The Outdoor Retail Oligopolies: The outdoor industry has an environmental image problem

9593628776_c3f209bfaa_oAn oligopoly is an industry dominated by small number of key players. As you can imagine this can result in all sorts of collusion and reduces competition. Text book oligopolies are Ford, GMC and Chrysler or Coca Cola and Pepsi. Canadians would immediately recognize the big 3 cell service providers, Bell, Telus and Rogers. Consumers or the average shopper equate this lack of choice to higher prices and poorer service with little to no accountability.

Now, what if these companies had names like The North Face, Arc’teryx and Columbia and what if the collusion they were involved in is about more than the retail price of a Gore-Tex rain jacket? What if they were colluding to hide the environmentally unsustainable practices they use to sell outdoor gear and apparel?

First of all, the outdoor retail industry isn’t as diverse in big brands names as you might think. This is because multinational corporations are not any different from General Mills, P&G, Kraft, Nestle, and PepsiCo and own many of the outdoor retail brands, some of which you may have never heard of. Before we get started, it’s interesting to note that outdoor brand, Eddie Bauer, was owned by General Mills from 1971 until 1988.

One parent company you might not have heard of is VF Corporations, whose own daughter companies include Timberland, The North Face and Smartwool, amongst other apparel brands. This global conglomerate based in Greensbro, North Carolina was called out by founder Bill McKibben for its manufacturing practices overseas in a Grist article called Your hiking gear might come from a sweatshop. Here’s how you can fix that. The article came after a string of building collapses and fires at garment factories in Bangladesh that killed workers. VF Brands refused to sign on to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord that local unions and human rights activists demanded to cut the risk of such disasters. McKibben called for REI to boycott the sale of North Face products in its stores if VF Brands wouldn’t step up.

Amer Sports Corporation doesn’t just own a scant number of brands, they own Arc’teryx, Salomon, Suunto and Mavic, to name a few. This Finnish-headquartered global entity bought Salomon and Mavic in 2001 and later acquired Arc’teryx from Adidas. Arc’teryx products were once all designed and manufactured in Canada but many Arc’teryx garments are now manufactured in China and other South East Asian countries, including Myanmar (formerly Burma). They still make their harnesses and one $700 alpine jacket in Canada. Arc’teryx is still small enough that they can employ stricter quality control standards so the reputation of the brand is still strong and they can tout their long product lifecycle and product lifetime warranty. Despite their small size, however, their commitment to sustainability is weak at best. Arc’teryx fears putting a proactive sustainability plan forward that would make them accountable in the public sphere. Smaller than brands like The North Face and Patagonia, Arc’teryx tries to stay under the radar despite belonging to a larger conglomerate.

Some other notable holding and subsidiaries relationships include Columbia Sportswear owns Montrail, Mountain Hardware and its namesake, Columbia. There are a few outdoor retail brands that don’t fall under a corporate umbrella. Mountain Equipment Coop is one of them; also REI and Patagonia are their own privately owned enterprises.

So what are the outdoor oligopolies colluding to do to our environment? Simply put, they have been putting sustainability in the back seat to profits. GreenPeace recently called out manufactures of outdoor garments that use Per-fluorinated compounds (PFCs) in their report “Chemistry for any weather,” which summarizes the findings of two independent laboratories it commissioned to evaluate the chemical content of specific pieces of outdoor waterproof clothing. The report stems from their successful Detox Campaign they embarked on in 2011.

PFCs are class of synthetic chemicals regarded as emerging contaminants. Many compounds from this family of chemicals are listed in the Stockholm Convention as persistent organic pollutants. PFCs are used in fire-fighting foams, industrial surfactants, insecticides, and surface treatments for paper and textiles. PFCs are primarily used in outerwear to repel water and oil, and are part of fabrics like Gore-Tex. PFCs are thermally and chemically stable and as a result are also environmentally persistent. They are found globally in all environmental matrices, such as surface water, ground water, and sediment, even in remote locations such as the Arctic. PFCs also persist through wastewater treatment processes, eventually being discharged to the environment. Negative health effects on humans and animals resulting from long- term exposure to PFCs include developmental toxicity such as low birth weight, birth defects, and endocrine disruption in the regulation of thyroid and sex hormones. Given their widespread use, products containing PFCs have been and will continue to be disposed in landfills after their useful life.

With such scientific evidence in front of them, what did the outdoor brands do? They took a play from big tobacco and big oil and responded unanimously: presently there is no alternative and we are working to find one.

Not satisfied, GreenPeace launched a social media campaign aimed at all the big outdoor brands which forced them to respond. The North Face and Arc’teryx simply defaulted to their website which lists PFCs in the Chemical Responsibility section and doesn’t deny it uses PFCs in some of its weatherproof products. They both say the use of PFCs “is conducted responsibly and exceeds or is compliant with all federal and international regulations governing chemical use.” They both also claim they are always identifying new and innovative ways to improve the sustainability of their supply chains. They also point to the phasing-out of Durable Water Repellency (DWR) finishes that use C8 or long-chain fluorocarbons and their replacement with a different DWR, known as C6 short-chain.

Outdoor retailers say DWR technology is essential to the weatherproof products’ performance and durability of a waterproof membrane because it enables the clothing to bead water, resist wetting, stay lightweight, dry faster and remain stain resistant. Their logic is that the longer a waterproof jacket remains waterproof, the longer it stays out of the landfill, therefore increasing the product lifecycle. Meanwhile, they claim to be pursuing ‘green chemistry’ as a solution.

Over a decade ago, Nikwax decided to not pursue using PFCs in their garment water proofing products. While their product has many drawbacks to products that use PFCs, Nikwax is non-toxic. Nikwax’s reasoning for not using PFCs stemmed from an environmental catastrophe that was decades in the making. The New York Times article, The Lawyer who Became DuPonts Worst Nightmare tells the story of a lawyer trying to take Dupont to task for its role in the production of PFCs.

In 1951, DuPont started purchasing PFOA (which the industry refers to as C8) from 3M. 3M invented PFOA just four years earlier. DuPont ended up pumping hundreds of thousands of pounds of PFOA powder into the Ohio River. The company also dumped 7,100 tons of PFOA-laced sludge into ‘‘digestion ponds’’: open, unlined pits. The chemical seeped straight into the ground and entered the local water table, which supplied drinking water to more than 100,000 people.

Just like cigarette companies had conducted their own medical research into the medical effects of smoking, DuPont knew in 1961 that the chemical could increase the size of the liver in animals but they did not tell the E.P.A. at the time. The E.P.A would later find out through their own investigation into the toxicity of PFOA that PFOA had been detected in American blood banks, something 3M and DuPont had known as early as 1976. By 2003 the average concentration of PFOA in the blood of an adult American was four to five parts per billion.

DuPont had a viable candidate to PFOA since 1993. The New York Times article points out there was an interoffice memo that talked about a viable candidate that appeared to be less toxic and stayed in the body for a much shorter duration of time. DuPont decided against it. The risk was too great: Products manufactured with PFOA were an important part of DuPont’s business, worth $1 billion in annual profit. In 2000, 3M ceased production of PFOA. DuPont, rather than use an alternative compound, built a new factory to manufacture the substance for its own use.

A 2006 agreement between the US-EPA and 8 of the largest PFC producers globally agreed to phase out C8 production and create replacements such as C6. C6 DWR treatments still have a degree of ecotoxicity concerns, but these are said to be at a vastly lower scale than their C8 predecessors. Greenpeace said it had found traces of shorter-chain PFCs — as well as long-chain PFCs — in its study of remote areas. As part of its agreement with the E.P.A., DuPont ceased production and use of PFOA in 2013. DuPont, which is currently negotiating a merger with Dow Chemical, last year severed its chemical businesses: They have been spun off into a new corporation called Chemours.

In 2015, 200 scientists from a variety of disciplines signed the Madrid Statement, which expresses concern about the production of all fluorochemicals, or PFASs, including those that have replaced PFOA. Among the Madrid scientists’ recommendations: ‘‘Enact legislation to require only essential uses of PFASs’’ and ‘‘Whenever possible, avoid products containing, or manufactured using, PFASs. These include many products that are stain-resistant, waterproof or nonstick.’’

Despite this, almost all manufacturers in the Outdoor Industry still use PFCs and their use is still increasing. PFCs are big business and the same kinds of professional PR companies have been adopted to protect them as those which are used by the tobacco companies, to great effect.

So, how did non-outdoor retailers respond to Green Peace’s Detox campaign? H&M announced in 2012 plans to stop selling clothes using fabrics that contain PFCs. H&M’s decision followed similar PFCs bans from apparel giants Marks & Spencer, Nike, Adidas and Puma. The bans are largely superfluous, as water-proof, durable clothes are typically not what people expect from H&M. This low hanging fruit resonates well with the brands environmental image. It’s embarrassing though that retailers like H&M, who rely on unsustainable fast-fashion trends, are years ahead of the outdoor retail industry.

Perhaps a single brand subsidiary cannot simply change supply chain practices. Gore- Tex is much like how the word “Jeep” is casually used to define any 4×4 or how “Kleenex” has come to mean any tissue, “Gore-Tex” is used by the general public to refer to any waterproof/breathable product. The parent corporations together could force Gore-Tex to clean up its act or phase it out altogether from the supply chains of their daughter companies.

The reality is these Gore-Tex jackets are big money for outdoor brands. We also all know that the majority of Gore-Tex jackets aren’t being worn to be safe and dry in the Himalayas or the Andes. They are being worn as technical fashion products to commute to work or walk the dog on a rainy day. The landscape the majority of these products are being sold for does not reflect the environment advertised in outdoor retailers marketing campaigns. So the question is, should outdoor retailers get to continue to sell products to fashion-focused individuals while claiming their products need to meet such higher performance standards even if it means destruction to the environment?

Patagonia, a private company has made environmentalism a core part of its marketing efforts, touting its use of recycled and ethically-sourced materials. Patagonia continues to use Gore-Tex. The company is a Benefit corporation, meaning it includes social and environmental performance alongside its financial goals. Patagonia is in a position where they could put human health and the environment first and foremost ahead of profits by phasing out Gore-Tex altogether.

Being outdoors instills leadership in people. Perhaps shareholders and corporate executives should get out into the very nature they sell and look for the leadership they need to clean up the outdoor retail industry.


Li, B., Danon-schaffer, M., Li, L. Y., Ikonomou, M. G., & Grace, J. R. (2012). Occurrence of PFCs and PBDEs in landfill leachates from across Canada. Water, Air and Soil Pollution, 223(6), 3365-3372. doi:

Trevor Donald worked for Arc’teryx for almost two years. He has a degree in Geography and Environmental Science and a diploma in Natural Resources Management. He helped bring the Arc’teryx brand from the West Coast to Canada’s largest urban city of Toronto. In 2015 the Arc’teryx Toronto flagship store made nearly $2 million dollars, mostly from the sale of Gore-Tex jackets.

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