The Outdoor Industry and Guns

REI Boycott of Vista Outdoors Products- A Recipe For Change?

John Tomac made the Bell Helmet synonymous with mountain biking.

 

In the wake of the Parkland, Florida school shooting there was the expected prayers and platitudes by conservative politicians and strong calls for more stringent gun control laws by liberal lawmakers, but this episode seemed different:  kids got fired up, and their speeches and marches made even lawmakers take note of these soon-to-be voters.  Perhaps less well known, but relevant to Utah recreators, a tweet from a well-connected consumer initiated not only a nationwide boycott of some tried and true outdoor brands:  Bicycling friends: Did you know that @Giro, Bell, @CamelBak, Copilot and a few other bike gear brands that you may enjoy are owned by @VistaOutdoorInc, America’s largest manufacturer of ammunition?

 

Vista Outdoor “American’s largest manufacturer of ammunition” is a large conglomerate of brands and is based in Ogden.  Shortly after that tweet, outdoor retail juggernaut REI and their Canadian counterpart Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC) announced that they were suspending spring shipments and  – for the time being – all future orders of products from these companies, as well as Logan-based Camp Chef, another Vista brand.

 

Here is REI’s statement:

03.01.2018

REI does not sell guns. We believe that it is the job of companies that manufacture and sell guns and ammunition to work towards common sense solutions that prevent the type of violence that happened in Florida last month. In the last few days, we’ve seen such action from companies like Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart and we applaud their leadership.

This week, we have been in active discussions with Vista Outdoor, which has recently acquired several companies that are longtime partners of REI. These include Giro, Bell, Camelbak, Camp Chef and Blackburn. Vista also owns Savage Arms, which manufactures guns including “modern sporting rifles.”

This morning we learned that Vista does not plan to make a public statement that outlines a clear plan of action. As a result, we have decided to place a hold on future orders of products that Vista sells through REI while we assess how Vista proceeds.

Companies are showing they can contribute if they are willing to lead. We encourage Vista to do just that.

Other independent dealers around the country have followed suit.

 

What are the implications of this action on REI/MEC and other dealers, CamelBak, Bell, Giro, Blackburn, and Camp Chef, Vista, and to the consumers themselves?

 

First, on the dealers.  Although all four of these brands are pioneers and leaders in their respective markets, they also have many viable competitors, and it’s easy enough for the dealers to increase their orders from Poc, Specialized, Osprey, and Coleman to fill their shelves for their customers’ spring shopping frenzy. And while they are at it, they have generated some great PR as socially-conscious retailers, emulating the likes of Patagonia in an effort to build kinship and loyalty with their customers.

 

On the contrary the ramifications for those brands and their employees is profound.  REI’s power in the outdoor industry is akin to Walmart’s in the broader consumer market; each brand in the outdoor industry is fundamentally based around REI’s likelihood of purchasing their products, and many of them – including CamelBak – do exclusive or early product launches for REI, base their overall volume forecasts off REI’s interest, and even do future line planning based on REI buyers’ desires.  In this case, all of those brands’ spring 2018 products were already produced and en route, so they will now have a glut of products to sell…..into a market that is calling for a boycott of those products.   And with that, REI’s orders represent hard numbers of products, but a “nationwide boycott” (how wide?) makes it impossible to estimate what the rest of the market’s sellability will be.   And with a glut of products, those brands will need to tell their manufacturing partners – who are already well under way on ordering materials and building molds for future seasons’ products – to stand down while REI places “a hold” (which may or may not be temporary) on their orders, and with a product glut the brands are less-likely to continue to bring new products to market.  In terms of cash flow, the brands themselves need to pay the factories for the products well before the likes of REI and their other dealers pay them for the products that they receive, so the money that they were counting on to pay the factories for future products won’t be coming in, and with orders on hold, their bankers may be less likely to extend credit for future production.

 

Clearly, the implications for these brands is huge, and as a consequence, the impact could be felt by the brands’ employees; negative effects on a company’s cash flow inevitably puts pressure on their ability to afford employees, so a boycott could have the ironic effect of a laying off of the companies’ employees who likely  – as employees of outdoor/cycling brands – likely share the values with the boycotting customers.

 

And to what end?  What is the effect on Vista itself?  Generally the connection between the parent and the sub-brands is relatively thin (Vista is basically a brand holding company, and the brands operate independently).   At this point Vista Corporate has not really engaged at all (requests for interviews went unanswered).  And this is not surprising:  of their fifty brands (yes, fifty!) three-quarters of them are hunting and tactical based, and undoubtedly if the customers of those brands heard that Vista was somehow caving to the desires of the gun control crowd, the resulting boycott would no doubt be an order of magnitude higher.  It doesn’t seem to have affected their financial performance: the stock price dropped quickly on the news, but has since climbed back to its original range.  And while Vista does indeed contribute to the likes of anti-public lander Utah rep Rob Bishop and gun rights advocates via a PAC, that same PAC also contributes to public land defenders Jon Tester (D-MT) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and the rabidly anti-NRA, Bear Ears-defending Dick Durbin (D-IL) and has lobbied hard for the crucial Land and Water Conservation Fund.

 

What of the customers?  There seems to be a wide range of responses:  some folks feel smug and secure in knowing that they have “done something” to stick it to a big, bad company by not purchasing a hydration pack, helmet, or camp stove from one of its brands.  According to Liz Pederson, a Salt Lake skier and cyclist, “Corporate ownership is 100% how I choose my beer, meat, eggs, and vegetables.  I don’t have any qualms applying those same standards to the ‘hardgoods’ that I purchase. Giro/Bell/CamelBak/CampChef are owned by the same folks that own tactical brands, it makes me disinclined to support them.  Just like when I find out that 10 Barrel is owned by Anheuser Bush – I don’t need to support them.  There are other outdoor brands, there are other beers.”    Frequent Salt Lake visitor Chris Nybo of Ventura, CA sums it up well: “I think we live in a time where we consumers can’t put our heads in the sand without being complicit in the crime.”  But Dwight Butler, owner of Salt Lake’s Wasatch Touring, felt  -after getting letters from Giro and CamelBak – that “Even as we should all be voting with our pocketbooks and many of our suppliers are finding out the down sides of selling outo a large conglomerate, which they have no control over their policy, boycotting these small outdoor companies may be misguided, since their focus is hiking, biking & camping and not ammo & assault weapons.”

 

REI’s actions only extended to the Vista brands; interestingly, Black Diamond, which is another prominent Utah-based company, has as its parent Clarus Corp, which coincidentally also owns an ammunition brand (Sierra), but REI did not include BD in their action.  And the much-beloved Yeti (of fancy cooler fame) has been an NRA contributor since its inception and is a staple brand for REI; should REI and we consumers continue to support Black Diamond and Yeti?

 

In an era ofpolitical and social upheaval it’s clear that our purchasing decisions can be a formidable tool in affecting change, but the maturation and consolidation of the outdoor gear market make the implications of those decisions complicated.  It’s likely that CamelBak, Giro, Bell, etc will endure this storm, but is the angst their trusted dealers and loyal customers creating worth the cost?    Are we as consumers willing to accept the responsibility of putting the hurt to longtime trusted brands and potentially jeopardize their employees’ livelihoods to make our point that we don’t appreciate their parent company’s other companies? As one of Giro’s product line managers succinctly put it:  “Question: how does hurting a cycling company change gun laws?  Answer: it doesn’t.  But as citizens we have two primary voting opportunities to enact the change we want to see in the world:  at the polling booth and with our hard-earned dollars.”

 

 Editor’s note:  As this issue was going to press Vista Outdoor announced that it was planning to “explore strategic options for assets that fall outside of (their core) product categories”, which is corporate-speak for selling off brands, that in this case includes Giro, Bell, Blackburn, and Savage, which is a major AR-15 (and other semi-automatic weapons) maker.  It’s stock price dropped 10% in the subsequent days, and there apparently has been no major call for Vista boycotts by customers of its many other ammunition and tactical brands.  

 

One Response to “The Outdoor Industry and Guns”

  1. It’s a little disingenuous to call Vista a “bike company” – it’s a weapon company. The purpose and effect of boycotts is well-known – to use financial pressure to enact change (and to avoid using your money to support a company you disagree with). In this case, Vista is now moving to sell-off its outdoor brands, meaning that those brands will continue to exist. And an impact was had, and awareness raised. To me that’s a mark of success.

    As to your question about Yeti and BD, I’d say it depends. Vista is absolutely a weapons company, so the boycott there makes sense. On the grounds that Yeti has made direct contributions to the NRA for years, I would say yes we should absolutely boycott them and REI should stop selling their products. BD is a little different because according to you its parent company also owns among its many brands one ammunition company. That to me doesn’t call for a total boycott, but a campaign aimed at causing Clarus to get rid of that brand.

    Your ultimate point is one worth considering, but at a certain point the societal harm caused by a company needs to be addressed regardless of the fact that it involves somebody’s job. For instance, how worried should we be about people that work at tobacco companies when seeking to lessen or eliminate the use of tobacco? What about chemical weapons manufacturers? Casinos? At a certain point, the worry that someone may get laid off can’t justify continuing to support a company or practice. We may disagree on when that point is reached, but it can’t be the only concern.

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