innov_ex 2009

Regular listeners might remember I was at the innov_ex conference at Lancaster University a few months ago. It was a real education, there was an amazing insight into all the factors that shape the outdoor industry far beyond what we get to see in the stores.
I meant to write all this up ages ago, but for a few weeks after the conference all I did was melt peoples heads with facts and information learned on the day, so I thought I’d give it a little distance and read through my notes fresh, and hopefully keep the word-count to something I can read through without abandoning all hope.
Clicking the link on the first line above gives access to news and video coverage of the whole day. It was a long day but it flew by, there were no gap-fillers in the line-up and all the speakers had something worth hearing.
This is my personal persepective and interpretation of the day.

I had dinner with the speakers and various other guests, including Mary Rose and Mike Parsons the organisers, the night before, and that gave me a different perspective that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I got to hear about peoples lives as well as their work: children, holidays, home, plans were discussed, and opinions were also freely expressed in good humour. People are never one-dimensional, it’s easy to forget that when listening to or reading information. Anyone who spends time on online forums will know how easily things can go awry when blanks words are interpreted in ways other than intended. What I’m saying is that it was nice to know some of the people beforehand, I think it made me more receptive on the conference day, not to believe what they were saying, but to at least listen without preconceptions.

Detlef Fischer, Bluesign Technologies

Detlef Fischer opened up the show in grand style, with a great presentation and also by talking some sense.
Bluesign is becoming increasingly familiar as brands sign up to it, Patagonia, Vaude and recently Haglofs are among the most familiar outdoor names.
Bluesign study a manufacturers whole operation from the raw materials coming in the door to the boxed product going out of the door. They advise a course of action on how to clean up the process, how to save energy, minimise waste and cut pollution. The detached nature of production means that the factories seem to just carry on regardless, in the west we have chemicals and processes that are a no-go, but in the east there is an element of don’t know, or don’t want to know.
It’s a long involved process, but once in place the manufacturer can say that they’ve reached the standard required and can use the Bluesign stamp, which as time goes on I can see becoming increasingly high profile.
What makes it work for me is the real-world thinking, making the best of a situation, it’s workable. What makes it work for the manufacturers is that once in place the Bluesign regime saves them money. The same factory, producing the same product for less money and waste?
The waste and recycling element was the focus of innov-ex, some figures such as using 700L of water to make 1kilo of textiles were frightening. Now that the manufacturing is half way across the world, the effects are unseen, filthy rivers, toxic air, poisoned soil. It sounds like a Dickens novel, but it’s only a flight away of we want to see it, and the poor sods that have to live in it.

Robert Lomax, Baxenden

Robert Lomax carried on with what was basically synthetic versus cotton, and the information fired out during that was very enlightening.
Synthetic is evil, a product of dirty factories, cotton is lovely, grown naturally in field where birds sing and mice scurry between the plants. No, not even close.
Both poly and cotton are both as much trouble as each other, but the fact that polyester isn’t any more evil than cotton, the notion that organic cotton will save the planet is nonsense and fact that polyester can be easily recycled changes things in my mind.
GM cotton is improving the crop, less waste and better yield, but those two letters “GM” raise as many questions as answers. Cotton is huge business, in carries a lot of muscle in the US. It’s funny how we all accept cotton as being natural, environmentally friendly. It’s a triumph of marketing and myth perpetuation.
They are trying to source polyester from biomass, this will eventually replace the need for crude oil (poly fibres take only 0.6% of crude oil production, if we had hydrogen powered cars the crude would give is fleece ’til the end of time), so it’s good to see research is forging ahead.
Incidentally, Sympatex, the much maligned waterproof membrane fabric is made of three layers of polyester, Gore-Tex is made of three layers of different fabrics. This means that Sympatex can be easily recycled and Gore Tex is easier to stick in landfill. That’ll have to change in the future.
The bottles into clothing label is quite common now, and that whole thing is growing with Teijin taking old fabrics and the like back east from us and making them into new to send back. Much better than sending empty ships I think? Every action has a knock-on effect. Is this the start of a closed loop of resource use, a process where very little new material is used, maybe one day no new content?

Mike Redwood, Leather Futures Research Group

Mike Redwood stuck a pin in another generally accepted “fact”, that leather boots are good and synthetic trail shoes are bad. Turns out that’s rubbish. All the arguments about me encouraging folk to wear trail shoes as being environmentally unsound are without substance. Leather is evil.
Leather has so much treatment in it, chemicals, heavy metals, that it can’t be disposed of properly. Mike had a leather sample that was dug out of the ground where a Tannery was over 100 years ago and it was still supple and well, usable looking. They used to grind up leather and use it on running tracks, but the chromium present meant that this wasn’t such a good idea, and even using “natural” tanning is as bad. There’s so much toxic by-product from any tanning process as well. So you have waste from production and a product that when worn out can’t be used for anything but landfill.
I put natural in inverted commas above as it occurred to me that everything is natural, every chemical or material used has come from this planet, maybe we;ve worked with it, but it,s all natural. Maybe if we viewed science as folk working with nature rather that mentalists creating doom from scratch in a laboratory, we could bridge a gap of understanding, and therefore acceptance, even support of attempts to make advances?
Mike endorses the concept of “Cradle to Cradle”, This basically means taking raw materials, making the product, using it, wearing it out, then breaking it back down into it’s raw materials to start again.
I love the idea of this, but it’s a bit utopian I think. To do anything you need energy, and as it stands we have to consume something to make that energy. Maybe in the future we will have impact-free energy production that will allow the lengthy processes to make Cradle to Cradle work, but until then I can’t see it making as much impact as Bluesign’s real-world approach. Doesn’t mean we can’t plan and theorise of course, and some statements from Mike stuck out: “Instead of being less bad, be more good” an interesting glass half full/ half empty concept, and “Don’t just change small things, reinvent everything”. That sums up the the ideal-world aspect, my first thought was “Aye, but you have to get someone to pay for that”.

Panel Discussion

The panel discussion was interesting (check it out on the website), there was some mild and polite disagreement where concepts diverged and opinions clashed. Some questions came in which had reactions from the audience and panel alike, most memorable when Paramo were described as socially rather than environmentally friendly. Paramo and Nikwax were sitting behind me and nearly stood and turned in unison. I chipped in about Montane’s use of recycled fabrics in the current range which seemed to have escaped common knowledge. That’s another point, if you’re playing your part you have to shout louder.
My question was deliberately obscure. Boffins and the like appear to be so focused in the issue, the dilemma and the solution that they completely forget the human link in the chain. There was much discussion about recycling old gear, or trading in for a discount. I know that there’s gear I’ll never part with, and that I’ll never use either. Folk keep (even hoard) kit for sentimental reasons, or “just in case” , you’ll never get folk to recycle everything, you’ll always need raw materials. I got a very blank look from the panel.
Like I said above, realistic and workable solutions are what we need, not ideal-world solutions that rely on everyone playing ball. But, if it was all in place for folk to play along, it was accessible and trouble-free, folk would no doubt get into the notion of putting their old jacket in a bin in their local outdoor shop to be made into one in next years colours. But the industry would have to invest in the infrastructure and advertising to make it work, as indeed Patagonia already have.
I can’t see any of this keeping prices down though, folk are baulking now at the price increases. Will it mean manufacturing shift away from China to cut costs and the whole thing would have to start again from scratch?

Video Conference
Alan Knight OBE & Chris Sherwin

The video conference worked very well, and the interplay was very good, and probably because of that I took hardly any notes!
But Alan Knight and  Chris Sherwin know their stuff, being very involved industry so know what’s happening and why, as well as trying to change what’s coming next.
A few things stuck out, saying that “Capitalism is still the only way” was bold, but the case was strong. Money flowing around the world has power, it’s how it’s wielded is what makes it good or bad, not the concept itself. the recession hasn’t halted research and innovation, it’s concentrated minds and galvanises efforts.
Seeing the big picture. That statement made me happy, sit up and have a look around, see your place in the general hubub before you think you’ve solved the problem.
One statement stuck with me, real-world thinking “Join the new into the existing rather than replace”. That’s workable, no scaremongering, no thoughts of huge expenditure, just a notion of bringing in some newness.

Mike Berners-Lee, Small World Consulting

Mike Berners-Lee’s engaging presentation was about carbon footprinting, not as the photie above would suggest, Inov-8’s new 10kg trail shoe. 10kg is how much carbon the shoes produce during manufacture and getting to the shops.
Going back to earlier, it turns out that polyster has half the carbon footprint of cotton. That shows you that it’s not always the visible or easy to understand consequences, there’s always something else, nothing can be seen as a stand-alone problem.
The carbon footprint wasn’t held up as the answer as to what was good or bad, just as an element, again some real-world thinking. So many “environmentalists” harp on about one thing and they’re missing the point as much as those who’re trying to ignore them.
Some interesting fast were that paper towels in public lavvies half the carbon imprint of the electric hand driers (except the high pressure cold-air ones, which incidentally don’t wake up the germs just in time to stick to your hands like the heated ones do…).
Transport is the killer, until we ground aircraft it looks like it’s pointless trying to shave the carbon off elsewhere. Stick all freight and people back on ships and we;ll be better off, and from a personal point of view, maybe it would help to ease the pace of life back from the current frenetic setting. I don’t care if mail order takes longer than 24hrs. We really did used to allow 28 days for delivery.

Innov-ex Prize

The innov-ex prize is an important part of the conference. The winners have gone onto bigger and better things. Jan-Fahrenheit Betros, the 2007 winner spoke about growing Röjk his own brand of performance wear in Sweden. He now has a range of clothing and accessories, sponsored athletes and is in talk for distribution here in the UK.
Lisa Alberti won the prize last years for her female-specific performance baselayer, something I know is very important to a lot of you out there.
This year there was a female-specific flotation device up for the prize, so it’s encouraging to see that there are designs out there for women in outdoor sports, we just aren’t seeing the manufacturers getting off their chairs readily enough.
The 2009 winner though was Peter Dollman with his indoor technical ice axes. They’re have the now familiar ultra-shaped designs that are used without leashes for sport climbing, but Peter had replaced the head with a fabric wrapped cable loop which can be used on any indoor wall with causing any damage.
The prototype was a lovely bit of kit and they’ll now go into production with Alpkit.
Peter’s there above accepting his prize from Sam Fountain of Sheewee (who’s wearing a Röjk hoody incidentally).

Phil Reeves, Econolyst & Jason Jones, De Montford University

There’s no other way to say this, but the last part of the day saw us taken into the realms of science fiction. All I could think of was a replicator from Star Trek, or Jeff Bridges getting rebuilt bit by bit at the end of Tron.
At the top of the page you’ll se a locking carabiner, and just above are a pair of lace locks for people who have difficulty with their fingers, such as arthritis sufferers.
The white plastic locking mechanism and the laces locks were printed. The simplest way to put it is it’s an inkjet printer, but rather than ink it uses plastic or metal grains and passes backwards and forwards creating a three dimensional object.
It started as Rapid Prototyping, making a single item to use as a mold, and now we have rapid manufacturing where you can make as many as you want.
The implications for this are huge, no more injection molding, no material waste, no design constraints as you can make something as intricate as you like and as hollow as you need. Phil Reeves and Jason Jones presentations were fascinating, and the scope of what is possible now and will be possible in the future. Below is a helmet, the inside of which was “printed” from a scan of the wearers head. Take this to a related area, making prosthetics that accurately match the wearer (A mate of mine who has a prosthetic limb has had unending issues with the fit).
The applications are potentially infinite, and once strength can be further engineered into the product, such as for use in load bearing/stressed components there will be sweeping changes in manufacturing. As it is, you can download a programme, design your item and email it to someone has a machine and they’ll make it for you (for a price). Will this then free up creativity?
It was a good note to end on, very positive and thought provoking.


There was a lot to take in, a lot I understood, some that amazed and some that frustrated. I’m not blinded by science, and I didn’t believe everything that was said, but I do believe that there are folk out there working on the problems, and we never get to hear about it. That’s why innov_ex is vital, so we can see what’s going on, the possibilities, the realities without advertising or hype. Sure there’s opinions at work, that’s because we’re people. It’s not science, environment, industry, it’s people doing what they do, and innov_ex was connecting the people, and that’s what smooths the passage of the ideas.

I’d like that thank Mary Rose and Mike Parsons (below) for inviting me to innov_ex and for looking after me so well. It was fascinating and very enjoyable.
I’ll be back next year and looks like I might be a little more involved as a competition judge. I know some of the points regarding environmental impact discussed at the conference will be applied to next years conference, so it’s evolving which keeps it relevant. I’ll be watching the build-up with interest.

30 thoughts on “innov_ex 2009”

  1. Aye Martin, it’s an area that’s ripe for discussion leading to raised voices. Truth be told, the only way to see who was right is with hindsight, so we have some waiting to do.
    Other Blusesign brands are Helly Hansen, TNF, Deuter and MEC in Canada.

  2. Funnily enough I was looking at a part that came off a rapid prototypeing machine at work the other day. It’s a redesigned part made of one piece rather than the two parts that we ultra-sonicly weld together.

    It’ll still be made in an injection molding machine once the new tool/mold is made but I was thinking about the ‘what if’ if they could make it stronger.

  3. Cool

    Some interesting ideas on the ethical/enviromental stuff.
    I have been chasing my tail, trying to do the right thing.

    Synthetic vs natural. From my own experiance a Helly Lifa baselayer has lasted me 10 yrs. Howies NBL light with similar performance. Full of holes after 2yrs.

    The Helly is still going strong but with a large iron shapped patch, melted into the back. Lent it to my sis inlaw ‘bless’.

  4. BBF, it’s going that way, we saw some ice axe component prototypes. Apparently Boeing are use some rapid manufcatured components on new aircraft as well.

    sbrt, chasing your tail is the right description. No matter what we do, it’ll have an impact.
    I suppose the more information that’s available, the more informed our choices will be, and the shall we say, more “carefree” manufacturers will have to clean up their act.

    We saw some footage of Bangladesh and it’s horrific the conditions these poor bastards have to live and work in. The outdoor inductry is a minor player though, fashion really is the Great Satan.

  5. As I remember cotton uses up tons of water (also pretty scarce). Merino I guess benign but horribly slow to produce. Bamboo perhaps?!

    The exploitation of foreign workers just to save us/ multi nationals a little bit of money we *really* don’t need is terribly sad.

    Paramo have a wonderful solution but I guess it wouldn’t work for a bigger/more diverse company. Pataguici’s website seems amazingly honest about how hard it is to ensure decent working conditions even when you actually care.

    Still a few things made in the EU of course! (or NZ for Chocolate fish.). I was happy/surprised to find Haglofs still making a few bits in Portugal.

  6. Hi Mary, sorry it took so long!
    Reading through my notes again after a gap did show me the points that made the most impact(partly by how much underlining or how many exclamation marks there were)and what to me personally was the most thought provoking.

    John and Martin, it’s good to see that we’re all interested in this aspect, as much as we all love gear, it does damage more than just our wallets.

    Bamboo is becoming more common, as is coconut husk, but what’s happening is the same as what happened with soya, they start cutting down indigenous greenery to make space for the new crop. Environmental thinking in the west destroying the environment elsewhere?
    The scale of sorting everything is just so huge.

  7. The scale looks even larger when measured against our collective long term planning ability!

    Certainly better if bamboo displaced cotton production. You would expect it to be more benign to grow, although I have no idea what they have to do to process it.

    Perhaps shares some of merino’s ability to let you own a lot less clothing. My wardrobe has become almost scarily empty since moving to merino :)

  8. I wonder what the process is? You have to hope it’s not piles of bamboo waste being burned or going into landfill?

    One process that’s suppposed to be incredibly toxic, or was anyway, is putting silver in to fabric, like X-Static. I think that was have been cleaned up as Bluesign members use it.
    Another is carbon fibre production in the east, especially those using nano-fibres, it’s an envioronmental and health timebomb.

    Merino, I’d imagine there’s a finite production capacity before it has to be mass-farmed and consequently loses it’s cache and quality?

    Man, it’s all questions isn’t it?

  9. I’ve said it round these parts before. the outdoors industry has to grapple with a core pardox.

    To survive, all manufacturers have to shift units. To do so, they have to persuade you that the perfectly good jacket/ rucksack/ tent/ sleeping bag/ boots/trail shoes/ etc etc that you bought last year are obsolete (not lightweight enough is the ususal ‘tack’ these days).

    Such an approach (ably assisted by magazine gear reviews, websites and blogs) might sustain a business, but it doesn’t sustain the planet.

    So what to do? Don’t buy or promote shiny new gear and see some well loved manufactures struggle ? Or carry on as we are, paying lip service to environmentalism but accepting that some (occasionally hgh profile) green ‘stances’ simply don’t stand up to close scrutiny?

  10. i thought i’d logged onto the Open University site by mistake. Its funny you mention bamboo just bought a bath towel (real outdoorsy i know) but they are naturally antimacrobial like merino and a hell of a lot more absorbant than cotton, so i can see a lot of base layer potential in them. Got a marmot top with cocona in and its great, personally i don’t like merino and it baffles me how someone can look at a plant and think theirs a good top in there somewhere. Makes you think doesn’t it

  11. David, all good points. I think it’s all down to human nature as well as marketing. We never stand still, folk will always see a flaw or an advantage in this years kit and try to engineer a solution for next years. Then when we see it it’s “Ah, look what they’ve done, I want that”.
    I shudder to think what’ll happend to us as a race if that stops, we need progress, we need to be chasing something. The secret to success is progress without cost to the world and its inhabitants.
    There’s a lot of nonsense spoken by companies who want to align themselves with environmental causes, it’s called “greenwash”, and the advertising regulatory bodies stomp on it if they catch it.

    coops, I’ve got bamboo socks and they have to be the softest socks I’ve ever worn, and cocona is great, I’ve got a few things with it in the fabric.
    You point about looking at a plant and seeing possibiliies is an important one, it’s maybe something that we’re just rediscovering in the west. Centuries of textile manufacture has made clothing a product, whereas the ancuent egyption were eying up fkax and thinking “Hmm, I could make that into nice white linen, that’ll be good in this heat”.
    Well, maybe not quite like that, but you get the drift. Maybe there’s an elemnet of going full circle using some of the natural stuff?

  12. “we need progress, we need to be chasing something.”

    It’s what makes my job as an archaeologist so much fun – chasing down those little breakthroughs in technology and then realising we all go full circle quite regularly.

    Anyway, a lot of good sense has been expressed above. I’ll just be interested to see where we are in a year or so…

  13. Fascinating reading above, one of the really big challenges facing all is how to balance commercial and environmental considerations. There’s some really interesting thoughts on how one outdoor retailer does this – Canadian Mountain Equipment Co-operative- we had a video conferenced session from their CEO at last year’s Innov_ex and we still have it on our site

    We have been working with Forum for the Future over the last 2 Innov_ex’s and again what they are looking for is sustainable innovation that avoids ‘green-wash’

  14. Pete

    As the person who asked that question about which British clothing company has reached the tipping point of being the ethical/ environmental choice I feel you did not hear it correctly, from my reading of your notes

    You had a very good point about Montane’s Enviro range, but they dropped it for Fried this year as (to quote their staff) ‘no one ordered it’

    I struck Nikwax off the list as they are not a clothing producer

    I said that Paramo were the best at Corporate Social Responsibility, which is something you might not be familiar with from your report; but not necessarily the torch bearers of the Environmental. It was only that morning that Robert had told us that polyester might actually be better for the environment than previously associated. It was interesting to hear at the recent Outdoor conference that there has been an appeal for ’10 big brands’ to volunteer to head up the Sustainability project on behalf of the EOG & that we are 3 years behind a similar OIA (American) project

    My question still stands (& for the sake of those readers of this blog who did not hear it) the brands I discounted were: Don Gladstone’s RED (not a product), howies (not a real technical range), Patagonia (not British), Finisterre (not yet at tipping point) & Nikwax (as stated before – not clothing)…

    The best answer was texted to me by someone watching on-line, who just highlighted the ‘Sustainability’ answer: it is better to reduce consumption, then re-use gear, before looking at the Environmental considerations



  15. Good points Charles, thanks.

    I understood your point about Paramo, it was the reaction to it that caught me. It occured to me at that moment, that how a company is perceived in this context seems to be becoming more important, and rightly so.

    I think Montane’s trouble with the Live Lite range wasn’t the fabric (I’ve tested some of it, it’s good fabric), it was the designs they used it on, the more casual stuff with some very quirky aesthetics. It’s a shame.

    The sustainabilty point is an interesting one. In my mind it brings in “want versus need”. The industry has grown to a size where it needs folk to constantly replace gear to feed it, with all the environmental problems and of course, the money flow.
    If I take an extreme point of view on that, it’s an artificially created situation, floated on marketing and consumer’s disposbale income.
    Making it genuinely sustainable, ethical and environemntal friendy would be a work of genius.

    That’s why innov_ex made such an impression on my, there’s folk there with the ability to steer it in the right way. I’d like the person walking into the shop to be aware of that rather than just what they’ve taken from an advert or a magazine review. Consumer empowerment through knowledge as a topic for 2010?

  16. I wonder who is least sustainable:

    The manufacturer who pays lipservice to the environment but is committed to an ‘obsoletist’ model to shift units and stay in business?

    The magazine which promotes wilderness and opposes windfarms, but runs gear reviews and encourages air travel to foreign walking destinations?

    The outdoors writer who preaches ‘leave it as you find it’, but makes a living from encourgaging thousands of readers to drive to and trample all over wild land?

    Us punters, who are aware of environmental issues but do little to change our own ‘consumption’ of the outdoors?

  17. We’re all guilty, or at least damned by indifference.

    Since I’ve become more involved with outdoor stuff, rather than become blase about whatever I see, hear or write about, I’ve become ever more aware of its effects.
    It does cause me conflict at times, right now I’m looking at some Trail stuff for next year and I know if it makes it to print its “giving the game away”. But, why should I keep stuff to myself, if more folk did some of the really rather lame and accessible stuff I do might they not find a different view of the hills? Like I’ve said before, see them as a wonderful environment rather than a play venue?
    It’s that hope that keeps sticking photies of my tent on here and in Trail. Doesn’t mean I don’t still wonder at times if I’ve done the right thing.
    The gear thing? When I see next years kit and I do see that they’ve thought about it and made it better, I get excited.
    I like ingenuity and striving for acheiving the best, but these days the bigger picture looms large as well.

    But, I have also learned that change is possible, and if we vote for it with our wallets, we can make it happen.

  18. Great links, the YouTube video is worth watching for it’s shocking facts delivered with humour.
    I’d love to see Cradle to Cradle implemented universally, but until power is free (environmentally), and design is unrestricted by following the principles (through construction or materials) it feels a little like wishful thinking. Worth striving for though.

  19. This is a great video, thanks for putting it up. The piece on the conference summed up a great day. I reckon perhaps I misrepresented leather as I view it as a great material and environmentally superior to nearly all alternates. Yet I get upset when the words “organic” and “natural” as used to promote vegetable tanned leather rather than chrome. Both have environmental problems that have to be dealt with and well tanned chrome leather carefully produced is as good as any. Yet both need the cradle to cradle work to be done and not just on the leather but on the whole chain, with decisions about the end of life of the article as perhaps the most important. Take that into account when you design and ask the tanner questions. The we will get somewhere. Meanwhile fi you are going to use vegetable tanning use a tannage like mimosa where we know commercial supplies come from sustainable forests.

  20. I think your piece on leather was very honest and realistic Michael. So often materials are presented to the public as a complete solution because it comes from nature (organic cotton immediately springs to mind), but by saying that there are issues to deal with in leather production and disposal, it grounds it firmly in reality, and to me that makes it accessible and understandable.
    Often environmetal solutions seem too far out of reach and I think they suffer for that. If there seems to be a route from where we are now, through a series of obstacles to reach a point where Cradle to Cradle can be universally implemented then it seems possible, going from A to B to C etc, rather than A to Z in one big jump.
    I look forward to the day where I’m testing merino lined leather trail shoes will coconut fibre mesh and 100% recycled soles.

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