Yesterday I learned two things about people who work in the outdoor industry. One: they like checked shirts. Two: they really do have a passion for the outdoors.
I've just returned from the delightful town of Annecy, cosily tucked into the foothills of the French Alps, a stone's throw from the Swiss border. A haven for outdoor sports enthusiasts, it was the perfect location for the European outdoor industry's annual conference, organised by the Outdoor Sports Valley with partners the European Outdoor Group (EOG).
A passion for protecting the environment
Chatting to conference participants over lunch I found out that most people who work in the industry are committed outdoor sports enthusiasts themselves - one is a skiing instructor in his spare time, another spends most weekends mountain-biking.
This love for mountains and lakes has clearly translated into a strong commitment among many in the industry towards mitigating environmental impacts, as demonstrated by the large number of outdoor brands involved in the newly created Sustainable Apparel Coalition and the EOG's Sustainability Working Group.
And yet so far at least, albeit with a few notable exceptions the industry is not known for innovating in the arena of workers' rights in supply chains.
So I was curious to find out just how interested my fellow conference-goers were in ethical trade - and what they perceived were the obstacles and opportunities for their industry as a whole to do more.
It seemed one of the biggest challenge for the companies I spoke to was related to their size. Brands like The North Face, Patagonia and Timberland may be globally recognised, but the vast majority of companies in this industry are very small. That means few have the luxury of having staff dedicated to CSR or ethical trade. Most people I spoke to said they were already working late into the night and weekends.
As one participant said: "There seems to be an assumption - at least among consumers - that this is a rich industry. People think that because they might have to spend £200 on a Goretex jacket, the industry must be swimming with money. That's just not the case. In many cases we're talking about lifestyle businesses that are operating on a survival basis. Margins are often very tight.
There is clearly a very understandable fear that social compliance is just another expensive and time-consuming hoop to jump through, and many people complained of a lack of hard data on business benefits that they could take back to their CEOs and boards. Some also expressed confusion over all the different codes and approaches they could follow. "We just want to know what we need to do!", one said.
Yet the leap from caring about the environment to caring about workers' rights is not a big one. As one participant said: There's a huge groundswell of people who want to do the right thing."
And while the many smaller companies that operate in the industry have less power over their suppliers to persuade them to improve conditions, what many of them do have is the longer term relationships that the world of fast fashion often lacks.
As one of my lunch companions said: "When people get into this industry they soon find out they can't just hop from factory to factory. With the high quality, highly specialised products that many of our member brands sell, it takes a long time to work with a supplier to get them to understand what you need, and for them to build up the necessary skills and expertise. That means they tend to stay with them for many years."
This bodes well for working closely with suppliers to raise working conditions.
There also seems a genuine desire for collaboration, which it's clear the EOG is committed to help foster - as evidenced not least by the prominent slot given to ethical trade at the conference, as well as other events it is organising - I noticed it is holding a meeting with the Clean Clothes Campaign at the end of this month to debate the ‘living wage'.
As EOG President David Udberg said: "There's clearly an awareness that this is an important issue among our members. We know this area is a minefield. We're not going to dictate anything to our members, but we do want to help them steer a course through it."
So I reckon the challenge for ETI and all the other organisations working in this field goes back to providing clear, simple steps for smaller, less well-resourced companies to follow, doing better to provide hard business data to get that crucial top-level buy-in, and reducing the continuing confusion over code proliferation.
What do you think?