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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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News

Dec 28, 2018

The Outdoor Journal’s Biggest Stories of 2018.

From harassment within the climbing industry to deaths and environmental degradation in India. Furthering conversation on deep-rooted problems within the wider outdoor community, to Outdoor Moms, and explaining an unexplained tragedy.

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WRITTEN BY

The Outdoor Journal

The Outdoor Journal endeavours to bring you thoughtful journalism from around the world. We always do our best to take a step back, to take a little more time, and present considered content that always acknowledges both sides of a story.

The response to this approach is always strong and is reflected in the stories that we present below, as the most read articles on OutdoorJournal.com in 2018.

THE JOE KINDER STORY

The first big story of 2018 rocked the Outdoor industry and called many things into question. The initial event was well covered across many media outlets, and we were particularly grateful to Courtney Sanders who provided us with a unique perspective and insight from within the professional climbing community.

However as the dust began to settle, The Outdoor Journal encouraged our community to use this story as a catalyst to look inwards, at themselves. As Apoorva Prasad, The Outdoor Journal Editor-in-Chief explained at the time;

“The overall lack of diversity, gender gap, and lack of a level playing field in outdoor activities and sports is symptomatic of a much larger gender gap in the US than in the rest of the developed world. For example, it would simply be unthinkable in Europe for major sporting events to have skimpily-clad women performing on the sidelines for the purpose of “cheering on” the athletes and beer-drinking audiences. But wait, there’s more! Why is every mountaineering or climbing story from America fundamentally about white people going somewhere (most often Asia) to climb mountains? Are we living in the 19th century? As an Indian-origin climber who’s lived and climbed in America and Europe from the early 2000s onwards, I’ve often been the only non-white person in any given crag, mountain or wilderness area. While I personally have not felt discriminated against, there is indeed a gigantic, larger problem, where a lack of overall diversity in outdoor pursuits enables and engenders a certain kind of environment, as a reflection of a bigger societal gap. However, as a society, we’ve finally started a serious conversation on the subject, and we’re beginning to address egregious offenders when and where we see them. This is the only way forward.”

Elsewhere, we also published Chris Kalman’s perspective entitled The Joe Kinder Lynch Mob: Business as Usual. In the article, Chris asked himself how the community can be “so morally righteous”, and “incongruent with our response, or lack thereof, to other issues.”

“We push hard to preserve our right to climb on sacred indigenous sites such as Devil’s Tower, routinely disregarding the innocuous one-month voluntary ban that we squeezed out of local tribes who would have preferred no climbing on the monument at all. We’ve pursued, accepted, and justified the sexual objectification (not to mention marginalization) of women in the sport’s media. We have a long-standing history of working against public land managers rather than with them (and if you saw Valley Uprising, you know we’re damn proud of it, too). We pump industry dollars and massive amounts of attention into climbing and guiding on Everest, even though every year Sherpas either die or risk their lives for minimal pay, while most of the money for those climbs goes not into Sherpa pockets, but into the pockets of the guides, and the owners of those guide companies.”

MASS TREKING IN INDIA – THE ADVENTURE INDUSTRY PUSHES BACK

Statistics say that the outdoors is now nearly 70% of all leisure, vacation based travel, globally. This has massive ramifications in a country like India – where guidelines are available, but actual regulation, monitoring and implementation are abysmal.

During the summer of 2018, Vaibhav Kala reached out to the Outdoor Journal with his concerns. Vaibhav is the committeee chairman of Adventure Tour Operators Association of India and Founder of Aquaterra Adventures, ranked as one of the world’s best adventure travel companies by National Geographic.

Vaibhav’s subsequent article, entitled Mass Trekking in India: A Disease For Which We’ll All Suffer put the India Adventure Tourism Industry in the dock and spoke of everything from unreported deaths, to unsustainable human activity and environmental degradation.

This article was very shortly followed by news of litigation against mass trekking operations. It led to a ban on nearly all mountain tourism in Uttarakhand, leaving 100,000 jobless and industry without a future. However, it didn’t solve the problem or punish those responsible. The Outdoor Journal took the time to look at the numbers and present a considered story in Adventure Tourism in India Leading to Deaths and Massive Environmental Degradation.

New companies pushing mass trekking in India are highly unsustainable and leaving a massive environmental impact.

Of course, the adventure industry reacted, and The Outdoor Journal invited contributions from those who know the mountains and the community better than anybody.  Dr. Sunil Kainthola, Director of the Mountain Shepherds Initiative, said that  “The same online companies as mentioned in [TOJ’s] article are now offering redesigned trek itineraries some of which include an altitude gain of 1000 meters in a single day in a hypoxic mountain environment. So while the spirit of the High Court order will be honored, the lives of trekkers will be definitely at risk.” All of the reactions can be read in Uttarakhand Trekking Ban: The Adventure Tourism Industry Reacts.

NINE CLIMBERS DIE AT GURJA BASE CAMP, BUT WHAT REALLY HAPPENED?

In October, nine climbers died at Gurja Base Camp during a snowstorm. Many media outlets from around the world have offered explanations. But there has been confusion and a serious lack of understanding on what really happened to the nine climbers on Friday morning.

The Dhaulagiri Range, home to Gurja Photo: Miteshstha

At first, The Outdoor Journal didn’t try to theorise about what might have happened, and just reported on the variety of narratives that could be found around the world – The confusion and lack of understanding were evident. The subsequent article was a result of contributions from experts from around the world, as we tried to make sense of the tragedy.

With contributions courtesy of Global Rescue, the first to arrive on the scene, Simon Trautman from the National Avalanche Center, Dr. Karl Birkeland, of the Director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center, Bruce Raup, a Senior Associate Scientist at the NSIDC and Richard Armstrong, a Senior Research Scientist at the NSIDC a theory began to take shape. A remarkable theory, that told a tragic story and can be read in full in Nine Climbers Die at Gurja Base Camp. What Really Happened? The Experts’ Opinion

OUTDOOR MOMS – EMILY LUSSIN AND HILAREE NELSON

Outdoor sports and adventure have a history of male dominance. It is less common for women to be successful, and even less common for a successful woman to be a mother. As such, The Outdoor Journal were delighted to launch a new series entitled Outdoor Moms.

Family time on Telluride Via Ferrata.

Whitewater kayaking is no exception to expectations. Despite the challenges, Emily Lussin is one such whitewater mom breaking the stereotype, and featured as the first in the series. Our second Outdoor Mom was the 2018 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. Hilaree Nelson, Ski descent of the Lhotse Couloir, ski descent of Papsura, first woman to summit two 8,000m peaks in 24 hours… mother of two. Brooke Hess’ interview with Hilaree, that shows a superhuman woman in a whole new light, can be found in Hilaree Nelson – Mother of Two, Mountaineering Hero to All.

HAPPY NEW YEAR

As a final footnote to 2018, we leave you with “Today, I’m Thankful For…” the Privilege to Suffer”. Originally posted on Thanksgiving, but an article that all adventure sports enthusiasts should read.

Next year, we look forward to bringing you more true stories from adventurers and travellers all over the world, with news from unreported regions and stories not told. Adventures, and expeditions to places that still have room for first descents and ascents. We’re delighted to have you with us.

The World is your playground!

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