The biannual Outdoor Retailer trade show in the USA is an enormous event. This year it has relocated to Colorado in protest at the state government of Utah supporting moves by the Trump administration to gut protection for federal conservation reserves. This shift marks a growing willingness to act to protect wild lands.

As Anna Callaghan from Outside magazine noted at the start of the show:

“We hope (wild lands) will be preserved and will remain open to the recreationists of future generations. That sentiment is widely shared by the $887 billion outdoor industry. Last year, the industry decided it was time to act in accordance with its values” and move it away from Utah.

Scott Miller of the Wilderness Society noted that “as the move from Utah demonstrated, the public land conservation community and outdoor industry have a lot in common.” The outdoor industry (and it’s peak body the Outdoor Industry Association, or OIA) is increasingly politically active and vocal as a block (as was shown by the 350 businesses that signed on to a letter to the president opposing the wind back of federal protections to national monuments).

This renewed activism around protection of wild places is part of a broader attempt to make the industry more sustainable.

This year’s show has featured some significant announcements by companies who are seeking to provide lower impact products that are based on ethical and sustainable supply chains. Some companies, like Toad & Co are even talking about the idea of the ‘circular economy’, where resources are re-used rather than lost to landfill at the end of their productive life. This company was “one of the first manufacturers to partner with The Renewal Workshop to give their damaged apparel a second life. The Renewal Workshop takes unsellable clothing from manufacturers, works their fix-it magic then sells it to the consumer – keeping countless pounds of waste out of landfills”. For background on the various areas of work around sustainability being carried out by OIA members, check here.

One of the aspects that I find particularly inspiring is the growing mobilisation around the key issue of climate change. This is the biggest single threat to the wild places that outdoor recreationists love: from the Great Barrier Reef to the mountains of the Australian south east and Tasmania, it poses an existential threat to the landscapes we love. And in the USA, the industry is responding.

Partly this is because of the hostile refusal of the Trump administration to act on climate and the withdrawal from international attempts to limit warming. As the OIA notes, ‘to fill the void (of climate leadership), American corporations, businesses, and state and local governments are taking action to address this threat. From internal mitigation efforts such as supply chain management and business practices to advocacy at the federal, state and local levels, they are working across political lines to address the threat’. As noted by the OIA, ‘the challenge of global warming too often leads us to conclude it is overwhelming and unsolvable. Yet there is hope, backed by real science and good old-fashioned human ingenuity’.

In response to the threat of climate change, the OIA ‘works with policymakers to develop a comprehensive response to climate change that reflects the severity of the situation and accounts for the interests of the outdoor recreation industry’.

Another small attempt to leverage off the shift from Utah is a petition which calls on the Colorado governor to oppose all efforts to undermine public lands and be a strong advocate against climate change.

The petition says:

The Outdoor Retailer show is in Denver because not everyone recognizes the value of public lands. After two decades in Utah, outdoor companies decided they’d had enough of the anti-conservation policies and rhetoric employed by that state’s politicians, so they left.

Colorado has a rich tradition of keeping public lands protected. Unfortunately, recent votes taken by some in its congressional delegation go against that by proposing to expand drilling and undermine national monuments. Additionally, climate change, which threatens public lands across the nation in a clear and urgent way, demands a response from lawmakers. 

Outdoor recreation provides a massive number of jobs and huge volumes of investment. In the USA, the outdoor recreation industry makes up one the largest sectors of the national economy overall, generating annual consumer spending of $887 billion that in turn contributes $125 billion in federal, state, and local taxes. That’s well more than consumer spending on pharmaceuticals ($466 billion) and motor vehicles and parts ($465 billion). It generates 7.6 million jobs, or almost one million more jobs than computer technology, the next largest category. ‘The eclectic scope of recreation-related jobs ranges from hydrogeologists to retail sales staff to product designers to guides’.

Australia. The Great Silence.

It’s the same here in Australia. Tourism represents 3.2% of Australia’s GDP and contributes A$55 billion to the national economy each year.  The sector employs almost 600,000 people.

Unlike the USA, the outdoor recreation industry here is surprising quiet on environmental and climate issues.

Apart from a few operators who rely on a healthy Great Barrier Reef, very few tourism or outdoor companies are vocal on environmental issues. Beyond the international brand Patagonia, there are mostly tumble weeds blowing through the space where there should be leadership on the issues that affect the industry: defending wild lands and ensuring action on climate change.

It took a long time but the renewable energy sector is now more vocal in support of renewable energy targets. The farming community in increasingly vocal on the threats posed by climate change. The insurance industry is increasingly vocal. Where is the outdoor industry?

The election of Donald Trump greatly sharpened the political and cultural divide in the USA. It saw a concerted attempt to wind back federal protection of the environment and action on global warming. This rapid change forced many people and businesses from their previous complacency. Australia is different: we are more like the frog in the warming water: it may be getting warmer but its not boiling yet. The attacks on environment and climate action have been less of a core narrative of the federal government, and have been resisted by some of the more moderate members of the Coalition. Yet the temperature keeps going up. At what point does an industry, which is reliant on a healthy environment to survive, get off the fence and start taking public action? As a forum at the OIA show put it: when governments fail, others must lead, and get on with the job of ‘Taking on Global Warming When Our Country Isn’t’.