Breaking Trail: Joe McSwiney
Sustainability is becoming impossible to ignore in the outdoor industry. In this series, we look to our industry leaders for guidance, inspiration, and best practices in sustainable business in the outdoor-product space. Breaking Trail is an Outdoor Retailer Series that is powered by Walden Hyde. Here, Walden Hyde speaks with Joe McSwiney, President of Cascade Designs about challenges and leverage points for change.
What should the outdoor industry consider when thinking about sustainability?
To me there are three parts to sustainability – planetary resource depletion, toxic chemicals, and of course climate change.
I put the resource issue first. Resources are limited and we have been over consuming for years. However, we still have time to fix this. Wait too long and we don’t have a choice.
Chemical impact comes next, and it’s also something that can be managed. We’ve innovated to create product performance in all industries, with the cost of using chemicals that are turning out to be dangerous.
Climate change is trickier. It seems to be accelerating and is proving very difficult to stop without a major paradigm shift. I feel like we can actively address our resource use and chemical decisions in time, but we are most likely going to have to be reactive to climate change. This is not a reason to do nothing, but we need to realize that a reversal is unlikely to happen.
How is Cascade Designs sustainable?
Cascade Designs has always been naturally efficient from a resource perspective. It’s built into our business. One advantage we have is that because 80% of what we sell globally is manufactured in house, we have more control. It’s in our best interest to be resource and energy efficient and to make sure our employees are healthy and motivated. For example, our latest generation of Therm-a-Rest mattresses are lighter, use fewer materials, and are more energy efficient to manufacture. This benefits the environment as well as the company’s finances.
As a US and European based manufacturer we already cope with a lot of regulations about chemicals and workplace safety. However we still need to increase vigilance in the area of chemicals in concert with recent industry lead initiatives.
As the manufacturer of our own products, we can also re-manufacture them and thereby keep the in the field indefinitely. Maybe this limits sales, but it definitely saves resources.
What is Cascade Designs doing for sustainability in the industry?
We are proud to be collaborating on the OIA and EOG team efforts to address sustainability. We all share the same planet, so it is pointless to be perfect yourself if your neighbors are not similarly aligned. I would say that we have put most effort into being part of a broader movement relative to trying to be a particular poster child for eco at an individual company level. In fact if we had taken the solo route I think we would have gotten a lot wrong. By working in conjunction with our peers we are far more likely to have the most impact reduction for less wasted effort.
What’s keeping the Outdoor Industry from doing more?
The entire industry is dependent on consumerism and that’s a challenge. We have been so focused on growth and creating more consumption of our products that we have probably increased our impact at the same time as we try to create systems to do the opposite. In other words, we’re still making this mess faster than we can clean it up. The breakthrough will be to reverse that scenario and it will take time.
What’s keeping the Cascade Designs from doing more?
Internally Cascade Designs has to recognize that it is first and foremost a product performance company, not an eco company. Our customers pay first for performance… and then for planetary feel good. We can’t change these thoughts overnight and hope to stay in business. So we need to figure out how to do things better and change as we move. This is the evolutionary approach and is what we need to do to avoid the revolutionary approach, where everything can fall apart suddenly.
What would you like to see in the next 5 years?
I would love to see eco becoming more of a prerequisite for brands than a differentiator. It’s probably a 10-year goal.
What advice would you give other industry leaders?
I’d encourage everyone to get behind the Higg Index as it becomes available in its various flavors. The index effectively formulates an eco-strategy for you based on your responses to straightforward questions. The index will give you an eco-score and your eco strategy will be to do the next easiest thing to get a better score. Don’t be afraid to give it a try.
About Cascade Designs
For forty years, Cascade Designs, Inc. has been dedicated to making premier outdoor, recreational and medical rehabilitation products that enhance the active lifestyles of its customers. The company has built strong brands such as Therm-a-Rest®, MSR®, SealLine®, Platypus®, Hummingbird™, PackTowl®, E-Case™, Tracks® and VARILITE® through an enduring commitment to innovation. It is based in Seattle, Washington.
About Joe McSwiney
Joe Mc Swiney is the President of Cascade Designs, Inc. based in Seattle Washington. Mc Swiney was a founding board member of the European Outdoor Conservation Association and has been involved with both the European and the US Sustainability Working Groups since 2007, working with these groups to pioneer a viable approach to sustainability in consumer goods. He also serves on the Outdoor Industry Association’s Trade Advisory Council and is Treasurer of Parkour Visions, a nonprofit dedicated to enhancing people’s lives through Parkour movement. In his free time, Joe enjoys mountain biking, barefoot running, family camping, snowboarding, Parkour and martial arts.