Sustainability Boot Camp: The First Step Is The Hardest

It is also surprisingly yet elusively obvious. For attendees of the intensive one-day workshop, walking the walk on corporate sustainability strategy begins by looking for impact opportunities in the places most companies ignore.

By Deborah Williams May 16, 2019

It was 3:30 in the afternoon, barely past the halfway mark in a 10-hour learning lab dominated by discussions about chemical synthesis and polymerization, raw material extraction, and tier-4 supply chain outputs. Fifty-some people were huddled in intimate work groups around small tables peppered with laptops, reusable drinking vessels and a smattering of snack food remnants. Considering the day’s tightly packed agenda and the density of information presented already, you’d have expected the collective energy to be near-flatline.

But the room was buzzing. The audience was riveted. They were sitting forward in their chairs, scribbling notes and scrutinizing the slides at the front of the room. Those slides and the experts presenting them held answers and insights to complex questions that, just that morning, loomed dauntingly in the professional lives of the attendees. They represent 30 gear and apparel brands in the outdoor and fashion industries, and their job titles range from supply chain sourcing manager to director of compliance and logistics, from president to marketing manager. Their companies make everything from apparel repair patches to lifestyle bags to camping equipment to mountain bikes. They have diverse job responsibilities, unique business objectives and a wide range of base knowledge about their supply chains.

Most arrived here acknowledging they didn’t know what they didn’t know, a reality confirmed a few times throughout the boot camp as expert after expert reinforced an elusive but surprisingly simple reality: Your biggest sustainability impacts are right in front of you where you’re not looking—in your supply chains. It’s a reality that was echoed and scaffold upon throughout the day. For some attendees, this boot camp was a first step in establishing a meaningful, achievable and impactful sustainability plan for their company. By the time the day’s program wrapped up, they had greater clarity and, hopefully, a customized list of next steps as they help their companies walk the walk on sustainability.

Most arrived here acknowledging they didn’t know what they didn’t know, a reality confirmed a few times throughout the boot camp as expert after expert reinforced an elusive but surprisingly simple reality: Your biggest sustainability impacts are right in front of you where you’re not looking—in your supply chains.

“I really wanted to go to the boot camp to identify the areas within apparel manufacturing that cause the most impact,” says Stephanie Leikas-Homolya, who, like a lot attendees, wears two hats for her company. She handles product development and marketing for Showers Pass outerwear. “I’ve seen a lot of other brands do a lot of different things in terms of what they’re focusing on…There’s so many different areas where we could start to make changes.” The boot camp was designed to help attendees identify where they should start, and the answer is different for every company.

Kate Paine, who attended the camp with two of her colleagues from Nemo Equipment says the tools delivered during the workshop allowed her team to hone in on what their unique levers are. “We immediately came back and spent a good portion of a day synthesizing everything, looking through the tools and thinking, ‘what’s going to be useful for us and which one isn’t a good fit for us.’”

Listen to Stephanie Leikas-Homolya and Kate Paine speak candidly about their OIA Sustainability Boot Camp Experience in this episode of Audio Outdoorist.


For Hanna Reichel, the strategy coordinator for Gordini USA, a glove company based in Vermont, it wasn’t just the tools coming out of the workshop that proved valuable but also the prep work she did ahead of the boot camp.

“Coming into the Seattle event, I had [reviewed] the agenda and all the materials accompanying it, and I had prepared everything related to the Gordini’s sustainability portfolio,” says Reichel. She looked forward to the event as a tool to further build on and enrich Gordini’s existing efforts. “[The portfolio] includes all of the documents that we had to date pertaining to sustainability, whether that was chemicals management, energy and climate policy, or social responsibility. Putting that all together was a great exercise for me; it really solidified where we were and gave me confidence in what I could talk about and what I needed to learn more about. And I could tell from the agenda that it was set up in a way that would really allow me to process a lot of information, sort of synthesize and hopefully leave there with a clear sense of direction.”

“There are so many different areas where we could start to make changes,” said Stephanie Leikas-Homolya of Showers Pass. The boot camp was designed to help attendees identify where they should start, and the answer is different for every company.

That was certainly the goal of the OIA Sustainable Business Innovation team when they conceived the Seattle event, the first in a series of four boot camps planned for 2019.

“For sustainability to have staying power within a business and therefore deliver the most value, you need a strategy, not just a few disparate projects,” said OIA’s Senior Director of Sustainable Business Innovation (SBI), Amy Horton. “Even though we had companies of all different shapes, sizes and levels of sustainability knowledge, everyone had the same end-goal in mind: a strategy and game plan to bring back to their organizations. To make that less daunting, we offered a foundational, progressive and aspirational framework for setting goals.”

Intentional and meticulous in their planning, the team sent eight-page self-assessment surveys to the 30 registered companies four weeks before the event, then thoroughly reviewed the responses to understand the range of base knowledge of all 50 attendees. They then curated speakers, refined the agenda and customized worksheets, tools and group activities to meet every attendee where they were.

“Right from the start I realized, we’re all in different places,” said Reichel. “Some of us are at zero, some of us are 10, some of us are at 85 in terms of where we are in the planning stages of this.”

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Horton and Jessie Curry, OIA’s SBI manager, took full advantage of that diversity, putting attendees in small groups that allowed them to learn from peers who were similarly positioned. The agenda divided the day into four sections, each between one and three hours long: Learn, Prioritize, Plan, Connect. A mix of presentations, small group work, team exercises and unstructured networking gave the day a nice rhythm.

 “Right from the start I realized, we’re all in different places. Some of us are at zero, some of us are 10, some of us are at 85 in terms of where we are in the planning stages of this.” —Hanna Reichel, strategy coordinator, Gordini USA

Each group was facilitated by an expert from the Sustainability Working Group or from a partner organization who offered guidance and answered questions but who also participated as a peer. After all, as was noted many times during the daylong workshop, sustainability isn’t an end-game. There’s no finish line or ultimate pinnacle to be reached. No one will ever be able to say ‘We’ve done it. We’ve achieved full and perfect sustainability.’ The unofficial motto of the boot camps, in fact, is “progress not perfection.” It was a reminder to everyone, so-called experts included, that there is always more to be learned and that pre-competitive, collaborative cohorts like the Sustainability Working Group allow everyone to share best practices and unique insights gleaned when viewed through different lenses. During a short breakout session, in fact, it was group leader Val Bone, the director of corporate responsibility for Pacific Market International (PMI), the parent company of Stanley, and a longtime leader in the outdoor industry for her work on global supply chain sustainability, who was soliciting ideas and insights from Paine.

“I would love to learn more from you today because I feel like we could do more with our communicating and messaging,” said Bone. “It’s so tempting to just focus [marketing] on the product. It’s so important to showcase and sell your product; I’m looking at how we weave in more authentic, sustainability messaging. But I’m having some internal struggles because there’s only so much room on the website or on the packaging. So what do you say, how do you say it, when do you say it, you know?”

Nodding emphatically, Paine finished Bone’s thought: “And what’s the right thing to say, so it’s not just clutter.” Paine, who came from Ben & Jerry’s previously, shared her marketing expertise. “In the food and beverage industry, there were so many claims you could make to improve your food, and we were like, we look like NASCAR with all the badges of we’re Fair Trade Certified and we’re Non-GMO Project and then I feel like you’re not being effective in your communications either because you’re just spamming people with claims versus speaking truly from…a place of values and purpose.”

They volleyed back-and-forth like this for about 20 minutes. The conversation about authentic marketing dovetailed into the supply chain issue of packaging, with Paine acknowledging it’s a consideration for Nemo not only in their B-to-C operations but also B-to-B: “If we’re a brand that says we care about sustainability but you open a case from us in your shop’s back room, and you’re swimming in banded plastic and polybags, that’s not living our values.”

Bone interjected that Stanley is currently in R&D for biodegradable polybags. “We should talk,” she said. “I would love support on moving the needle.”

“We gotta talk about that,” Paine said enthusiastically. “Can we?” Before they’re summoned back into the larger group for the next presentation, Bone invites Paine to visit the Stanley offices to talk more about polybags and Paine unleashes a few rapid-fire questions about Bone’s in-scope and out-of-scope work, wanting to know how much of her attention is focused on supply chain and raw materials versus the working environment.

“The lion’s share, like 60 percent, is supply chain,” said Bone. “That’s where we can drive change the most quickly. To me it’s the foundation.”

Indeed, that message was at the heart of every portion of the workshop. At the outset, in fact, Horton and several early presenters that day clarified that while putting solar panels on the roof of your business’s headquarters or instituting a company-wide recycling program or developing a product end-of-life take-back program are wonderful and very legitimate elements of a sustainability program, they don’t carry the same potential for large scale impacts as efforts deeper in your supply chain, where the bulk of a product’s impact occurs, including water, energy, chemicals and carbon.

In a video he presented to the attendees during the Prioritize segment of the day, Michael Sadowski, an independent advisor and sustainability strategist drove home the point. An omniscient narrator bellowed over clips of farming and factory scenes: “About 3,000 liters of water is used to grow the cotton for just one t-shirt. Polyester generates as much greenhouse gas as 150 million cars. But as demand for materials grows, so does the opportunity. Let’s make our mark without leaving a footprint. More than ever, materials matter.”

It’s a cogent and aspirational idea, but an intimidating one, nonetheless, given that most brands in the room—and most brands anywhere around the globe—know very little about where their raw materials come from or how they’re produced before they reach the product assembly facility. And they probably know relatively little about that facility or its practices. The OIA Sustainability Boot Camp provides the tools, resources and encouragement for brands to begin exploring the depths of their supply chains and to engage stakeholders along the way—growers, facilities, suppliers, shipping companies—to join a collective effort toward lowering environmental impacts. Most important, the boot camp reassures attendees from all manner of company that they needn’t overhaul how they do business, even when thinking about a project of this magnitude.

One a-ha realization for Reichel during the boot camp was that she doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. “There are so many tools available to us,” she said. “It’s just about picking the tool that will work for us and picking the areas where we’ll have the greatest impact the most quickly.” Then, Reichel says, it’s just a matter of prioritizing action items.