Yakima: The First Step Is The Hardest
It took a nudge from the company's biggest retail buyer to get Yakima thinking seriously about sustainability. After auditing its supply chain with the Higg Index and making a series of small but impactful steps, now Yakima is doing the nudging to get its own suppliers and other outdoor companies on a better path.
This is Part 2 of a series. Read part 1: Klean Kanteen.
It would be hard to find an outdoor company that doesn’t consider sustainability a worthy goal. Protecting the environment is a natural fit for outdoor brands, yet there’s an irony here. “We want to make sure the gear we use doesn’t come at the expense of the places that we love,” says Nikki Hodgson, sustainable business innovation manager for the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA).
While wise outdoor brands may endeavor to protect the places where their products are enjoyed, the sustainability efforts at many companies today remain fairly superficial and often don’t dig into the place where we can make the biggest and most impactful change: the supply chain. Launching a sustainability program that’s strategic, targeted, and that has meaningful impact is certainly possible, though it may seem daunting at first. “It’s a complex problem,” says Hodgson. “There’s so much to be done, and the best way to tackle it is collaboration in the outdoor industry.” But also, companies can’t blindly go forward, says Hodgson. “You need data. Tools like the Higg Index drive action.” And after that? Companies can look to OIA’s Sustainability Working Group (SWG) for resources, training, and the collaborative support of a network of like-minded companies.
In this series of profiles, OIA takes a close look at a few outdoor brands that have created legitimate programs to reduce their impact on the environment. Invariably, each began with small or isolated efforts, but by more deeply exploring supply chains, studying data, collaborating with other outdoor brands, and using auditing tools like the Higg Index, these companies have been successful in growing their sustainability programs in substantive ways.
Laying the Groundwork
Protecting the environment is a natural fit for Yakima, which makes racks and rooftop cargo boxes that transport people’s gear into wild places. “It’s always been part of who we are, but not in a formal manner,” explains Emily Davis, Yakima’s director of operations. The company has always tried to keep its racks out of landfills by creating durable product. And for years, the shells of Yakima’s cargo boxes have been made with up to 85-percent-recycled materials—old cargo boxes, hot tubs, and garden pots that have gone through a regrind process.
Two years ago, with a nudge from big retailers like REI, sustainability moved to the front burner for Yakima. “REI is one of our biggest customers, and we started seeing messaging that sustainability was a big priority for them,” says Davis. “It triggered us to say, ‘We need to take a serious look at this.’” Davis was inspired by attending meetings at the summer Outdoor Retailer show in 2016. “It was eye-opening and exciting for me to sit with other brands and retailers and hear about what they had on their agendas.”
Yakima dived right in. By October of that year, the company, which has just 100 employees in its Portland, Oregon-based headquarters, formed a core sustainability team of six and an extended team of 10, including designers, engineers, salespeople, and project management and executive team members, with Davis spearheading the overall effort.
One of the first challenges the team tackled was completing the Higg Index, a self-assessment tool that looks at supply chain issues such as chemical management, end of life, transportation, packaging, energy, water, and fair labor. The Higg Index was developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, based on an earlier tool called the Eco Index, which had been developed by the Outdoor industry’s Sustainability Working Group.
“A lot of it was very new for us,” says Davis. “[With the Higg] we realized there were a lot of areas of opportunity to focus on.” The Higg audit shines a spotlight on “end of life” issues. “Unlike apparel and footwear, our products inherently have a long life,” explains Davis. However, because of their size, the racks and cargo boxes are not easily returned to the company or recycled curbside. “It’s a challenging thing for us,” says Davis.
Yakima is working with its retailers to get overstocked or damaged racks back in-house. If product can’t be put back into inventory (best-case scenario), Yakima works with local partners like Portland’s ReRack to sell used products as well as to disassemble the racks and use them for parts or to find other creative ways to repurpose the materials. “We’re working to keep as many racks as possible out of dumpsters,” says Davis.
The company is also in talks with REI to sell cosmetically damaged racks through the REI Garage and setting up local collection bins so consumers can dump old racks, which can then be shipped to ReRack.
“We’ve also had great calls with Burton. We’ve talked to the people at Bluesign. There were places where we’ve gotten stuck, and we’ve been able to find other companies that will let us ask 50 million questions. It can be hard to know where to start, but if companies come together and learn from one another, we can make an impact.”
—Emily Davis, director of operations, Yakima
After completing the Higg assessment, Yakima was also inspired to change its design guidelines to give its products a longer life. Today, engineers design product with as many replaceable parts as possible. “So, if you break a strap, you don’t need to replace the whole rack,” explains Davis. “You just buy a new strap.”
Another point of focus highlighted by the Higg was packaging. “Our products are big and bulky, so we end up using a lot of corrugated [cardboard],” says Davis. Now when engineers are designing a new product, the goal is for the packaging to be fully curbside recyclable, eliminating any hazardous, non-recyclable inks and stickers. Additionally, the company is trying to limit the number of corrugated inserts and the amount of foam used to protect the product during shipping. “It’s led us to think creatively,” says Davis. “We’re looking at options like wrapping product in reusable bags or even towels—something the consumer can use.”
The Higg Index audit in 2017 also inspired Yakima to create a supplier code of conduct that the team is working to fully implement by the end of 2018. “When we think about sustainability, we go to the environment. But it’s also about treating people fairly, paying fair wages, and creating safe work environments,” says Davis. Yakima will implement its new supplier code of conduct in 2018.
Alongside consumer-facing initiatives, Yakima is working locally to promote sustainability in its Oregon headquarters. In 2017, the company was awarded a gold certification from Clackamas County for its green initiatives in constructing its headquarters. Those including everything from enviro-friendly cleaning products to LED lighting to recyclable coffee filters in the break room. Yakima hosts company-wide training sessions on recycling and carbon footprints. “We want to bring sustainability to the forefront with the entire staff,” says Davis.
“When we think about sustainability, we go to the environment. But it’s also about treating people fairly, paying fair wages, and creating safe work environments.”
—Emily Davis, director of operations, Yakima.
Tapping into the Outdoor Network
Davis points out that collaboration among outdoor companies is one of the best ways a brand can launch a sustainability effort. She recommends attending the OIA Sustainability Working Group meetings at Outdoor Retailer and connecting with other companies. Columbia, which is also headquartered in Oregon, invited Yakima to a one-day sustainability workshop. “We learned how to communicate our sustainability messaging upwards and sideways, and they walked us through their labor code of conduct,” ” says Davis.
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“We’ve also had great calls with Burton. We’ve talked to the people at Bluesign,” she says. “There were places where we’ve gotten stuck, and we’ve been able to find other companies that will let us ask 50 million questions.”
“It can be hard to know where to start, but if companies come together and learn from one another, we can make an impact,” she says.