Podcast: How NEMO Equipment and Showers Pass Turned Baby Steps into Giant Strides Toward Sustainability
Wherever you are on your journey to sustainability, we’re here to help. In 2019, OIA is hosting sustainability boot camps across the country to bring brands and suppliers practical tools to help them navigate the road to meet their sustainability goals and initiatives. Here’s what two attendees had to say about our first boot camp in Seattle.
Read the full transcript below.
The Outdoor Industry Association’s work focuses on three main pillar areas: policy, participation and sustainable business innovation. This last one, sustainability, is a priority for OIA because it is a priority for our member companies—manufacturers, retailers and suppliers—and also for outdoor consumers who are increasingly concerned about the environmental and social impacts of the products they purchase. For more than a decade, OIA’s sustainability team has been a leader in developing tools and resources to help gear and apparel manufacturers assess their supply chains and make improvements. Now, OIA is ramping up efforts to educate and support member companies in using those tools to achieve their own sustainability goals and initiatives.
In 2019, we are helping OIA companies to Walk the Walk by hosting a series of sustainability boot camps. They are designed to help small to mid-sized brands that have limited to no dedicated sustainability staff or expertise to accelerate sustainability improvements and meet (or exceed) customer expectations. The camps are intensive full-day sessions combining engaging speakers, educational content, hands-on activities and take-home resources. The goal is for participants to leave the boot camp with more confidence and clarity around what is a complex topic. They will leave with a customized action plan so that they can champion sustainability within their brand, establish their organization’s strategy and program and take their next steps.
The first boot camp was held in Seattle, Washington, in March, and it hit capacity. The second camp is schedule for June 16 in Denver, the day before Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, providing scheduling efficiency for those people who are already planning to attend the trade show. If Denver in June isn’t convenient, we’ll be offering two additional boot camps later this year, one in New York City September 19 and one in Costa Mesa, California on December 5.
In this episode of Audio Outdoorist, we’re speaking with two industry professionals who attended the Seattle camp to find out why their company made it a priority, what they learned and what they’ll do next to keep their sustainability strategy forging forward.
Stephanie Leikas-Homolya is with outdoor apparel brand Showers Pass, based down the road from Seattle in Portland, Oregon. Like a lot of the attending brands at the Seattle camp, Showers Pass is small but growing. Not surprisingly for a small brand, Stephanie wears two hats, working on the product development team and also serving as the marketing director. Likewise, Kate Paine has her hands in a little bit of everything at New Hampshire’s NEMO Equipment, where her business card reads VP of marketing but her day-to-day work involves everything from communications to employee engagement to e-commerce to sustainability.
So, I asked Stephanie and Kate how they were able to justify adding the boot camp to their already overloaded plates, what kind of corporate buy-in they had to get and why the timing of the Seattle event in March worked for them. For Stephanie and Showers Pass, proximity made it an easy decision, but it also aligned well with the company’s growing exploration of sustainability and was a great follow-up to the some of the learnings they’d already acquired at other OIA-led sustainability programs.
Stephanie: Okay. Well, we had attended a few different OIA sustainability workshops in the past. You guys had come to Portland, I think last summer, and we had come to hear what you had to say then. And we’d also come to a few different events at Outdoor Retailer, some of the working groups that you had put on at that show. So we had a little bit of a glimpse into what the subjects were that you were offering. And we were kind of in a position where we were really looking to develop and formulate our sustainability strategy as a company. So we needed some guidance. It kind of came up right at the time that we were starting to talk about it. So it was a good, good timing. To make the decision whether or not to go, I thought it would be valuable, and I wanted to go. I ran that by the owner, who was very supportive of working on the sustainability issues. So I think made the decision to go partly because we had already been to a few different sustainability workshops that OIA had put on.
Deborah: Like Showers Pass, NEMO is in the early stages of developing its strategy and is eager to get off on the right foot…and right away.
When OIA announced that we were going to be hosting these, we announced that we would do it kind of as a roadshow or in line with our membership roadshow where we’ll be visiting several locations. One of those locations in the fall is actually New York which is much closer to you there in New Hampshire. But NEMO made the decision to send their delegation to the Seattle event in March. I think that says a lot about the urgency for NEMO to get working on the sustainability stuff and also their commitment to it that the company said, “Yeah, it’s worth it to send our team essentially two days out of the office all the way to Seattle.” Can you just talk about what NEMO’s commitment is and what the decision was to attend this boot camp rather than the one in the fall?
Kate: Honestly, we didn’t want to wait until the fall. We were excited about this concept, we wanted to get started right away, and so it made sense for us to go to the first one. Once we knew that we were doing that, we put our heads together and we thought was else can we do when we’re out there and REI (which is headquartered in Seattle) is a great partner, a leader in sustainability so we had a meeting with REI at the same time with their sustainability team and then we also tacked on a warehouse audit for ourselves from a sustainability standpoint to go to our warehouse beforehand and look through into an audit of our plastic and our packaging. So all three of those were located in a similar location, and it worked out well for us, logistically, plus we didn’t have to wait and we could get started right away on this.
Deborah: Okay. Great. You were able to find efficiencies. Maybe the opportunity itself to go to the warehouse wouldn’t have been justified, but when you could bundle it all with the boot camp and the visit with REI and the visits to the warehouse, it made sense. So talk a little bit about Brent and Theresa who came with you.
Kate: Sure. Yeah. So I mentioned that we’re a small company. We’re less than 30 employees and so sustainability has been very collaboratively owned up until last year, and Theresa was actually the only one who had it in her title, but as we talked about at the boot camp, sustainability is owned by every organization in the company, so from an operations standpoint there are efficiencies to be had and from a financial standpoint, there’s financial responsibility, from a marketing standpoint you’re telling a story and you’re trying to understand your customers’ values and make sure that you’re speaking in that language and resonating with them and you’re trying to push your progressive values. And then, from a product standpoint, there’s all the material selection. So as we look at sustainability, we have always owned it in a very distributed manner across our company. And so, three of the players in that, Brent as our chief operating officer, he’s been doing this work without calling it sustainability for a long time and just trying to have better materials and greater efficiency and looking at shipping solutions and reducing air shipments and greenhouse gas production.
Theresa, this has been part of her title but she has recently this year stepped up and it’s become a much bigger part of her job, and she’s led the charge on a lot of things from for example identifying where our greenhouse gases are and looking at how we can have a process in place so that we minimize those in some very practical things we can do. From my standpoint, I’ve come in and kind of led the communications and the strategy behind what we’re doing with climate change, what we’re doing with looking at our supply chain, how we’re trying to have transparency, how we’re trying to communicate pretty radically about what we think a brand should be and what a values-led brand is and how to create value throughout your whole entire value chain.
So we were the three. I believe each brand had three seats at the table and so we were the three that were available and very interested to go. There were others who were interested but who weren’t available to go. So the three of us were kind of an interesting trio to go and took it from all different angles. So I was coming at it from a very different angle than Brent and Theresa on the operation side were coming at it. It was incredibly complimentary and we really enjoyed the fact that as a small company, we could start at this stage and not have silos between ops and marketing and sales and finance and product dev, at this point have everybody learning the same thing, hearing the same thing and having the same goals from a sustainability standpoint.
Deborah: For small companies like NEMO and Showers Pass, sustainability might be tasked to a person who has a separate primary job function or it might be a responsibility that is shared or owned by the entire company. The OIA boot camps offer teams an opportunity to see the work through those different corporate lenses. Sometimes, approaching it not from the product side, but from the marketing or operations side, provides unique perspectives that lead to clearer and more collaborative strategic objectives. For Stephanie at Showers Pass that was certainly the case. As she notes, the company had already drafted some high level sustainability goals and came to the camp seeking validation that those were good, sound objectives before committing the organizations to those goals.
Stephanie: Yeah. So I have two main roles at Showers Pass. I’m the marketing director, but I also work on product development with our team here, so kind of two different roles, but I really wanted to go to the boot camp to really identify, where are the areas with apparel manufacturing that cause the most impact? And so I’ve seen a lot of other brands do a lot of different things in terms of what they’re focusing on, but I thought the boot camp would be a good place to really learn about where the most impacts are happening environmentally and just where to start. There’s so many different areas of where we could start to make changes, and so I feel like that was really addressed really well at the boot camp.
And then I wanted to see how our predetermined sustainability goals that we had been working on, how they aligned with some of the recommendations from the boot camp and see if they were in line, if we were going down the right path, or if there was something really big that we were missing. I feel like I got out from the boot camp a few different things to add to our goals and focus on. Really it was to learn about impact in apparel manufacturing and then taking away the, “Where do I start? What should my goals be? How do I execute the plan?” And I feel like that was really well addressed at the boot camp.
Deborah: Great. Okay. So it did … You feel like it did meet the expectations that you had going in. And it sounds like it more or less affirmed the direction that you were already taking, or the steps that you thought you needed to take, and maybe gave you some clarity on which of those you should take first? But you did mention that you came out recognizing that you might need to adjust some of those things.
Stephanie: Yeah. I think there’s a lot of emphasis and focus in apparel on using recycled materials. And while that’s great, I learned at the boot camp that the actual energy use at the factory level is kind of a bigger impact than taking existing waste out of the manufacturing cycle. So basically carbon impacts from the factory, either using coal or what they’re burning and the chemicals that are going into the environment as a result of garment, like cut and sew. Not so much at the cut-and-sew level, but at the fabric mill level and all the chemicals that go into producing garments that don’t even make it into the final garment. So it really goes back. It’s a little bit of a harder goal to communicate to the consumer because it’s not as easy as saying, “There’s this many plastic bottles in this shirt you’re buying,” but it does make a bigger impact overall. So the goal that we came out of with that was to have our factory partners use at least 50% of their energy from renewable resources, renewable sources by the year 2025, whether that’s from solar, probably mostly from solar projects. That’s kind of one of the big goals that we have for the next five years.
Deborah: For NEMO, the boot camp affirmed the direction the company was taking and it provided some practical tools that helped the NEMO delegation further refine their strategy for implementing their sustainability tactics in the short term and across all parts of the organization.
Kate: I think that we thought that we would get a bit of a primer and maybe a little nudge and some direction. So we have a lot of ideas of places we want to go from a sustainability standpoint, and we started to put models together and put a five year plan together as far as what we want to tackle. At times, it’s been very macro and really looking at everything from labor to financial sustainability to internally how we’re living our values, and then the sustainable supply chain also. At times, it’s been very micro and focused on supply chain goals. We’ve wanted to dial in our roadmap for what we should be doing next and how we should tackle that, and sometimes would be as you don’t know what you don’t know, and I think we were looking at this is a way to learn from experts what we don’t know and where we should be focusing on our personal learning agenda in order to get better at what we’re doing to have the right direction.
So definitely looking for focus and direction. I don’t think we expected it to be quite so complete. I mean, there were a lot of practical tools that came out of the workshop that we immediately came back and we spent a good portion of a day shortly after synthesizing everything and looking through the tools and thinking what’s going to be useful for us and which one isn’t as good a fit for us. So the practicality of the tools and the information delivered I think was surprising to me. I thought it would be a little bit more gestural and a little bit more, “Ra, ra, you can do this.” And it was a good amount of, “Ra, ra, you can do this,” the right amount I think, and then it was also extremely useful and functional information to say this is how you can do this and these are different models for how you can go back to your organization and from day one, you can start implementing this change.
Deborah: Both Stephanie and Kate told me one of their biggest takeaways from the session came from one of the day’s keynote presenters, Kevin Myette of Bluesign, who implored attendees to explore sustainability at a much deeper level than their finished goods. At Showers Pass, for example, Stephanie told me a lot of the apparel company’s focus—and its competitors’ focus—is on the materials being used in their products and how to make those materials more, quote, responsible. Using recycled materials is a worthy effort, of course, but the boot camp helped Stephanie and the delegation from NEMO recognize the opportunity for larger- and deeper-scale carbon reduction by adjusting which facilities they use to create materials and assemble final products.
Stephanie: Yeah. I think Kevin Myette from Bluesign. His talk was great. I think he should be a teacher. There’s just so much that you don’t realize about the supply chain and manufacturing process, even while you’re responsible being in product development. And so I think it was really great to see his presentation. He talked a lot about, you think you know your supply chain; you don’t know your supply chain. You might know your cut-and-sew factory, but you don’t know who all the tier two and tier three suppliers are, and where they get their materials, and how those materials are made and handled and all of that. So that was really eye-opening. I’m sure there could be just a whole boot camp with him talking about supply chain. Yeah, that was a good one.
Deborah: Kate and the NEMO team also took Kevin Myette’s dictate to heart. As part of the team’s 2019 sustainability action plan that included the boot camp and the Seattle warehouse audit that Kate mentioned earlier in this episode, they scheduled a supply chain trip to follow quickly on the heels of the boot camp. Kate’s colleagues Brent and Theresa traveled to Asia for two weeks meeting with their manufacturing partners to learn about and see first-hand, the depths of their supply chain. We plan to follow NEMO and Showers Pass throughout the year to hear about the next steps in their sustainability journey, and in our next installment of this story, Kate will tell us a bit more about the benefits and lessons learned from the supply chain tour. But I wanted to know a little bit more about their takeaways from the boot camp itself, and since I was talking to two marketing and communication experts, we tackled what is an equally challenging piece of the sustainability puzzle, which is how to tell your company’s story before you’ve achieved any truly measurable outcomes.
I think something else, talking to you as the communications expert on your team and that’s something that I do as well is helping companies understand that as you begin to travel this road, I think that there’s a tendency for companies to feel like we don’t have a sustainability story yet because we don’t have like you said that number, that pretty number that we can share…So we’ve offset our greenhouse gas emissions by X number or we’ve done this thing, but in fact, especially when you’re talking about the consumer, there are so many micro stories that are really, really impactful, and to be able to put on a hang tag or to put on your packaging or to put on your website like, “Here are a few things we’ve done,” in the end it doesn’t amount to mountains and mountains of waste that we’ve diverted but it’s something and it conveys that your company is making an effort.
Kate: Yeah. I found one of the most useful things coming out of the sustainability boot camp was that tiering of goals because the tiering of goals to me directly relates into a tiering of communication. We put together a communications plan coming out of this and to say okay, right now what we can communicate is what we’re doing, what our intent is and what our standards are and that’s okay. It’s okay to say that, and I’m such a believer in just transparently saying this is where we’re at and where we want to be, and yet we’re not perfect but we’re trying, we’re trying really hard. So to have that reinforcement and again like I said earlier, that validation of the fact that it’s okay to be where you are and it’s okay to transparently communicate where you want to be, and I think people really just appreciate that honesty.
Deborah: For Showers Pass, transparent and honest communication with their customers wasn’t only an important marketing objective, it also establishes a method of accountability for the company. Putting your intentions out to the public when you aren’t sure what specific outcomes you’ll achieve or when, is scary, Stephanie acknowledges. But for Stephanie and for Kate and for the OIA sustainability team, this whole thing and the theme of the boot camps is really “progress, not perfection.” It’s something that Stephanie and her team took to heart, and on Earth Day this year—just about a month after the Seattle boot camp—Showers Pass published its sustainability plan on its website. She acknowledges the company set ambitious goals but wanted to make sure its customers understand the brand’s commitment.
Stephanie: Yeah. Well, I think it’s important to communicate, “This is our plan. These are our goals. We’re not there yet, but this is the direction that we’re moving.” It kind clicked for me when I … I think about like, “Everybody can relate to climate change.” And the carbon emissions at the factories are putting out there, that’s directly related to climate change. And so really it’s basically trying to communicate to the customers, “We know this is happening. We know this is a problem. This is what we’re doing to try to reduce our impact. This is the direction that we’re going, and we’re going to be giving updates a few times a year.” And hopefully this becomes a conversation that more and more companies are having with their customers because it’s really gotten to the point where it’s necessary. It’s really necessary, and I think consumers are going to be seeing it more, and expecting it more, and just wanting to know that the companies that they … the brands that they love and trust are in this conversation and doing something about it.
Deborah: Whether your brand is already a part of the sustainability conversation or wants to jump in but isn’t sure where to start and what to say, OIA’s boot camps are just one of many tools and resources that can help you walk the walk and talk the talk.
Kate: The boot camp I feel like was the perfect amount of information for me as a communicator and as a marketer to know what to ask, know what to focus on, know what’s important and also importantly know what not to say. I think sometimes we can step in it without even realizing it because we say something we shouldn’t say. So just to kind of know those and watch out. From a communicator’s or a marketer’s standpoint, I feel like it’s essential just to arm yourselves with that.
And then, there’s the relationship building if you do go like I did, you go with some other members of your team from a cross-functional perspective. It’s a day that you get to spend just talking about your business. Sometimes, time out of the office is the greatest gift possible because you can actually have a focused conversation that you would never have if you’re fitting it in like a 45 minute time spot and between two other meetings. Some beautiful synergies can come out of that or discoveries or things that become the little seed of a campaign or a way we portray something or an operations’ idea.
Three more boot camps are already on the calendar, including our next one on June 16 in Denver.
If you’re already planning to travel to Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, it’s easy and financially efficient to tack on a day before the trade show to come learn from and share with your peers and the industry’s foremost experts. Register here. If Denver doesn’t make sense for your company or your schedule, there are two more opportunities in 2019. New York City September 19 and Costa Mesa California on December 5.
That’s all from me on this edition of Audio Outdoorist. Stay tuned for future stories from NEMO, Showers Pass and other boot camp attendees as they navigate their post boot-camp sustainability journeys. You can also read about how other industry brands are taking steps toward greater sustainability in our online series, “Sustainability: The First Step is the Hardest.”