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Trying to Slack in SLC at Outdoor Retailer, but CSR Wins Out

August 15th, 2008

She was shuffling through a stack of playing cards that climbing equipment manufacturer Petzl had produced. “There’s one of me in here that you did,” she said. In her hands climber after climber pulling one hard move after another flipped past. And then a stick of chewing gum, just like the baseball cards I halfheartedly collected as a kid. (at right: climbing athlete Lisa Rands with her playing card and my image)

“Here,” she pulled out the card. “Don’t let anyone else know I’ve got them.”

There was Lisa Rands cranking on a boulder problem in Squamish at the Petzl Roctrip a few years ago. Half joking, I asked her to sign it–my first athlete memorabilia–and after a long search for a sharpie, she did.

A certified celebrity in the climbing world for her athleticism, skill, and painted nails, I wouldn’t claim to really know Lisa, but at that RocTrip I had a chance to talk to her about everything BUT climbing. Like geology. And travel. And working in with her climber-photographer partner Wills Young. While I got a kick out of the kitch of the “playing card,” it was nice to see another chance acquaintance, like Lisa, again.

That is the way the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show in Salt Lake City tends to work; it seems like ‘everyone’ is there either working or schmoozing or simply catching up. In the climbing world, which has a core lifestyle founded on itinerancy, it isn’t uncommon to see far flung friends under the artificial light of the cavernous Salt Palace. I hadn’t been in three years, but it had a familiarity of home. (at left: the Seattle crew in Kasi and Andreas’s home. L-R: Marshall, Megan, Jenna, Dylan, Jenny, Roger, Andreas, Kasi, Colin, and me in red)

I was staying with Seattle transplants Kasi VerBrugghen and Andreas Schmidt; Kasi’s employer, the non profit youth media production outfit Spy Hop, had been contracted to shoot a “Project Runway” style reality show for Outdoor Retailer called “Project OR” so she was in the Salt Palace. Andreas, who works for Black Diamond, was cruising the show looking at other manufacturer’s products. Roger Strong, an ex-crab fisherman turned gear sales rep, was working the Black Diamond booth. Jenny Uehisa, another Seattle transplant who now lives in Ventura working her dream job as a designer for Patagonia, was floating through fabric meeting after fabric meeting. Jenna Wellman, a past roommate and co-worker at Feathered Friends, is now global brand manager for Therma-Rest, a Cascade Designs brand. Her partner, Dylan Johnson, came down for the weekend to witness the chaos, do some climbing, and try and get some schwag; for his efforts he ended up with a carton of Raw Revolution bars.

I ran into Sarah Bruce, another Seattleite who is a production manager for MSR, at Squatters, one of the overrun pubs near the Salt Palace. Margaret Wheeler and Scott Schell, whom I was fairly close with until they moved from Seattle to North Bend and started building a house, popped up at a book publisher’s booth. Scott has traded guiding for academia but Margaret, the second female UIAGM certified guide, was leaving early Monday morning for Europe. To guide. And I can’t forget Colin Haley, a long time friend and confidante, despite being 11 years my junior, whose alpine efforts with remarkable partners have garnered him a reputation for youthful boldness and skill. In 2006 I spent some time hanging with him in Chamonix, time I really value, but time which has also put me on the other side of the pen; both Rock and Ice and Outside Magazine have interviewed me for pieces on Colin. (at right: ladies of the industry, Jenny Uehisa, clothing designer for Patagonia and Jenna Wellman, global brand manager for Therma-Rest)

I could stumble through a list of the veritable who’s who in the climbing world, including many sales reps who put in their time pushing the limits and, as they’ve aged, segued into lifestyles more conducive of families. But I think the significance wouldn’t reach far beyond the climbing community. (at left: Dylan Johnson scamming bars with the Raw Revolution promo card featuring Chad Kellogg)

This was why I came to Salt Lake City; to see friends. To turn my brain off. To get away from thinking non-profit and researching the darkness of humanity. I had only one scheduled appointment, with the new Patagonia photo editor Jenning Steger, and with it I circled back to work.

Subordinate to Jane Sievert, an incredibly personable and supportive photo director with a desire to affect social change (and who took me surfing for my first time ever), Jenning is an enthusiastic and intelligent woman who also has a desire to make a difference. It seems everyone at Patagonia feels this way. Since Jenning had seen some of my work online, our meeting was focused on how I could work with Patagonia. We didn’t talk athletes, trips, or product, which are often the mainstays of outdoor shooting, for I have transitioned. (at right: Jenning Steger, photo editor at Patagonia)

I am no longer out shooting climbing imagery on speculation, I just don’t have the time. I want my imagery to tell a story that can make a difference, that can create awareness or spur someone into action and I want to work with companies that can leverage their brand to do this. If a company is using organic cotton and slave-free labor, its product will cost more. However, I believe consumers who can afford to make lifestyle choices want to live responsibly. Helping them understand how they can do this is where my storytelling skills can be applied.

To this end, I met with several Patagonia staffers whose jobs deal with corporate social responsibility (CSR) or environmental campaigns. I feel hopeful that we’ll be able to work together, however the trade show is the trade show and there are a lot of ideas tossed around. (at left: it wasn’t all work and CSR, I did skip out to go climbing. here kasi and andreas cross a creek in American Fork canyon)

A chance rendezvous with Jenny near the Black Diamond booth led me to a panel discussion on CSR; one of her Patagonia coworkers was speaking. There were representatives from four equipment manufacturers and a consultant speaking about how to change corporate culture so suppliers in developing countries and, most notably China, could employ better environmental and social standards. Many of these businesses, it sounds like, do wish to be better work places but with market pressures and the demands of a variety of clients, it can be difficult to be as socially or environmentally conscious as a business might want.

So the question arises, if a supplier isn’t up to par, do you walk away? If you’re a big enough client, that might work. If you’re a small segment of their overall business, like most outdoor industry manufacturers tend to be, then you have less influence. For instance, one of the panelists said their second tier suppliers in China, the ones providing components for the final products, had one set of books for the government and another more representative of the reality. This company had chosen to stay with the suppliers because they feel they can slowly affect change from within rather than affect none by walking away. He then challenged the audience to find any company in China in that industry that didn’t have similarly poor environmental, social, or safety standards. They all could be improved, he said. (at right: Kasi pulling down on .12c limestone as Andreas belays. I had fun, but got the smack-down. I’m out of shape for this stuff).

The solution, it seems, lays in broad efforts to support social justice and environmental standards throughout the outdoor industry. Other industries, much larger ones, are making these efforts. The panelists were speaking about a unified corporate ideology that makes it easier for suppliers and for consumers to understand their role in this effort. They spoke of communication and transparency, of providing retailers–the consumer interface–with tools to explain just why that organic cotton, slave free, sustainable, recyclable, cradle-to-cradle t-shirt costs $40. It’s not just a t-shirt you’re buying, it’s life support for the planet and freedom for your fellow citizens.

At its core, the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show is about profit. It’s about selling a lifestyle. But it’s made up of individuals who all have a role in how this is done. An old friend of mine, sales rep Jackton Downard, recently did a graduate program in systems management with an emphasis on environmental and social responsibility. While he’s still selling socks (great socks from Teko) and other gear, he’s also involved with the Outdoor Industry Alliance’s Eco Working Group trying to show how it can be profitable to do business responsibly. (at left: Jackton appeasing me, the photographer, at the Teko socks booth)

What if this attitude and awareness were to spread further through the industry? What if athletes not only inspired us to live our dreams, climb hard, or get out into the wilderness, but also showed us consumers what we could do to buy right? What if advertising dollars communicated how a company was struggling to meet its own standards of corporate social responsibility, but in that struggle they revealed the complexities of the system and, again, how we can play a part?

I had dinner with a marketing representative from W.L. Gore, the company that makes what is arguably the most popular and effective waterproof/breathable laminate and what is probably in your rain jacket. The conversation trended towards my interests in corporate social responsibility. Enthusiastically, he asked “What can a corporation like Gore do?” A lot. But so can the rest of us.

I’ve got a “playing card” of Lisa Rands pulling down hard. On the back it lists her notable ascents. But what if it also listed her degree in Geology and her greatest social or environmental concerns? It’s a step towards awareness that’s as easy as a little soy-based ink on some recyclable card stock.

Well, here’s few more pictures for you. All in all, the show was good fun. We cracked beers at 3.30, sipped scotch at Mammut, danced until 2am, then had tacos on State Street. Marshall swing danced with Lynn Hill, Roger got up a 5 to solo a route in the canyon, I met Andrew Kornylak and his sister Christine, and Colin made the right decision.

Seattle’s Vertical World representing at the bouldering competition:

Below: the overall scene at the bouldering comp. Located on a parking garage rooftop, it was sweaty-hot and threatening to thunder and rain. amazing athletic performances though.

Below: Longtime friend and now alpine radster celeb Colin Haley.

Below: My images seemed to have a stronger presence than myself at the show, here a pose-down photo I took of Colin Haley at the Chamonix rail station in 2006 helps to sell Scarpa footwear.

Below: At the Black Diamond booth (they make climbing hardware) are L-R, back to front, Brent Zwiers, a buyer for Feathered Friends, who can cook, sew, play french horn, build houses, and gets hitched August 31st; Gavin…who loves offwidths, Trout Creek, and lives in PDX; Jenny Uehisa, who recently left us in Seattle to be a clothing designer for Patagonia; Jenna Wellman, Therma-Rest global brand manager, ex-roommate, and ex-coworker and whose wedding I’ll photograph in Thailand this winter; and the venerable Peter Hickner who, with his wife Carol, founded and still run Feathered Friends. My alma mater.

Below: Andreas Schmidt, for comedy’s sake, striking a pose. I shoulda had him remove that badge….

Below: Recent Seattle transplant Kasi VerBrugghen (in the orange tank) and her alumni students from the non profit youth media production studio Spy Hop, where she is managing director.

Below: Nuway Textiles VP of Business Development, Larry Harrison, as show commentator for the spoof “Project OR” where student designers from around the country were tasked with creating an outdoor-focused garment in 48 hours. Kasi’s Spy Hop team produced two daily segments for the Project OR tv show aired in the Salt Palace.

Below: Project OR winner Ryanneil Ocampo documenting his work.

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One Response to “Trying to Slack in SLC at Outdoor Retailer, but CSR Wins Out”

  1. Roger Strong says:

    Yo Tim! I hadn’t seen this until today…great images and suberb writing…

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