The Outdoor Industry Is in Its Awkward Teen Years
Like proud (and anxious) parents, we’re watching the outdoor market grow up fast
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It’s both exciting and difficult to watch your kids grow up. At a certain inevitable point, the thing you made, so carefully molded at the start, begins changing at a pace you can hardly wrap your head around, let alone control. What happens after that is anyone’s guess.
I imagine that’s how some outdoor industry veterans—the pioneers who have been working in this world for decades—are feeling right now. Thanks to the boom brought on by the pandemic, the rise of direct-to-consumer sales, and the general mainstreaming of once-niche adventure sports, it’s safe to say our market is enduring its adolescent growth spurt. We’re not quite one of the big kids yet, but gone are the hippie days of this industry’s beginnings. We’ve hit economic puberty.
Just look at all that happened last month—growth so fast you can almost watch it in real time. Solo Brands, the Texas-based outdoor portfolio company (Solo Stove, Oru Kayak, Chubbies Shorts), formed in early September, sprinted to its debut on the New York Stock Exchange in just eight weeks. Big Agnes in Colorado, long considered a small-town business in spirit, is now spelling out plans for “aggressive” growth in years to come. Even well established players like Patagonia are continuing to mature in eccentric new directions; a few weeks ago, the gear company announced its entry into the wine market with a line of natural vinos to be sold through its food and beverage business, Patagonia Provisions. The outdoor economy, it seems, is entering adulthood.
But not quite. As teenagers have done forever, our industry is tiptoeing the line, half in and half out of the grownup world. Last month, Yeti, a multibillion-dollar, publicly traded company, mustered enough kiddish gumption to take out a funny billboard above its headquarters in Austin, Texas, which poked fun at the leaders of other multibillion-dollar, publicly traded companies in an attempt to say, “We’re not one of them.” To be clear, Bezos and Musk—the implied targets of the lark—probably deserved it, and the juggernauts they helm are orders of magnitude larger than Yeti. Still, there’s something charmingly mischievous about a company’s being able to straddle that divide: sitting at the big kid’s table but finding the time, every now and then, to pull pranks—and getting away with it.
Are the old timers wringing their hands over these fits and starts of maturation, fretting about where this is all headed? I hope not. As I’ve written before, this industry faces some very adult issues, climate change chief among them. A report released last month confirmed that our warming planet poses an existential threat to outdoor recreation (as though we didn’t already know). Several of our largest companies are now pleading directly with Congress, urging our nation’s leaders to take more aggressive action. Bright spots exist here and there—President Biden recently rescued a handful of national monuments from lingering Trump-era attempts to shrink and pillage them, for instance, which drew widespread industry applause—but still, we need to do more. Reactionary support is not enough. Responsibility is knocking.
As an industry, we’ll probably cling forever to some vestige of the childish spirit that started this whole thing off, and I think that’s a good thing. This is a business built on play, after all. But if we’re to survive in the long term, we’d better make that seat at the big kid’s table a permanent one, and fill it.