Report: Future Sports & Outdoor
Media: Lufthansa Inflight Magazine
Sector: Sports & Outdoor
Publication Date: 2020
Mark Held, President of the European Outdoor Group, says companies which go beyond producing products and focus more on improving the outdoor experience can turn current industry challenges into opportunities and pave the way for a more sustainable future for the sector.
Can you give us a brief introduction to the European Outdoor Group and explain what issues are currently high on your agenda?
The European Outdoor Group (EOG) was founded in 2003 as a forum for international discussion and exchange between outdoor brands. The industry had long been international, with companies engaged in many different markets, but communication within the industry usually remained at national level. In 2003, I was having a chat with the CEO of Mammut Sports Group in Switzerland, and we both felt that there are many issues within our industry that are common to all of us. So, we decided to invite 20 of the key brands to meet up; 19 of those attended the meeting, and we founded the European Outdoor Group (EOG).
From then on, the organisation grew organically. We now have some 120 members, including all the big brands worldwide. The key point is that it is pre-competitive, so it has nothing to do with promoting the businesses and the products. For instance, we focus on consumer and market issues, including sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility standards. More recently, we have also invited outdoor retailers and tech suppliers to join the EOG, and we are now dealing with the big picture question of how to ensure the future success of the outdoor industry.
Sustainability has risen up the agenda of consumers. How is the industry reacting to this development and what initiatives have you launched?
Over the past years, we have intensified our efforts on the sustainability front and have introduced the EOG Sustainability Charter. The outdoor industry is populated with sports enthusiasts, and we are pretty passionate about the outdoors and the environment. A lot of the work that we have done can be described as open source and has actually grown beyond the outdoor industry. We introduced the eco-index with our American colleagues, which then developed into the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a global movement of textile companies. Another initiative has been the microfibre consortium, which seeks to minimise the release of microfibre into the environment. We put strategies in place to mitigate this, and the initiative has taken on momentum and become a much bigger operation, involving companies like Marks & Spencer’s and lots of other organisations that are not part of the outdoor sector. We are very happy to start and build something that we believe in, and then see it grow organically outside of the outdoor industry so that it achieves the widest impact possible.
Currently, we are working hard on ending single use plastics, and we have a working group looking at the right alternatives. In addition, we launched a not-for-profit coalition called “It’s great out there” to encourage people to take part in outdoor activities. We also believe that our responsibility goes well beyond creating businesses that focus on sustainability. As an industry, our ultimate aim is to not only avoid having a negative impact on the environment but to have a positive impact on the environment and society at large.
We have long been told that spending time in nature is good for our health, yet we seem to be spending more time indoors than ever before. What can be done to encourage a more active lifestyle and what impact can this have on society?
We know that outdoor activities have a positive impact on social cohesion, on mental and physical health. However, there is still a lot of research required. We need to sum up all the positive sides, and then find a way to actually measure their effectiveness. We know that in Europe physical activity is on the decrease, which is expected to lead to an increase in all sorts of diseases, including diabetes and heart disease. The rise in electronic gadgets and devices is partly to blame for this. Children nowadays are not engaged in physical activities as they were 20, 30 or 40 years ago. These are the big challenges of our time, and we are actively developing solutions and working with all the relevant stakeholders. For example, we are in contact with a community in Denmark, which is looking to embed outdoor activities at every level – in education, in housing and in town planning. We help them implement these ideas as well as measure their effectiveness. This could become an interesting model for others to follow.
Some say the outdoor segment is enjoying a boost, fuelled by an increasing desire for people to unplug from their digitally accelerated routines. Are you noticing significant changes in the consumer profile?
We have noticed that the older generation is becoming increasingly healthy and active. Recent retirees who have the financial ability to buy products and the time to enjoy the outdoors today are an important part of the market. However, the problem is that the number of young people engaged with the industry is not rising. The challenge here is to create the right experience and a holistic offering. I give you an example: Children today are very much used to their gadgets, they are digital natives. If you take them up a mountain and take their mobile phones away, chances are that they will not enjoy it. What I would like to see is more embedding of technology into the outdoors, including apps that children and adults can use to access information on history, flora and fauna, geology and archaeology. The big theme for the industry is to get away from the idea that children need to join our world and ‘unplug’. It is all about finding an offering in the middle. We need to embrace and integrate technologies rather than ignore that technology has become an integral part of our lives today.
How are technological innovations, such as Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, influencing the industry?
Well, VR offers a vicarious thrill of climbing or sky-diving, but it is just an illusion in your brain. You are not physically active, and you are missing out on a million of the sensory links that make the real experience so much better than the VR experience. However, as I mentioned, technology can be embedded in a very clever way, and it can open up the outdoors for a lot of people. One area the industry cannot get away from is gamification. We have all witnessed the success of Pokémon GO. Geocaching also has a very enthusiastic following. Overall, we are seeing that some outdoor companies are getting very tech savvy at the moment, and many are interested in teaming up with tech firms to develop and design new products and solutions.
Are there any destinations that have managed to marry the traditional outdoor experience and the technology world?
No, not really. No one has really understood how to create the infrastructure to really connect the outdoors. I think the most you get today are QR codes in national parks. A key issue to solve is connectivity as many of these locations are not high priority areas when it comes to data infrastructure. It is important to look at these things in a holistic manner. For example, EU structural funds might need to be required to allow national governments to develop their outdoor recreational areas as part of their national health strategy.
Looking to the future, where do you see the industry in five years’ time?
We have a pretty ambitious agenda for the coming years to raise the level of importance of the outdoor industry as part of a healthy society. I ultimately envision a society where the benefits of an active lifestyle are understood and encouraged by authorities, governments and international organisations. I also believe that the outdoor industry has to go beyond producing and providing products. We have to be much more mindful of the experience and build strong relationships with our customers. There are already good examples of this out there such as Patagonia, an American activist brand, which is very passionate about environmental conservation, or VAUDE, a German company with a strong vision of what they can do for society. I think companies have a great opportunity to position themselves as agents of change and connect with consumers in a much more holistic way. So, in a few years’ time, I think we’ll see a much more sophisticated industry and one that is much more integrated in our daily lives.