Innovation is nothing new.....

9th Jan 2015

Over the last few weeks there has been a fair amount of debate on internet forums, social media and certain blogs about the perceived cost increases and over pricing of outdoor clothing.  I've followed the discussion, which has included broad ranging contributions from outdoor journalists and authors, professional instructors and leisure users, with interest. Although the views have varied widely there seems to be plenty of support for a standpoint focussed on how expensive technical clothing has become and whether consumers are being hoodwinked by clever marketing into spending more than is needed on equipment that isn't always best suited to our needs.

Discussion about equipment comes up on lots of our courses and participants often want to ask for recommendations or to discuss the relative benefits of certain fabrics or design features. I see it as an important part of our work because working full time in the mountains gives plenty of insight into what works well, which fabrics last and how certain products compare to others.  I am also privileged to be actively involved in product and fabric testing so I thought it would be worth sharing a few personal thoughts on the recent debate.........

Outdoor clothing is getting more expensive.....

I really don't agree with this.  Although you can certainly spend a lot on outdoor clothing there are plenty of cheaper options that will still allow users to operate comfortably and safely in the outdoors.  I travelled to the USA for the first time in 1990 and, being a big fan of the Patagonia brand, I bought a very snazzy hard shell jacket and trousers set that cost far more that I could find a similar set for during a quick online search this morning (and that was without searching for sale items).  I'm really not convinced outdoor clothing is getting more expensive although I accept there are expensive options available.

Outdoor clothing isn't as durable as it used to be.....

There has certainly been a trend towards lighter weight clothing and light weight fabrics are simply never going to be as durable.  Having said that, there are still plenty of more durable options on the market too.  I also accept there may be marketing that seduces some buyers into making poor choices for their personal needs but what I really see from manufacturers is simply more choice which isn't a bad thing.  It's really about consumers making appropriate choices for their requirements.  If you are a winter climber that battles gnarly mixed climbs that micro weight shell fabric clearly isn't going to last as long as it will the winter hillwalker or runner.  What is key is educating buyers. 

The growth in the use of the internet also plays a key part in our consumer choices and this development has both pros and cons.  We can now read endless product reviews to help our decision making but, on the flip side, the days when buyers had to go and see things in a shop before purchase have also gone.  Still nothing really beats going into a good outdoor store and comparing products along with getting quality advice from the shop staff.

The 'fast and light' approach to mountain activities has become firmly engrained as a mountaineering ethos and manufacturers have responded.  This is seen by some as a recent trend it has really been around for decades.  One of many possible examples would be climbers like Joe Tasker and Peter Boardman climbing with minimal equipment on the huge and challenging West Face of Changabang in 1977.  Pete and Joe sought the help of Mountain Equipment to develop innovative lightweight equipment such as nylon hammocks that would allow them to sleep hanging from the vertical wall.  Even then manufacturers were responding to changing trends and all we are seeing today is a continuation of this development.   

The price of some outdoor clothing is ridiculously high.....

Some of the recent online contributions have focussed on some very high priced products including jackets costing over a thousand pounds.  This is undoubtedly a lot of money and I wouldn't currently pay anything like this for a garment myself, but I don't have any problem at all with manufacturers putting things like this on the market.  Maybe if my income allowed me to consider items in this price range I might buy them just like, if my income allowed, I might drive a Lamborghini.  It's an open market and I value consumers having choice.  Just because a manufacturer offers a high priced item it doesn't force me to buy a high priced item.

There are also other considerations about whether that 4 figure garment should be on the shop shelves.  My involvement in product and fabric testing has given me an insight into how much time, effort and resources many leading manufacturers spend on development.  These cutting edge products that are so expensive are often the result of research programs leading to innovations that, in time, will filter down onto the broader market so everyone ends up benefitting anyway.  I remember when the first water resistant zippers appeared, for example.  At the time there was a manufacturer willing to research and test their suitability and at first they were only available on really expensive garments, but a few years down the line and they are now very widely used on items at cheaper price points.  Why should manufacturers not showcase their flagship garments in the same way electronics manufacturers or car producers showcase concept products?

We are too fashion orientated.....

I'm old enough to remember some of the original pile (as fleece was called then) and PU nylon waterproof clothing that was, at the time, the must have garments of the day.  I saved a lot of weeks of pocket money for a Javelin pile jacket and, with its cutting edge performance and styling, I really felt it was worth every penny.  Nothing has really changed.  Technology has come a long long way but manufacturers know that, for many consumers, the appearance of products is always going to be directly linked to how well they sell.  If someone goes into a shop and they are faced with like for like products in terms of performance and price, they are always going to plump for the one they most like the look of.  Why wouldn't they?  Manufacturers are always going to need to get the balance between function and appearance and I think they do it very well.  This also inevitably means that many items of outdoor clothing cross the line into street fashion.  A few years ago it was Berghaus or The North Face and now everyone is wearing micro down jackets in the pub.  Well done to the manufacturers for making products that are attractive to a wide range of users. 

So, although I've put a few of my cards on the table this post could certainly go on and on.  All I've really done is briefly answer a few of the points that are doing the internet rounds.  In my opinion we have plenty of choice, we can pay as much or as little as we want and we have access to brilliant equipment that performs well and is backed up by manufacturers who stand by their products, have strong environmental ethics and invest heavily in development.  I think we are living in a golden age of outdoor clothing and equipment.  See you out there.

Posted by Paul