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Featured

Aug 17, 2018

Discount Sports Retailer Decathlon returns to America, but is it welcome?

A modern day souk for low-priced sporting and outdoors equipment, French conglomerate Decathlon doubles down on cracking the US market despite red flags.

WRITTEN BY

Davey Braun

Read this before you shop.

I spent my first 30-some odd years living in America. I grew up with Dick’s Sporting Goods and MC Sports, those one-stop-shop places for Americans to find all their outdoor sporting needs. What’s that you say? You’re in need of a lacrosse stick, a paintball gun AND a sports bra? And you need them all today? Dick’s has got you covered. I used to enjoy walking slow laps around the aisles, perusing each section of gear. Some people unwind by reading a magazine. I find my happy place wherever the gear is.

When I moved to Europe two years ago, I needed to recalibrate. Where would I find the headlamps and scuba gear that I would surely be using in my new life abroad? My search for a new gear mecca ended quickly when I discovered Decathlon. I have to admit that the first time I entered Decathlon, I reacted like Mitchell in Modern Family the first time he visits the low-price, high-volume wholesaler Costco – initially reluctant, he quickly becomes overwhelmed by the sheer volume of items to be got, “Cam, what is this place?”

Decathlon’s snorkel mask performs well in my summer trip to southern Portugal. Photo: The Outdoor Journal

Decathlon, a French company, is actually the largest sporting goods retailer in the world with over 1300 stores in 39 countries, earning an €11 billion turnover in 2017. You’ll find its products all over Europe, with unique brand names for each sporting category, like Caperlan for fishing and B’Twin for cycling.

Like some transatlantic giant stepping across the ocean, Decathlon has set North America in its sights.

Despite a false start with its initial foray into the US market that ended in 2006, Decathlon has re-launched a flagship store in San Francisco and, starting this week, anyone in the US can buy from Decathlon online. Like some transatlantic giant stepping across the ocean (paraphrasing Lincoln’s Lyceum address), Decathlon has set North America in its sights.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “I don’t watch the Tour de France, so I’ll stick with the store I know.” But you might be surprised to discover the wide range of gear that Decathlon offers.

Full disclosure, I’m a regular at Decathlon. I’ve purchased snorkel masks (5 euros), camo t-shirts (5 euros), boxing gloves (29 euros) and more. The amount of items you can get for right around 5 euros is astonishing. Within the giant warehouse-like structure, you’ll find higher-ticket, repeat use items as well.

A collection of my Decathlon items that I use regularly: Boxing gloves, snorkel set, dry bag, 3L and 10L foldout bags. Photo: The Outdoor Journal

I bought my first pair of climbing shoes there for 30 euros (just shy of $35 bucks), because I was invited on a climbing trip but not sure how committed I would be moving forward. Even a beginner pair can easily cost you 80 bucks in the States.

Decathlon beginner climbing shoes under their niche climbing brand Simond – 30 euros. Photo: The Outdoor Journal

But my most used purchases are the small 3L and 10L bags that roll up into pouches that fit inside my pocket when not in use. They rip easily and need to be replaced often, but they’re cheap and they sure do come in handy.

Will American Consumers Buy Into the Discount Model?

1. Basic Look

After Decathlon’s failed first launch in the US over a decade ago, the jury is still out on whether American consumers will forgo their familiar gear retailer for Decathlon’s ultra-low priced items. Firstly, although the low price point is irrefutable, one would be hard-pressed to argue that Decathlon’s products are stylish. The colors and cuts are not on point with trendier fashion brands like Lulu Lemon which, of course, are exorbitantly expensive in comparison (a pair of Lulu Lemon running shorts will run you over $60).

2. Wrong Fit

Secondly…and how can I put this delicately? Americans are fatter. Even Vogue is publishing articles about how women can get deeper into pig butchery and sausage making. Sodas, office chairs and a generally more sedentary lifestyle keep American belts tight compared to slimmer Europeans. Decathlon Europe’s slim-fitted garments reflect this. With their new US launch, we can expect a flood of return items from the online store, stained with disappointment.

3. Quality Matters

Thirdly, the downside of a low price point is that it usually holds hands with low quality. How many sports can you try without spending a grand just for your starter-pack of gear? I’d say that Decathlon’s products are good enough for entry level outdoorsmen and women. With Decathlon, you can dip your toes into a sport without breaking the bank. That said, The Outdoor Journal has previously tried and tested higher-end Decathlon gear elsewhere, and found the more expensive products pretty sturdy – TOJ’s Editor-in-Chief hiked deep in the Himalayas for over a week, wearing a pair of Forclaz Men’s 500 boots (this article’s lead image is probably around Day 5), which were full-grain leather, made in Romania, and stood up well to trek.

A slow fashion movement is gaining traction in the mainstream that could send Decathlon retreating back to Europe for the second time in a row.

The flip-side of Decathlon’s unrivaled high turnover per square meter of retail space is that it’s highly unlikely to be considered environmentally sustainable. A slow fashion movement is gaining traction in the mainstream that could send Decathlon retreating back to Europe for the second time in a row. For example, Patagonia’s Worn Wear initiative keeps gear in action longer through a repair policy that allows consumers to purchase refurbished garments and also get paid to recycle used gear. Patagonia makes gear to last. Decathlon makes gear that can be used more than a few times, but not more than a few seasons.

Serious Human Rights Concerns

As much as I love my gear sanctuary, it pains me to point out another red flag that’s come to my attention.

You can get a pair of men’s high-top hiking boots for 50 euros at Decathlon, but do the boots pass the sniff test?

When I need to stock up on gear for an upcoming trip, I get that nervous buzz. Despite my initial excitement at the affordable price, when I take a closer look and see a label that says “Made in Sri Lanka,” I’m immediately skeptical. I pause, wondering about the wages those workers are being paid as well as their living conditions. How many hours of overtime are they working and for how much?

I decide to perform a little detective work. When I type “Decathlon labor” into Google, the top, and only autocorrect result is “Decathlon Child Labor.” Not a good start. Then I navigate to Decathlon’s FAQ on their site. I’m expecting to see information about where to send return items, or how to contact customer service. Instead, I find only three questions. All three questions relate to child labor, inspection of subcontractors and working conditions. Clearly Decathlon is aware of a growing public perception of the company as a wrongdoer when it comes to social responsibility.

80% of Decathlon’s production takes place in Asia, according to its 2017 Sustainable Development Report. For a breakdown, that’s 49.8% North Asia, 16.9% Southeast Asia and 14.3% Southwest Asia – areas where undeclared outsourcing, forced labor and even child labor persist.

In 2017, Karin Finkenzeller of Zeit Online shed light on the fact that Decathlon has been flagged for shady treatment of the workers in factories run by its contractors in Sri Lanka. Violations included low wages and overlong shifts. But these strong allegations have not put the kibosh on Decathlon’s plans for global domination.

Continuing my detective work, I reached out to Decathlon, Patagonia, REI, Mountain Hardwear, Fjällräven, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and The North Face, among others, and Decathlon, Patagonia and REI replied with links to their sustainability reports. So I dug a bit deeper.

Sustainability Matters

Sustainability is something that I care about as a consumer and it’s a foundational principle of The Outdoor Journal. It’s important to treat the environment in a way that ensures the next generation can enjoy it as well.

Decathlon racked up over 120 million tonnes of Co2 emissions to relocate their goods from the point of production to the point of sale.

Decathlon’s total CO2 emissions in production piled up to 8.2 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2017, a 14.8% increase from the year before. According to the EPA, that CO2 output equates to the annual energy use of about 800,000 homes, the same annual greenhouse gas emissions of over 1.5 million passenger vehicles and it’s also the amount of carbon sequestered annually by 60,000 acres of forest preserved from deforestation.

Only 20% of all Decathlon items sold in Europe were actually produced within Europe last year. In plane transportation alone, Decathlon racked up over 120 million tonnes of Co2 emissions to relocate their goods from the point of production to the point of sale (with another 68 million by sea).

In a report by Rankabrand, which takes into account materials used, treatment of hazardous chemicals and working conditions, Decathlon’s gear and apparel brand Quechua scored an “E – Don’t Buy.” The report concludes, “It is hard to see the effort Quechua is making on sustainability. “ In contrast, Patagonia has achieved the C-label, citing the company is on its way towards sustainability, but more improvement is needed. Patagonia’s C rating might be a surprise to you. If it seems too low, that’s a reflection of their successful brand marketing campaigns that influence public perception. Decathlon purposefully spends little on marketing and PR (which is one way it keeps its prices low). That may not help it in the US market, which relies greatly on hefty marketing budgets to influence audience perception.

Furthermore, according to Ethical Consumer, Decathlon violates social responsbility standards by conducting operations in oppressive regimes. It scored the worst rating for its cotton sourcing policy and also the worst ration for supply chain management. Last year, only 4% of Decathlon’s total cotton consumption came from organic sources.

Audits Conducted In-House

But how does Decathlon continue to grow and expand with these sorts of social violations? The answer is, Decathlon relies on self-policing. It appears that human rights and worker safety audits required by law have largely been assigned to an in-house team dedicated to humane treatment in the supply chain. This is according to Bipiz.org, an independent company that reviews best practices in corporate social responsibility (“CSR”). If Decathlon’s internal production teams assume responsibility for monitoring the company’s adherence to corporate health and safety standards, therein lies a conflict of interest.

To Buy or Not to Buy, That is the Question

At its core, Decathlon is a French family institution. It’s the how and why French families get into any sport or outdoor activity – because it’s so affordable. From their kids’ first footballs to their first snorkeling fins or climbing shoes, it’s all from Decathlon – until someone really needs to “level up” and buy a “serious brand.”

If you’re new to the outdoors and want to try skiing or camping, Decathlon offers you a way to gear up with skis, down jackets, tents, headlamps and everything else you need, all in one place, at discount prices. The quality might be lower than more established outfitters like Patagonia, but once you learn whether or not you’re committed to the sport, you can always upgrade.

I question whether I would feel proud about wearing one of their brands like Quechua or Domyos or Itiwit across my chest.

However, Decathlon’s low-price, high-turnover model is worse for the environment than production models that keep sustainability in mind. Then again, maybe it’s not fair to single out Decathlon for outsourcing its labor. Nearly every brand on the planet is guilty in one respect or another. I was in an Eddie Bauer store yesterday, and nearly everything is made in China or Vietnam or India – none of which are well known for consistent enforcement of Western labor laws. Five years after the Bangladesh Rana Plaza factory collapse, the deadliest garment factory disaster ever, killing more than 1,100 people, business seems to be continuing as usual for Western brands like Nike, H&M and Zara.

We don’t have solid evidence that Decathlon, or its contractors, take advantage of child labor or abusive working conditions. However, one byproduct of the way Decathlon has diversified its branding into niche activity brands is that it reduces transparency for the company as a whole. The questionable custom of self-policing keeps Decathlon’s supply chain contractors a mystery. Decathlon is not the only company taking advantage of garment workers in developing countries, but at the same time, I question whether I would feel proud about wearing one of their brands like Quechua or Domyos or Itiwit across my chest. As a slow fashion movement gains steam, the buying public might just reject what Decathlon stands for.

Cover photo credit: Tribord Easybreath by Decathlon.

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Events

Mar 25, 2019

GritFest 2019: The long-awaited trad climbing event returns

Fueled by a common passion, an assembly of seasoned climbers revive the traditional climbing movement just outside of Delhi, India.

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The wind coming off the rock face felt inhospitable, but the air itself gave off a sense of communal joy. After 33 years in absence, the thrill at the Great Indian Trad Festival, or Gritfest, emerged again for a new generation. 

We stood together in ceremony around Mohit Oberoi, aka Mo, the architect of the Dhauj trad climbing era, whose been climbing in the area since 1983. Mo, who continues to inspire many, briefly underlined the cause behind the Gritfest: a two-day annual trad climbing gathering that finally saw the light of day on February 23rd and 24th 2019. The gathering, although one of its kind, was not the first. The first one took place in 1985 and was put together by Tejvir Khurrana.

Read next: Mohit Oberoi: My History with Dhauj, Delhi’s Real Trad Area

“Dhauj is huge and there exists such an amazing playground right on their doorstep”

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the climbing scene in India, Dhauj is where some of the country’s finest climbing began. Located in Faridabad Haryana, Dhauj is roughly between 18 to 20 miles away from Delhi. The region is home to the Aravali Mountains that start in Delhi and pass through southern Haryana to the state of Rajasthan across the west, ending in Gujrat.

The Great Indian Trad Fest was long overdue and brought together by Ashwin Shah, who is the figurative sentinel guard of the Dhauj territory. In addition to being the guy with more gear than you’d ever expect one man to own, he is also often caught headhunting belayers, sometimes even climbers. His never-aging obsession with Dhauj is also very contagious. I’m grateful to start my own climbing journey with Ashwin. In my first attempts at belaying, my simple mistake caused him to drop on a 5-meter whipper. It could have been more.

Rajesh, on the left, getting ready to belay, Ashwin in the middle and Prerna on the right

That whipper, in hindsight, transmuted into a defining moment for me. The primal squeal Ashwin let out while falling made me realize the danger of this new passion I couldn’t help but fall for myself. That being said, had it not been for Ashwin’s impressionable optimism to entrust me with his life, Dhauj wouldn’t have held the same allure that it does for me now. Ashwin started contemplating the Gritfest after his return from Ramanagara Romp in Bangalore: a three-day event that gauged the possibility of climbs undertaken during a two-day window.

Read Next: Why the Aravalli Forest Range is the Most Degraded Zone in India

The idea behind the Gritfest is to celebrate a legacy built over the last four to five decades. A legacy that should be preserved for posterity as it has been thus far. “The objective is to think about the future,” said Mo, as he jogged his memory from back in the days. Furthermore, the fest also aims to encourage and educate aspiring climbers on traditional climbing: a form of climbing that requires climbers to place gear to protect against falls, and remove it when a pitch is complete.

Mo leading Aries at the Prow.

Sadly, the fest also takes place at a time when the government of Haryana seeks to amend an age-old act,  the Punjab Land Preservation Act, 1900 (PLPA), that would put thousands of acres of land in the Aravalli range under threat. India’s Supreme Court, however, has reigned in and we will likely know the outcome in the days to come.

The know-how around trad climbing rests with a handful of members in the community. This also makes the Gritfest ideal for supporting a trad-exploration pivot in the country. Dhauj, also home to the oldest fold mountains in India, has been scoped out with lines that go over 100 feet. The guidebook compiled by Mohit Oberoi documents some fine world-class routes since the early stages of climbing in and around Delhi. With grades ranging between 5.4 to 5.12a, Dhauj has more than 270 promising routes.

The fest kicked off with Mo leading the first pitch on Aries, a 5.6 rating, 60 feet high face at the prow, while the community followed. Seeing Mo repeat some of the climbs he’s been doing for over 30 years was exhilarating to say the least. Amongst the fellow climbers, we also had some professional athletes, including Sandeep Maity, Bharat Bhusan, and Prerna Dangi. The fest also saw participation from the founders of Suru Fest and BoulderBox.

Kira rappelling down from the top of Hysteria with a stengun, 5.10a.

“Trad climbing can be a humbling experience”

While the Gritfest finally came to fruition, I wondered as to why it took so long for it to happen. One of the questions that I particularly had in mind was regarding the popularity of places such as Badami and Hampi over Dhauj. Although the style of climbing varies across all regions, the scope and thrill of climbing in Dhauj remains underestimated. For one reason, I knew that there is a serious dearth of trad climbing skills which makes it partly inaccessible. Whereas the red sandstone crags bolted with possibly the best sports routes in India make the approach to Badami relatively easier.

I reached out to Mo, and asked him to share his perspective on the fest as well as some of the questions I had in mind.

1) Tell us a little about your thoughts on theGritfest?

It’s a great way for climbers to get together and climb, form new partnerships, share information and also solidify the ethic part of climbing, especially in Dhauj, which is purely a trad climbing area.

2) What is it that the current community can learn from Gritfest?

The possibility of climbing in Dhauj is huge and there exists such an amazing playground right on their doorstep, also Dhauj is an amazing place to learn “trad climbing”.

3) Since it was the first installment, where do you see it heading in the future?

I think it will grow to a large number of climbers congregating here as long as we KEEP IT SIMPLE, and climb as much as possible. We should keep the learning workshops “How to climb” type of courses out of this. This should be one event where we just climb at whatever level we feel comfortable with.

4) Why is it that Dhauj isn’t nearly as popular as Badami or Hampi?

I’m not sure why, really. It’s possible that the grades are not “bragging” grades and climbers don’t feel comfortable starting to lead or climb on “trad” at a lower range of grades. “Trad” climbing can be a humbling experience as one has to work up from the lower grades upwards. It is both a mental and physical challenge unlike climbing on bolts. Despite the guidebook, there is a reluctance to going out to Dhauj which surprises me, that Delhi / NCR locals would rather have travelled more times to Badami / Hampi than take a short ride to their local crag.

Perhaps it is about bragging rights. Perhaps it’s about the lack of skills. Whatever the reason might be, Dhauj will continue to inspire generations to come and fests like Gritfest will serve to strengthen our community. Whether you are new to climbing or have been at it for years, there is always something to learn.

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