunch of tree huggers, and to some extent that’s true. After all, we’re in this business because we love being outdoors, and protecting natural resources and quality places to play goes hand-in-hand with that. But what if I told you that this collective concern for the environment has translated into an industry-wide movement toward sustainability that is changing the way the world does business?

That’s right, folks. Hundreds of outdoor industry companies have been collaborating for years on identifying and implementing best practices in sustainability—specifically, ensuring that the gear we use in the outdoors is made in a more responsible way. And this work is now reverberating to other industries. Pretty cool.

How did it all start? Well, nearly six years ago, several leading outdoor industry companies recognized that they could make more meaningful progress toward sustainable business practices by working together. So these competitors sat down together and started hammering out quantifiable, measurable ways to create more sustainable products, starting with apparel.

As this effort gained momentum, these companies and Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) formed the OIA Sustainability Working Group (SWG) to put even more muscle behind the work. In 2010, the industry finalized and piloted the OIA Eco Index, a standardized way to assess product sustainability. It went so well that another group—the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC)—adopted the open-source index last year, blended it with a tool Nike developed, and created a more robust indexing tool.

This is a pretty big deal because the SAC encompasses about a third of the global apparel and footwear market and includes a lot of big names—like  Walmart, Target, Nike, and H&M. So having the SAC on board opens the door to this sustainability tool being adopted on a very broad scale.

And now… drumroll, please… this tool—now called the Higg Index—is being launched today. Companies can use the Higg Index to get a clear view of where to make improvements in their supply chains to reduce the environmental (and eventually, social) impacts of their products. It also provides a consistent framework and language that companies can use to assess and compare product sustainability.

OIA is proud of the outdoor industry’s enormous contribution to the Higg Index. It all began with a small group of passionate companies committed to tackling product sustainability in a realistic and tangible way. The resulting collaboration—which now involves more than 250 outdoor industry companies—is inspirational.

Just how big of a deal is this? Consider this: The White House recognized the OIA Sustainability Working Group as a Champion of Change for Corporate Responsibility earlier this year. They don’t hand this sort of recognition out freely, folks. You really have to earn it.

While we are celebrating today, our work is far from complete. This is just the beginning. The OIA Sustainability Working Group will continue to contribute to the evolution of the Higg Index for apparel. And we are continuing work in other areas—developing indexing tools for footwear and equipment, identifying how to manage chemicals in the supply chain, tackling materials traceability, and creating best practices in social responsibility and fair labor.

Want to learn more? Check out the OIA website. Support the companies that are involved in our Sustainability Working Group. They are contributing passion, money and sweat equity to a cause that is bigger than themselves. Together as an industry we are developing new practices that can fundamentally change the way we do business and make the world a better place to live, work and play.

Avery Stonich is communications manager for Outdoor Industry Association. Follow us on twitter: @OIA and @averystonich.


  1. eman83
    July 29, 2012, 10:04 am

    Its a nice post.I like your photograph.

  2. Affordable Niagara Falls Canada Hotels
    July 30, 2012, 12:20 pm

    I think its a great initiative taken up by the outdoor companies. There is a constant need and a social responsibility of companies to to do such activities.

  3. A Pauley
    February 5, 2013, 9:35 pm

    What a terrible article. A search for information on sustainable products led me here, and now I am disappointed in NatGeo. Ads are not articles, and this is presented like an article, but reads like a promotional press release, and the only information I can find about the OIA seems to be written by the same OIA employees. While the organization may be sincere, it sure does have more than a whiff of greenwash. Note that the OIA doesn’t let the public see its membership list, and the Wikipedia page lists a lot of business-speak-generic accomplishments, all of which appear to be oriented towards a feel-good image, as opposed to the sorts of activities that would lead to sustainable practices. Not impressed.

  4. Avery Stonich
    Boulder, Colorad
    February 6, 2013, 6:40 pm

    I invite you to peruse the corporate responsibility section of the Outdoor Industry Association website, which outlines the groundbreaking efforts of the outdoor industry to identify and reduce the environmental impacts of their products. This is a collaborative effort among more than 450 companies and demonstrates a substantial commitment to creating more sustainable products.