Doing Good for Business

The boating industry must embrace sustainability and corporate social responsibility
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“The recreational boating industry has no choice but to strive to do better,” says NMMA president Frank Hugelmeyer.

“The recreational boating industry has no choice but to strive to do better,” says NMMA president Frank Hugelmeyer.

Few corporate leaders deny the need to build their company around a sustainable business model. Yet, it is becoming increasingly obvious that positioning an organization to be competitive and relevant requires a greater sense of urgency and a more holistic, comprehensive approach to sustainability and corporate social responsibility.

This means rethinking our industry’s business model and navigating a complex range of product design, supply-chain and human resource issues to save money, inspire staff and attract consumers.

At present, most companies within the recreational boating industry promote a limited and sometimes outdated perspective toward sustainability and corporate social responsibility. There is good work happening around lean manufacturing and energy efficiencies, and the industry can be proud of its groundbreaking efforts related to water quality and sustainable fisheries. However, we have a long way to go on important issues like chemicals management, cradle-to-cradle design and diversity.

Regardless of where a company is on the continuum today, it is important to take tangible steps toward a more sustainable industry. Adopting a “doing well by doing good” mindset is already a business imperative — and a consumer expectation.

My own journey exploring corporate social responsibility and sustainability began in the 1990s. Lowe Alpine, a technical outdoor apparel and backpack company I was part of, was one of the first global brands to introduce recycled fleece jackets. During this period, corporate social responsibility was just coming into vogue, along with sustainable processes and materials. Recycled fabrics were not widely available. In fact, environmentally friendly raw goods were wholesaled and retailed at a premium.

As an early adopter, we learned several important lessons. Retailers were excited to carry the innovation, and consumers were attracted to both the product and the ethos — but neither was willing to pay top dollar solely for environmentally friendly fabrications. When all things look the same, price will win in side-by-side comparisons. So we, like many others, had to reconstruct our entire business approach around a green strategy.

Fast forward to today, and the price disparity and scarcity of sustainable products has disappeared. And, the present-day outdoor recreation consumer fully assumes that all companies and recreational products are sustainable. The realization that loyal brand advocates could be seriously disappointed if they got a sneak peek behind the corporate veil was the impetus for many outdoor brands to embrace corporate social responsibility and sustainability as a priority during the past 20 years.

To become socially responsible, the outdoor industry needed to engage in some painfully honest but unavoidable conversations. There was a lot of fear around admitting a company was using a toxic chemical, or was not particularly diverse. Executives were obliged to learn a whole new language. Product designers needed to start with the end in mind and take a holistic design approach that equally valued the consumer need and sustainability.

One breakthrough that helped speed the outdoor sector forward was the development of a self-assessment tool for supply-chain issues such as material usage, chemical management, transportation, packaging, energy efficiency, water, fair labor and end-of-life disposal.

Becoming a sustainable organization requires a C-suite commitment and top-down overhaul of long-held beliefs and processes, and it is well worth the effort. Companies such as Patagonia, Nike and The North Face discovered that there is a competitive advantage to reinventing organizations around corporate social responsibility and sustainability.

Once embraced and implemented, the corporate commitment to a smaller footprint improves profitability, eliminates waste and, most important, strengthens dealer and consumer loyalty.

One example of improved brand loyalty is the 2011 Patagonia advertising campaign “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” This leading-edge marketing strategy asked consumers to reconsider their purchase before buying the product, and instead opt for a used piece of clothing. In the months and year that followed, Patagonia saw its 2012 revenues grow about 30 percent to $543 million. Today, company sales exceed $1 billion.

And it’s not just Patagonia. Authentic sustainability and corporate social responsibility pays. Countless studies have shown that companies with organizational processes focused on corporate social responsibility outperform those that don’t have these processes in place. And with the nonprofit Business Roundtable recently putting a stake in the ground, calling for investors to support companies that build long-term value by investing in their employees and communities, corporate social responsibility has quickly become mainstream.

Committing to a sustainable path and telling that story can also protect brands from negative public relations. Nike, an undisputed leader in its field today, was not always walking the talk. In the early 1990s, Nike was initially forced into reimaging the way it functioned after an undercover story showed its apparel being built in child-labor sweatshops. It took years for the brand’s reputation and sales to recover.

As the Patagonia and Nike examples show, consumers will handsomely reward companies that do the right thing, and punish those that don’t. And, as we all have observed during the recent protests against systemic racism in America, bad actors, whether they are employers or employees, will be held accountable. In a social-media-driven economy, a company’s public relations stakes have never been higher. Every company and trade association in the outdoor recreation field is just one tweet or Facebook post away from experiencing the sort of damage that Nike experienced.

The recreational boating industry has no choice but to strive to do better. The industry we love has far to go to become a leader in the fields of sustainability, corporate social responsibility, diversity, equality and inclusion. A quick glance at the number of derelict vessels around the world, or the current makeup of our industry’s Hall of Fame recipients, boards of directors, senior executives and consumers, tells us that we are part of a community that does not reflect the face of America.

For the recreational boating industry to be called truly sustainable, we must change. Let us begin that journey today. 

This article was originally published in the July 2020 issue.


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