His magazine is well known among outdoor gear and apparel manufacturers in Europe. Directors working with sustainability read his business-to-business magazine from cover to cover. In just three years, the new magazine has become a powerful educator and energizer in the industry. Meet the founder of Suston Magazine, sharing experiences from an outdoor community in transformation.
The latest issue of Suston (Sustainable outdoor news) Magazine can be seen almost everywhere at the leading event for outdoor business professionals. The trade shows ISPO Munich and Outdoor Retailer in Denver are where all the big brands check up on their competitors and the start-ups try to get some attention. But also, where lots of business development and fruitful exchange of ideas and experiences take place. In the overwhelming stream of marketing, showcases and seminars, Suston emerges as the key source of information about new knowledge, actors and progress on sustainability.
The man behind the magazine is a middle-aged Swede, who left the nomad life as a freelancer, and slowly transformed into his current role as founder and CEO for an inspiring publishing company, called NORR Agency. “For many years I travelled and was thrilled by telling stories I got hooked on. It could be about anything from the underground culture in Berlin to environmental projects in the Swedish mountains. I wrote from many corners of the world, for newspapers and outdoor magazines. But when I got my first child in 2005, I started to switch to a more environmentally conscious life, and stay on the ground”, Gabriel explains.
His original goal was to trigger people to explore the Scandinavian nature, and the best option was to focus on a German market. “Germans have a profound passion for our nature, and from an environmental point of view it is better that they travel to Scandinavia than all the way to Thailand” Gabriel says with a laugh. Thanks to his background in the environmental movement and former studies in geography and environmental sciences, a lot of his writing focused on sustainability issues. But it was not enough for making a living. “To make the company economically sustainable I had to supplement with marketing and advertising commissions. We were an attractive partner for a few Scandinavian outdoor companies” says Gabriel.
Slowly Gabriel emerged into the world of outdoor brands. “When I attended the ISPO Munich event for the first time in 2005, I was surprised by the lack of focus on climate and sustainability issues. Three years in a row I asked various brands about it, but each year their response was disappointing. It was such a contradiction to all the fancy advertising with beautiful nature photography. I got fed up by all the commerce.”
Gabriel decided to do something about it. His company developed a partnering offer for brands who had some interest in sustainability, which meant that 90% of the brands were disqualified from start. “The remaining 10% enjoyed working with us. This way I got a good overview of what was going on. Around 2011, my reflection was that so much was about to happen, yet most businesses still knew so little about the progress and improvements being made” says Gabriel. A new possibility for storytelling and knowledge transfer emerged.
Hence, the idea behind Suston emerged already in 2011, but despite a lot of encouraging thumps in the back no one was willing to invest in Gabriel’s idea – yet. He had to wait several years, but in 2017 the timing was right for an attempt. “We started with a small magazine and two issues per year, which we financed ourselves. It was distributed at the international trade shows in Europe. In 2018, we set up a website and launched Suston at the American trade show Outdoor Retailer. So far, we have got the response we hoped for” Gabriel explains.
In Gabriel’s opinion, the most successful brands when it comes to sustainability efforts today are those that started early. “Those were the value-driven brands, commonly family-owned businesses. They had the possibility to work towards a sustainability goal at an early stage even though their efforts weren’t paying off financially in the short term. But they have received their rewards now. Their brands are trusted and demanded by customers today.”
“The family businesses seem worried about greenwashing. They fear that their efforts may disappear in the big noise from companies marketing themselves – intentionally or unintentionally – as sustainable without making a whole-company effort. But I don’t believe it is going to happen, because people know enough today to discern actors that are making a true effort” Gabriel ponders.
With Suston, Gabriel tries to inspire businesses to change behaviour. “Today, it is a matter of hygienics among outdoor brands to keep a record on their production line and care about all materials being used. Unfortunately, that is not enough – and that’s the main challenge. It would have been enough if the world was in steady state, but it isn’t. Instead, a big transformation is required. It can only be achieved by improved collaboration within the industry, and by sharing a mutual vision. The companies are aware of it but aren’t used to work in that way.”
I ask Gabriel who he believes is the driver. “The big elephants have started to transform, but so far it is customers and media such as Suston who push them forward. Sustainability is no longer a matter only for the directors of sustainability. They have felt rather alone until now. But during this last year also the CEO’s have become involved.” When I ask Gabriel about a potential factor of success, he thinks a little and then replies: “I believe you can turn the question and ask yourself, how will you survive as a brand without transforming your business?”
Another interesting observation from the 2020 ISPO Munich event, that Gabriel returned from a few days ago: “Several of the brands, that have woken up late concerning sustainability, seemed to be more low-spoken about their efforts this year. Perhaps they have realized that they must do their homework properly first. Previously, they have fronted a mannequin, wearing a single line that has been manufactured sustainably, and shouted desperately about it. This year, the greenwash discussion was more evident than before and that type of marketing was less common.”
Finally, Gabriel emphasizes the importance of equality. “As Editor-in-Chief I have tried to find a gender balance when it comes to people that we highlight and freelancers that we use. When I was a freelancer myself, writing for a ski magazine for example, it was a strong bloke-attitude culture. Personally though, I find it stimulating to be progressive about it and in Suston we highlight more women than men. But still, we write mainly for a white middle class. I believe Suston is performing okay when it comes to gender, but we must improve when it comes to other aspects of diversity.”
To end up with a personal reflection. I believe many people may recognize themselves in Gabriel’s personal development – from a rather carefree young individual enjoying the outdoors to a conscious middle-aged professional with a wish to contribute to a change. With Suston, he has managed to combine his skills and resources, and created an efficient influencer magazine. Let us hope that the outdoor gear and apparel manufacturers manage to combine their skills and resources in the obligatory transformation process too.