M The Politics of Cottage Consumption
by Benjamin Payne
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To say that the lightweight backpacking movement has fostered a broader trend within the outdoor industry would be a grand understatement. Indeed, one could now make the uncontroversial argument that claims about "lightness" have reached a point where the term-like other outdoor marketing buzzwords-means very little when it comes to evaluating a particular product, manufacturer, or retailer. From backpacks to apparel, the term 'lightweight' has been repackaged within the mainstream outdoor market without a meaningful context or clear definition. Fewer features, standard fabrics, and a tiny reduction in overall weight are sold as 'lightweight' shellwear. Thinner tents in the same traditional designs are produced by major manufacturers, and every small accessory you've ever owned now has 'lightweight' printed on the packaging. Avoiding a real need for education, the fundamental skills and techniques of lightweight hiking are still largely dismissed as fringe interests while the language of our approach has been warmly adopted and worked, without much concern, into technical doublespeak.
After six years work in the outdoor industry with the intent to promote and develop lightweight within the broader market in whatever way I could, I'm very partial to an approach that builds an alternative gear market. As a salesperson, my hope that major outdoor brands would get serious about lightweight hiking disappeared with the release of each new 'lightweight' product range that was less than substantial. Although the situation varies from country to country, I believe those lightweight hikers who remain optimistic regarding the mainstream industry do not have many reasons to be very encouraged about a more meaningful acceptance of the lightweight approach, despite recent developments toward real innovation within the wider market. Overall, economic woes have continued to drive larger American and British producers toward the nontechnical consumer and greater consolidation, while those manufacturers focused on Australia and New Zealand (with a few exceptions) have continued to stagnate to the point of being thoroughly out of touch with wider trends.
Standing in brilliant opposition to these market realities is the emergence and rise of cottage lightweight manufacturers, MYOG promoters, and small independent retailers. Not only has the development of the cottage industry meant the availability of gear that meets the immediate needs of lightweight hikers, but it has also resulted in other positive outcomes: greater communication between producer and consumer (in contrast to the often confused looks and hostile replies encountered when the specific requirements of lightweight hikers are brought up with major trade representatives); an ethical commitment to 'buying local' and 'within the community'; and the sense that one is buying a product of handmade quality.
So what does one do when a noble commitment to supporting smaller enterprises starts to look like blind faith rather than a reasonable response to an unresponsive market? As Ryan Jordan has noted in his Cottage Stagnation and Recent Gems article, the margin of advantage held by cottage brands over the mainstream is quickly narrowing as cottage producers struggle to maintain a combination of high product quality, innovation, aesthetic appeal, higher-volume production, and acceptable customer service. A year and a half since that critique and little has changed. The success of a few operations that now seem poised to straddle the divide between cottage popularity and serious production has been encouraging, but significant developments have not yet eventuated.
With these realities in mind, what kind of consumer commitment should we make to drive change in the market? That is, as a community, should we take a position on the kinds of businesses that garner our support? Depending on our choices, we could be responsible for the death of cottage production as a viable alternative or, on the other hand, patronizing big manufacturers could likely result in the further dilution of the lightweight philosophy due to the overwhelming ability these organizations have to pursue technical innovation and drive consumer behavior.
There is, I think, a middle way between these two possibilities. However, it is not simply taking a more critical tone toward cottage production or running enthusiastically into the arms of corporate outdoor manufacturers and retailers when minor concessions are made toward lightweight backpacking philosophy. In order to generate a discussion regarding the broader issues at stake, I suggest the following two strategies should be adopted: Support the decentralization of the outdoor industry
Buying from cottage manufacturers is preferable, but it isn't enough. The lightweight community should bring about the greater decentralization of the outdoor industry as a whole by supporting smaller retailers (not just those making gear); larger companies developing innovative products and doing business in ways that are in line with lightweight backpacking philosophy; and opposing the chokehold a few major corporations have on the market. One identifiable problem is the dominance of US-based enterprises, cottage or corporate. A diverse outdoor market requires products that are appropriate to the local climate and terrain as a global matter. Australians buying from American cottage manufacturers won't fix that problem, but a more decentralized industry would address such issues. Moreover, but supporting innovation and quality first and foremost, we will drive innovation in a way that even the largest corporations cannot manage alone.
Build a more comprehensive lightweight hiking philosophy; this is not a new idea, but one that is critical in order to develop a meaningful market for lightweight gear. Lightweight means more than counting ounces and grams, and our approach to gear should recognize that and take a critical approach to how the term is employed. Quality should be critically important, durability shouldn't get lost in the mix, and technical marketing should be as accurate as possible. Additionally, we shouldn't let technical concerns override other considerations. I'd like to see ethical issues (environmental sustainability and labor standards, for example) become as important to lightweight backpacking philosophy as pack weight. The concept of lightweight has already been expanded and explored beyond backpacking, and the continuation of this approach will only enhance our perspective.
Should we continue to buy from cottage manufacturers? Absolutely. But the emphasis on cottage production ensures that we continue to ask the wrong questions. We should buy quality gear that doesn't weigh much, but we should do so cognizant of the future we want for the lightweight hiking philosophy and the outdoor industry at large.
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