Skip Yowell Leadership Lesson 7: Know The Difference Between Buzzword and Action Item 

When it comes to corporate sustainability claims, Smartwool's Robert Thomas says outdoor companies need to put up or shut up. Preferably put up. That's why he's a Skip Yowell Future Leader. 

By Devon O'Neil July 5, 2017

Sustainability is one of the hottest buzz words in the outdoor industry—and has been for about a decade. That’s probably because it can mean so many different things depending upon the context in which it’s used. Fairly sourced materials are sustainable. So are trends such as composting, recycling and biking to work.  

But when it comes to business, and particularly the bottom line, sustainability can get blurry. And in that abstract world, where a sexy claim can mean more sales revenue yet might stretch the truth, sustainable practices often act more as a tool than an ideal. This is when it helps to consider Robert Thomas’ point of view. 

And in that abstract world, where a sexy claim can mean more sales revenue yet might stretch the truth, sustainable practices often act more as a tool than an ideal.

Thomas, a 34-year-old senior productline manager at Smartwool, is pondering the future of the industry, something he does often as a participant in the Skip Yowell Future Leadership Academy (SYFLA).  

Skip Yowell Future Leaders

Learn more about Skip Yowell Future Leaders.

It’s an industry that Thomas, like many, believes to be “at a crossroads,” in that traditional retail models are in flux and public lands are under attack politically. “I think if all this doesn’t get sorted out quickly, the outdoor industry is going to look a lot different,” Thomas says. “And I’d just like to see it look different in a sustainable way.” 

That word again. Asked to clarify, Thomas says, “Sustainable is not letting go of the things we believe in as companies.”  

“People don’t necessarily want more stuff, they want the right stuff from the right brands. A handful of companies are doing that really well right now—selling the brand and experience and product. Those that resonate with consumers in the long term will get more business.”

Such an objective is easier said than done, but Thomas believes there’s a clear path to fulfilling it while maintaining a healthy bottom line. “What I see from the consumer right now is a fastgrowing passion for stories and experiences that connect them to the brands they buy,” he says. “People don’t necessarily want more stuff, they want the right stuff from the right brands. A handful of companies are doing that really well right now—selling the brand and experience and product. Those that resonate with consumers in the long term will get more business.” 

Learn more about what some brands and retailers in the industry are already doing to align their corporate priorities and their messaging in a real and authentic way. Come to the “Living Your Brand” OIA lunch session on July 27 at Outdoor Retailer

It all sounds pretty deep for a Boy Scout with an engineering degree. But Thomas is not easy to pigeonhole. Born in Ohio and raised in Colorado and Maine, his first real job involved working on industrial products for W.L. Gore as an applications engineer. When he learned Gore needed someone to hawk running and biking wear in Colorado and Utah in 2010, and given he loved to climb, ski, and mountain bike, Thomas ditched his technical gig and became a salesman. He nearly tripled the size of his territory in two years. 

 Alas, “I’m not a sales rep,” he admits. So in 2012, he took a job at Smartwool—whose socks he’d worn since high school—working on performance socks, then later men’s socks and apparel. Now he manages the brand’s men’s apparel business. “I wouldn’t say I’m a ladder climber,” he says of his career strategy, “I’m someone who believes good work begets more opportunity.” 

“I’m someone who believes good work begets more opportunity.”

OIA executive director Amy Roberts, who serves as Thomas’ SYFLA mentor, says they’ve talked about his desire to improve product sustainability industry-wide and how it requires cooperating with competitors—a concept Thomas touts as well.  

“What I see in him really is the future of the industry and what we’re trying to do with this program,” Roberts says. “We’re only a generation old, and because of the challenges going on in the retail space, it’s up to this next group of leaders to say we will compete and have successful businesses,  but we also need to know there are greater goals here underlying whether this industry is successful—like keeping public lands public and a sustainable and responsible supply chain. We are going to be dependent on the people in this program.” 

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