Innovation is Nothing New

Innovation is Nothing New

Are we in a golden age of outdoor equipment or maybe innovation is nothing new? Paul shares his views on why we’ve never had it so good.

Over the last few weeks there has been debate on internet forums about the perceived over pricing of outdoor clothing.  I’ve followed the discussion with interest. The views have been broad ranging with contributions from outdoor journalists, professional instructors and leisure users. Although opinion has varied widely, there seems to be plenty of support for a standpoint focussed on how expensive technical clothing has become. Similarly, comments have considered whether consumers are being hoodwinked by clever marketing into spending more than is needed.

Discussion about equipment often comes up in relation to our courses and expeditions. Participants often want recommendations or to discuss the relative benefits of certain fabrics or design features. I see it as an important part of our work. Working full time in the mountains gives plenty of insight into what works well. We find out which fabrics last and how products compare.  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. There may be a slight compromise in performance, but they will still allow users to operate comfortably and safely.  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 a small fortune. It certainly cost far more that I could find a similar set for during a quick online search this morning.  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 buyers may be seduced into making poor choices for their personal needs. What I really see from manufacturers is more choice which isn’t a bad thing.  It’s really about consumers making appropriate choices for their requirements.  That ultralight shell won’t survive long for the winter climber but may be perfect for a fell runner.  Educating buyers is the key. 

The growth in the use of the internet also plays a key part in our consumer choices. This development has both pros and cons. It may be good that we can read endless product reviews to help our decision making. On the flip side, the days when buyers had to go and see things in a shop before purchase have gone.  Still nothing really beats seeing things in the flesh. 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. Manufacturers have responded.  This is seen by some as a recent trend but it’s been around for decades. Climbers like Joe Tasker and Peter Boardman climbed 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 to allow them to sleep hanging from the vertical wall.  Even then manufacturers were responding to changing trends. All we are seeing today is a continuation of this development. Maybe innovation is nothing new?   

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. I don’t have any problem with manufacturers putting things like this on the market though.  Maybe if my income allowed me to consider items in this price range I might buy them. If my income allowed I might drive a Lamborghini too.  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 manufacturers spend on development. Many manufacturers are also investing heavily in sustainability. My article on Osprey here is one example of such a responsible company.   These cutting edge products are often the result of extensive research programs. In time, though, these will filter down onto the broader market. Everyone ends up benefitting anyway.

I remember when the first water resistant zippers appeared, for example. There was a manufacturer willing to research and test their suitability and they were only available on really expensive garments. Sure enough, a few years down the line and they are used on many 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. At the time they were the must have garments of the day. I saved a lot of weeks of pocket money for a Javelin pile jacket and was delighted. With its cutting edge performance and styling I felt it was worth every penny.  Nothing has really changed. 

Technology has come a long long way but manufacturers but the principles are the same. Performance is key, but product appearance is always going to be directly linked to how they sell.  What if someone is faced with like for like products in terms of performance and price? Surely they are always going to plump for the one they most like the look of.  Why wouldn’t they?

 Manufacturers need to get the balance between function and appearance. 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. Maybe 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. 

Innovation is Nothing New

So, I’ve put a few of my cards on the table but could certainly go on. I really do believe innovation is nothing new. All I’ve really done is discuss a few of the points doing the internet rounds.  In my opinion we have plenty of choice which is great. We can also pay as much or as little as we want and that’s good too. We have access to high performance equipment backed by manufacturers who stand by their products. Many manufacturers also have strong environmental ethics and invest heavily in development.  I actually think we are living in a golden age of outdoor clothing and equipment.