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Rental is a new frontier for the great outdoors

a canoe on a pier

The outdoor industry is expanding on its rental model for a new reason: Sustainability

Renewable Matter

(Technical) clothing does not make a mountaineer or a sportsperson. And while the year of COVID-19, with its lockdowns and restrictions on movement, reminded us as never before how important outdoor activities are to our mental and physical wellbeing, the practice of these activities has an oft-overlooked downside: The environmental impact caused by the production and life-cycle of garments and equipment. Tents, sleeping bags, skis, foldable boats, backpacks and (expensive) technical clothing often end up being used for just a few days every year — sometimes even just once. For most people, it would likely be easier, more convenient and more sustainable to rent instead of buying.

From online platforms to manufacturers' stores: Rental as a new business model

Of course, the rental business is far from new: In the worlds of skiing and ice-skating, for example, the practice has been widespread for decades. In recent years, however, thanks to growing concerns over the question of sustainability, and the increasing number of consumers willing to take part in equipment sharing, availability has skyrocketed. New online platforms have hit the market — especially in the United States, such as Californian company Arrive — and large retailers, from German firm Globetrotter (German) to Sweden’s Naturkompaniet, have got in on the act. Even French colossus Decathlon has started trialling a rental model on the domestic market, with its Forclaz (French) brand of outdoor clothing and equipment.

Furthermore, the concept of offering own-brand products for rent is becoming more appealing to many manufacturers, who are increasingly offering — or have started trialling— this option to customers through their websites and affiliated retailers.

One of the first to launch the service in its stores, in 2012, was Swedish ski and trekking attire brand Houdini. Gustav Hedström, the company’s business developer, recounts that "the goal was to decouple our financial growth from the use of resources, allowing people to reconnect with nature without needing to consume clothes. This solution allows customers to have a flexible wardrobe without necessarily having to own clothes, and try on garments before deciding whether to buy them. In this case, rental costs are deducted from the final price."

The garments available are a selection of "the most popular for winter and summer, such as parkas, windbreakers, technical trousers." As well as offering customers free returns on all products, in 2006 Houdini became the first European brand to partner with Eco-circle, the polyester recycling process devised by Japanese textiles company Teijin. When rented products are returned, Hedström stated, "they are cleaned and refurbished, reactivating the DWR water repellent technology and performing repairs in our service centre when necessary. If we need to regulate warehouse stocks, we can sell and purchase second-hand garments through the ‘Reuse’ section of our website, whereas if the garments are completely worn out and unsuitable for use we recycle them."

Rental and repair

In 2017, Fjällräven — another Swedish brand, with the unmistakable curled-up red fox logo — started renting out tents (followed by trekking backpacks and sleeping bags) in its stores and then via the Naturkompaniet chain. Head of Communication Philipp Kloeters explained that "for 2020, we had planned to link the rental program to our Fjällräven Classic Events,” a series of eight treks the company organizes all over the world. "Despite tremendous interest, in the end we had to cancel them due to COVID, but the feature will become permanent in future events. Furthermore, we will evaluate the expansion of the rental program in Asia and the U.S.from 2021."

Over time, Kloeters went on, "needs or interests can change. Rental is an excellent alternative to owning things that might be used only a few times a year. We have developed guides for product cleaning and care, and work closely with our partners to ensure products are well maintained and ready for the next adventure. Furthermore, wherever possible, we repair them using the spare parts that we have available."

We’re trying to respond to evolving customer behavior — they’re looking for alternative ways to access products.

Vaude, a German cycling and mountaineering equipment company, also started offering its products for rental in 2017, through the iRentit program. Tents, hiking and mountaineering backpacks and cycling travel bags can be booked online and in the company’s stores. Once returned, they are refurbished in the service center, which also benefits from a collaboration with iFixit, a website that specializes in repair manuals. Rental, however, is only available in Germany, and Vaude has stated that — for the time being — it does not intend to expand it to other countries.

Nevertheless, the company is one of the most attentive to the sustainability of its products’ entire life cycle. Last summer, Vaude introduced a "repairability index" for products based on the number of tools, components and time needed to refurbish them. This is a way, according to CEO Antje von Dewitz, of "reaffirming our opposition to a throwaway society. Our products have to last a long time, and be repairable."

Across the Atlantic, Seattle-born sports attire brand REI is very active in the rental market. Founded in 1938 by a group of mountaineers, the company has always been based on a cooperative model: it counts 19 million members and over 150 stores. Here and on its website, starting in 2018, REI introduced the option of renting camping kits, excursion materials such as backpacks or snowshoes, cycling gear, kayaks, skis and snowboards and luggage racks for vehicles. 

"We want to make it easy for our customers to go into nature and try out new equipment," stated Courtney Gearhart, senior public affairs program manager at REI. "Our goal is to reduce waste, so when a product is replaced with a new version, every shop can put it back on the market in its second-hand section (which we unfortunately have had to close while the COVID pandemic lasts) or via the Used Gear online platform."

"We’re trying to respond to evolving customer behavior — they’re looking for alternative ways to access products," said Peter Whitcomb, director of new business development for REI, in a blog post on the company website. "If we can continue to deliver and scale more sustainable buying options for customers while also reducing waste, the potential impact gets very interesting. The really big players with the largest reach will increasingly think and act this way."

In Italy

In Italy, Bolzano-based Oberalp — owner of the Salewa brand, among others — has introduced the option to rent technical mountaineering equipment in some of its stores. Martine Riblan, the company’s sustainability assistant, stated that "the reasons that drove us are linked to both customer requests and sustainability."

With regards to the former, "often it is retailers who independently model a proposal." Among the materials available to rent there are, for example, sets for fixed rope routes, glacier boots and tents. "Some activities require specific equipment: rental is considered by our customers when they want to try a new approach to the mountain without committing to purchasing materials that they might end up using only once. Thus, we make mountaineering accessible to more people, and allow those who spend time in the mountains more regularly to try out new equipment every season and test new products."

One of the first stores to launch the rental scheme, in Zermatt, Switzerland, receives some 150 rental requests every year. Furthermore, from a sustainability perspective, Oberalp set up a department in 2012 to focus on aspects ranging from "supply chain transparency to chemical tests, monitoring, and improvement of factory working conditions. In the same vein, we handle the repair of certain products, and we are exploring the possibility of expanding this service too."

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