Supply Chain Management in the Outdoor Industry


Because the world’s population of 7 billion people demands apparel and gear, supply chain and operations management in the textiles and outdoor industries are challenging roles.

At a smaller level, the outdoor recreation industry is growing at a record pace in the United States where consumers are annually spending 184.5 billion dollars in the outdoor recreation market on gear, apparel, footwear, and equipment.

Such products are purchased through a variety of supply channels that include: Mail Order, E-commerce (Direct to Consumer), Retail and Wholesale.

With so many supply channels available to customers, its imperative Operations Managers implement the best processes for each channel to succeed. Without exception, quality is top priority for both consumers and businesses. Outdoor products unable to stand up to the wilderness generally won’t succeed.

When deciding where to cut costs and streamline productivity, suppliers will often sacrifice pricing and delivery times over quality. These considerations drive need for clear, daily communication with suppliers about design features, delivery times, and environmental impacts, which are are a must for Operations Managers. With quality as top priority, developing long-term, relationships with overseas suppliers and contractors are vital to long term success.

Supply Chain Ethics Overseas

Supply Chains in the outdoor recreation industry are overwhelmingly located in Asian countries, such as China, India, and Thailand. Such globalized production leaves many companies at risk for disruption.

Among the contributing causes are unethical behaviors, poor communication, language barriers, and logistical difficulties. As a result, many businesses are hiring dedicated employees who permanently live overseas, to sort out supply chain issues.

On top of that, the Sustainability Working Group (SWG) was established in 2007 to provide “a collaborative space for outdoor industry companies to manage these challenges collectively.”

Brand values are important to the outdoor recreation industry. Values such as sustainability, environmental impact, work conditions, and quality over quantity. Unfortunately, such values have been damaged by human rights violations, for example, sweatshops, and pollutive production practices that contribute to climate change.

How Nike Cut Corners and Fell Short

Smaller businesses are most susceptible to these violations simply because they don’t have necessary resources and financial capital to regulate their supply chains. Other companies frequently choose to turn a blind eye in favor of a fatter bottom line over operational efficiency.

Operational efficiency and ethical supply chain management can and do frequently coexist, but it’s the operations managers who must enforce ethical values when it comes to production standards. Nike is famous for it’s unethical supply chain behaviors as revealed in the sweatshop labor it’s employed to create products.

According to a 2011 DailyMail article, one Taiwanese woman said she was “kicked by a supervisor after making a mistake while cutting rubber for soles”. Thousands of these women endured similar degradations while working for a mere 50 cents an hour.

Nike has since made meaningful changes to become more ethical, but as a modern society, we must not be satisfied with supply chain regulation that doesn’t protect human rights.

Following Yvon Chouinard's Example

 Yvon Chouinard on the Fly

Yvon Chouinard on the Fly

Patagonia has a phenomenal production process that maintains top quality on an industrial scale across several continents in half a dozen different companies. Patagonia will always be a huge inspiration to everyone at LIT Outdoors.  

Yvon Chouinard and his team developed six main principles they use to ensure correct execution of their designs, and management of their supply chains: (1) involve the designer with the producer (2) develop long-term relationships with suppliers and contractors (3) weight quality first (4) go for it, but do your homework (5) measure twice, cut once (6) borrow ideas from other disciplines.

Involve the Designer with the Producer

It’s imperative designers and producers maintain clear communication, so everyone stays on the same page. Compromise will always be needed to produce top-tier product quality that’s cost-effective and feasible to produce.

Develop Long-term Relationships with Suppliers and Contractors

Patagonia seeks to “create an entire ecosystem, with its vendors and customers as an integral part of that system,” says Chouinard in his book, Let My People Go Surfing. Positive long-term relationships only strengthen that ecosystem, and can exponentially enhance production efficiency.


Weight Quality First

When goods arrive from port, it’s best for quality control inspectors at your warehouse to discover problems during a spot check. Taking the extra time to find errors is always more efficient than losing customers because of a costly product recall, or worse, refunding money.

Go for it, but Do Your Homework

Taking risks is important for growth in all aspects of life, and it’s no different for supply chain managers. But, analyzing data and processes before taking that leap is an equally crucial step to mitigate risk.

Measure Twice, Cut Once

When goods arrive from port, it’s best for quality control inspectors at your warehouse to discover problems during a spot check. Taking the extra time to find errors is always more efficient than losing customers because of a costly product recall, or worse, refunding money.

Borrow Ideas from Other Disciplines

Just because the production of outdoor apparel is different from the production of Toyota vehicles, doesn’t mean that as an industry, it can’t borrow, benefit from, or share new ones. Using a “continuous improvement” strategy, Toyota pioneered the Just-In-Time Productivity Improvement system, whose focus is on producing "what is needed, when it is needed, and in the amount needed!"

Known as Kaizen, this improvement system has been adopted by numerous industries and is widely used from construction to oil, to hi-tech, to outdoor recreation and apparel.

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