As lockdowns went into effect, companies shuttered, and air pollution cleared, a new sort of think piece began to appear—one that called for a greener reopening that looked nothing like the unsustainable pre-pandemic business as usual.
The call came from all corners—from individuals as well as massive corporate entities. Some were written by people within the outdoor industry; a retailer in Salida, Colorado, penned one for SNEWS entitled “The Outdoor Industry Makes Way Too Much Stuff.” Others had broader audiences; a McKinsey & Company analysis asked and answered, “Given the scope and magnitude of this sudden crisis, and the long shadow it will cast, can the world afford to pay attention to climate change and the broader sustainability agenda at this time? Our firm belief is that we simply cannot afford to do otherwise.”
Amy Horton, OIA’s senior director of sustainable business innovation, whose team launched the Climate Action Corps (CAC) at the Snow Show, was one of the many people at home reading these op-eds while also worrying about the survival of businesses in the outdoor industry amid the pandemic. “It’s interesting. A couple of articles that have come out recently have really helped us spread a clearer message,” she said.
“The pandemic has taken a lot from us, and I think everyone knows that,” Horton said. “ It’s a terrible time. But it’s also given us this point in time to pause. Let’s seize the moment to decarbonize. Now is the time.”
Horton’s team was riding momentum off the launch of the corps when the pandemic hit. But with retailers closing and manufacturers suddenly struggling, they wanted to be sensitive to what was happening. The team hit the brakes on recruiting. After all, people were losing their livelihoods.
But while some companies were occupied with simply staying in business, others suddenly had some extra time on their hands and were asking for the CAC guidebook and next steps on carbon footprinting, which was the green light the team needed. “We’ve kicked off the work, we’ve released the first version of the guidebook, we held an orientation and our first training, and we’ve had really good feedback,” Horton said.
As of the end of May, 72 companies had joined the climate corps. Twenty-four of those joined in March and April. OIA decided to relax some of the deadlines for the CAC. Now, if companies join by July 1, they can still become founding members.
Because CAC members work collectively to help lower their carbon footprints, Horton believes sustainability can still be accessible, even in a tough economy. “The fact of the matter is, it’s never been cheaper or easier to do this,” she said. “If you didn’t have the Climate Action Corps, you might go and struggle on your own, take a year, or pay a consultant $50,000. But for a fraction of that price, you can jump in right now.”
Some of the founding members have used the beta version of Climate Neutral’s footprinting tool to get started. Others, like Columbia Sportswear, were already footprinting their complex supply chains but are benefiting from the collective action the CAC can create, according to Guru Larson, global sustainability lead at Columbia.
“We’re just completing our second year of full measurement,” Larson said of Columbia’s greenhouse gas footprinting. “It’s not easy. But one of the reasons we joined the CAC is collective action to move the needle on change going forward.” Larson is hoping for two possible types of collaboration: the collective purchase of renewable energy and targeted environmental improvements along the supply chain, such as a factory multiple companies use.
But you have to believe it’s important. “We didn’t decide to take this on as a strategic priority for the industry because it was a boom time,” Horton said. “We got into it because we knew it was a decadeslong effort—the next 10 years of which are extremely critical—for our industry and the world.”
Earth Day amid the pandemic brought positive news from Climate Neutral. The nonprofit announced it had certified a cohort of 105 companies. “I was overjoyed. I thought we’d be at 30,” said Climate Neutral CEO Austin Whitman.
“I just thought voluntary carbon commitments—forget the time, even the money, while modest, is not insignificant—would be first on the chopping block,” Whitman said. “But instead, we heard that people are so committed to climate as part of their core identity that when this is over, they wanted to show they had stuck with it.”
Meanwhile, Climate Neutral is still having conversations with brands that expressed interest but now want to delay their commitment. “If you want to certify for this year but you can’t, let’s just have you get into our footprinting tool. You’ve got a year’s lead time now, and you have a year to think about becoming committed.”
Whitman is anticipating increased interest in Climate Neutral’s footprinting tool. “It’s a very cheap, easy-to-implement option,” he said. “We think in a time when budgets are constrained and layoffs are happening, the people who are left behind aren’t going to throw their hands up. They’re going to look at what they can do with what’s left. It’ll allow us to keep conversations going; it’ll allow us to continue to pursue the mission.”
Climate Neutral is still facing some challenges. Grant funding is harder to come by now, and the organization initiated a volunteer corps. “It’s not a grant, but we’ve been able to backfill with just an unbelievable show of support from people who care about climate,” Whitman said
There are signs consumers are behind the companies paying attention to the climate crisis. A report from the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Higg Co, and Boston Consulting Group found, “surveys with key stakeholders, study of prior global crises, and an analysis of economic trends and consumer sentiment make it clear that fashion risks irrevocable self-inflicted wounds if it abandons sustainability and value chain partnerships in the face of COVID-19.”
“I think they’re paying attention to how companies are acting during this time,” said Larson, of consumers. “Who’s doing the right thing? Who’s laying people off? Who is taking responsible measures? When the heat’s turned on, who sticks to their values?”
And the heat has been on for Columbia. CEO Tim Boyle took a pay cut to $10,000 a year in March, and executives followed suit with 15% pay cuts in order to help employees. The company reported a profit of just $213,000 for the first quarter of the year; last year in the same quarter, they had $74.1 million in profits.
But the company, which has been with the CAC from the start, is sticking with its sustainability goals. “The pandemic has made it more clear than ever why these values we’ve had are important—like protecting natural spaces, getting people active,” Larson said. “I think it’s reinforced the need to do this.”