Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Mass Production

Every outdoor activity has its industry to provide gear. Mass production is what makes products affordable, because some company makes them in quantity.
Mass production giveth, but it also taketh away. Once a company is devoted to large production runs, perhaps from a factory in a distant land, it has a strong interest in moving a large quantity of those products at regular intervals.

Frugality does not help the economy. Money that stays in your pocket is not the circulating blood of healthy commerce. So how does one separate the wise from their money?

Outdoor explorers are frequently independent-minded people who value other things besides money and the mere ownership of objects. This makes them lousy consumers. But in order to thrive, a mass-producing industry needs consumers to buy things.

REI started as a buying group for outdoor enthusiasts in the Pacific Northwest. In order to increase their buying power and scour the world for good gear at the best available price, members paid a small fee and pooled their orders to buy the largest quantity they could. Now it’s a giant retailer. Retailers like Eastern Mountain Sports, LL Bean and Land’s End all either expanded or transformed themselves to profit from what people would actually buy, not necessarily what the company originally offered. Does anyone here remember Land’s End as a small-boat hardware company, or did I just dream that? I was pretty young at the time.

Companies like The North Face, Jansport, Kelty, Lowe Alpine Systems, Sierra Designs and many more began as small operations run by outdoor adventurers for outdoor adventurers. But economic reality caught up with them, just as it does with every supplier and retailer.

Intrepid adventurers, whether they’re going halfway around the world or just tackling nearby terrain in adventurous ways just don’t spend a lot of time shopping. Products had to be made cheaper. The product mix had to be changed to expand profitable sectors.

Anyone who has been adventuring since the early 1980s has seen the changes in what were once outfitter stores. Most of them look more like clothing stores. Many more people will buy an image than will actually go out and put gear and clothing to the hardest test. In an attempt to be popular and bring in enough money to survive, outdoor businesses at every level have tried to broaden their appeal.

Outdoor adventuring used to be entwined with environmental concern, if not activism. Not everyone was careful, and standards only improved as environmental science pointed out more and more areas to improve, but generally the outdoor community of the late 1960s and ‘70s stressed clean ethics.

As a climber in the 1980s I witnessed a shift in behavior that seemed to exemplify the down side of popularization. Young rock jocks were writing their names on sandstone cliffs in the desert southwest of the USA and leaving piles of celebratory litter at the base of climbs all over. At the same time, you could no longer leave your pack at the bottom of the climb and count on finding it there when you returned for it.

Flamboyant lycra came in. The outdoors became just another gymnasium for preening prima donnas.

Along with the arrogantly accomplished came the trooping hordes of mall shoppers on their brief forays to see if the life was as much fun as the look. I suppose an SUV looks a little more appropriate on a dirt road than on curb-lined suburban boulevards, but my Ford Escort is parked right next to them there in the woods.

By encouraging consumers to buy equipment and venture outdoors, some advocates might hope that these people will be transformed, elevated to the next level of appreciation by their exposure to the natural environment. Indeed, some people will be transformed. But plenty of others just take their consumer mentality with them wherever they go.

Then there’s the money. It’s hard to walk away from a few million in income, even if it comes from the creation of thousands of tons of landfill-fodder, as is the case with nearly any consumer-goods industry. Money. You can’t take it with you, but you darn sure need it while you’re here.

Unfortunately, the mass-producing industry responds more and more to its own needs, trying
to detect and fulfill consumer wants, but still having to empty the warehouse of masses of produced products regardless of their actual effectiveness. The marketing department becomes more important than the design department. Make it look good. Make it sound good. Make it sell. Empty that warehouse.

Customers providing their own muscle to move their toys want some credit for their efforts. That drives the demand for lower prices, putting pressure on suppliers to keep production costs low enough to preserve profits. The industry is not a cynical creation of evil geniuses, although I have my questions about certain bike companies. The industry is a creation of all economic forces. So I don’t suggest a particular remedy at this point. This overview just collects my observations for further study.

Personal adventure brings the irreconcilable difference between durability and rapid consumption into direct conflict. Stuff that holds up doesn’t turn inventory very fast. People who don’t live to shop don’t shop often. But gear that doesn’t perform can actually kill people, and too much planned obsolescence can drive people away from an activity.

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