7 Outdoor Businesses to Be Proud Of

outbusThe outdoor industry has always been a blend of passion and business: people who love their sport and the places they ply it in, who also have to make a living in an increasingly competitive world. Here are some companies that have done well and done good at the same time.

Untitled-1Astral Designs
For decades, most Personal Flotation Devices and Life Jackets have been made with PVC: it’s cheap and holds its form well. But it’s also a nasty material, and it’s manufacture and disposal produces dioxin, a carcinogen. Phillip Curry began searching for alternative with Lotus Designs, and later after starting North Carolina-based Astral Buoyancy. Gaia, a non-PVC foam, hit the market in 2006, and held its shape better than kapok, the only non-PVC alternative at the time. Non-PVC foam has been adapted by other PFD manufacturers, but its Astral that begun the trend.

The New Zealand-based manufacturer of merino wool doesn’t use middlemen, and therefore deals directly with sheep farms and shearers. They sign long-term contracts with New Zealand farms, paying a premium while also requiring that their suppliers meet strong environmental, worker, and animal welfare standards. Their “Baacode” allows customers to trace their purchase to the farm where the wool was grown—a level of transparency virtually unknown in today’s globalized world. You’d think this would make it hard to compete—but Icebreaker now does business in 37 different countries.

Clothing was one of the first products to be outsourced to factories in the developing world, and the term “sweatshop” originated in the textile industry a century or so ago. Kokatat, which makes paddling-specific technical apparel ranging from cutting-edge drysuits to PFDs, paddle jackets, and technical layering, has bucked the trend. They still manufacture their wares in Arcata. Their customer service is also legendary, pressure-testing drysuits, and repairing worn gear rather than sending it to a landfill.

The Colorado-based pack maker goes beyond things like employee volunteer days and bike commute programs to venture in a world many outdoor companies fear to venture: conservation policy. In addition to supporting organizations like The Conservation Alliance, Osprey’s marketing director trekked to Capitol Hill to help lobby congress for the passage of the 2009 Omnibus Public Lands Bill, a massive package of wilderness and wild and scenic river designations that Barack Obama signed into law in March 2009.

Patagonia appears on most of these lists, and rightly so. The Ventura-based company, which had it’s origins with Yvon Chouinard selling climbing gear from the back of his car in Yosemite Valley, pretty much popularized the social responsibility business. Patagonia recycles your capilene underwear, makes fleece out of recycled pop bottles, took the lead in not only buying organic cotton, but in making the known the environmental damage in the cotton industry. Patagonia’s “1% for the planet” corporate contributions forced other companies to follow suit, and they’re known for funding obscure but important environmental campaigns.

Untitled-6Malden Mills
Most people only know the first part of the bittersweet story of Malden Mills. Malden invented polar fleece in 1981. When a fire just before Christmas 1995 burned down the Lawrence, MA plant, classic dollars-and-cents reasoning would have taken the insurance payment and moved manufacturing overseas. CEO Aaron Feuerstein didn’t just rebuild in Lawrence. He also paid salaries and benefits of his employees while the plant was rebuilt, and was feted by Bill Clinton as he way as the way a CEO should behave. But the ending isn’t a fairy tale. The costs hit Malden Mills hard, and three trips to bankruptcy court later, Feuerstein was out of the picture. Malden Mills was sold and is now Polartec. The plant, however, is still in Lawrence, and employs over 1,000 people—a third of the original number–in one of the poorer towns in Massachusets. Nobody said doing the right thing was easy.

Your Local Shop
Your local outdoor businesses, however small they may be, do something nobody else can: keep money in the community. When you buy something locally rather than online, the money circulates far longer in people’s wages, local purchases by the people who receive those wages, taxes that pay for local roads, schools, and parks. Local shops are part of the fabric of the outdoor community like no one else can ever be.

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