Reclaim, repair, recycle outdoor gear
In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Barbara Matthews of Recycled Recreation based in Hobart, Tasmania and their newest store in Canberra, Australia. Barbara and her husband, Rex owned an indoor climbing business when they recognised a need to help parents recycle their children’s climbing shoes as they grew out of them.
Today, they have two retail shops that buy and sell outdoor clothing and gear. And from that, they’ve increased the useful life of these products – creating value for manufacturers, retailers, the customers and ultimately the environment.
I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Barbara Matthews of Recycled Recreation.
You can read the full transcript of this episode on Tammy’s blog.
Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:
Recycled Recreation Canberra
Recycled Recreation Tasmania
Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2020
This transcript has been modified for clarity.
T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
D: Barbara Matthews, Co-founder of Recycled Recreation
T: Barbara, welcome to the show.
B: Thank you very much.
T: And welcome to Canberra, too.
B: This is a big step for us. Yes, it’s quite exciting.
T: Yeah, well we’re going to be talking about that story. I heard about Recycled Recreation, first of all, on Facebook. You guys were just setting up a shop here in Canberra. And that shop was specifically to have the opportunity to buy and sell used outdoor wear, basically, right?
B: That’s correct.
T: And because I’m such an outdoor enthusiast myself, this really piqued my interest. And also the tie back to the podcast is that a lot of people don’t recognise that, particularly outdoor clothing, is largely petroleum based because it’s all synthetic materials. We’re basically looking at plastic.
How Recycled Recreation Started
T: Why don’t you tell us just more about Recycled Recreation and how you guys got started?
B: Sure. Well, it’s rather a funny story. We had a space in Hobart, and we were running a business which was an indoor rock climbing centre, and that’s in Tasmania. When we started that business, this big space was available and we said, “Wow, let’s try and use that for something.” And people started asking us as a part of the climbing gym, could they “buy and sell second hand climbing shoes?”
B: Their kids were growing out of them, and they wanted a new pair of climbing shoes. We started basically from selling indoor rock climbing shoes for kids who had grown out of them. And the business just grew from there.
B: And when we got out of the climbing gym, a long time ago now, we decided to see if the Recycled Recreation business—which had grown over a number of years—could develop into something that was more substantial. Could stand on its own two feet in a proper shop on a street? So, we did exactly that, and we tried it as a pop-up shop. We would go travelling for the winter (winter being a quiet time in Tasmania in the bushwalking, climbing, hiking market).
B: We’d come back usually around November, and we’d run for the “bushwalking, camping, driving, travelling” season for about three or four months as a pop up (shop). It means that we packed everything up again at the end of that season. Then we went travelling again and came back to do it the following year.
B: We did that for quite a few years. And every year the business grew. And every year, people just about lynch me in the street when they knew I was about to close, saying, “You can’t close, we need your shop.” So, it got to a stage where we simply said, “You know what? We’re also finding it quite difficult to find pop up shops that are available.”
B: So, we thought if we don’t get a permanent location, we weren’t going to be able to trade at all. So, we decided to take the big leap and get a permanent location. And we found the most amazing shop right in the middle of the centre of the city of Hobart, right opposite some of the other outdoor companies. And we’ve got a lovely staff person who’s still with me after four and a half, nearly five years. We’ve just grown. It’s just been amazing.
Climbing the business edge to Recycled Recreation
T: When did you actually start your climbing business?
B: Oh, that was way back. We started the climbing business 1995. And that was similar to this business (Recycled Recreation) in that we got started when it really wasn’t popular or well-known. We were very much leaders in that community. So, we started off with our climbing gym in Hobart. I think there was only probably four other climbing gyms in the whole of Australia at that time. It was quite revolutionary.
B: I do recall the Small Business Association of Tasmania saying to me when I went to them with a proposal about running a climbing gym (to ask if) there was any government funding. They said, “You’re going to do what? You are mad. That’s crazy. We would advise you not to do that. You will lose all your money.”
B: And of course, it just went from strength to strength. It was a bit scary at the start, but it was also a heck of a lot of fun. And of course, I love climbing, so that’s easy for me. We just grew that business from very, very small until it was quite substantial. And it’s still trading, and it’s still one of the major climbing gyms in Australia, which was fun.
T: When did you start introducing in the climbing gym itself, the re-use component of equipment and gear?
B: From memory, we built the gym in 1995 and it was an ongoing process. I believe it was around 1999-2000 when we started putting the second-hand climbing shoes into the big space at the back of the gym. Then we started getting sleeping bags and backpacks and things from travellers who were climbers who had said, “Look, we don’t need this stuff anymore. Can you pass it on to somebody who would like it?”
B: Realising that there was a market in that, we decided to actually call the name a business and get it registered and, we called it ‘Recycled Recreation’ right from the start. And I just remember some funny things. Like, we had to train the staff, and it was quite a mouthful as (an) introduction on the phone to sort of say, “This is The Climbing Edge,” and then have to say, “and Recycled Recreation,” was quite funny.
T: And did you sell the climbing business?
B: Yeah, we sold the climbing business (in) 2007.
T: And that’s when you started the pop up?
B: That’s right.
Inventory and consignment
T: Interesting. What were you doing with all the inventory in between your trips?
B: Well, the funny thing is when we started, we put a lot of stuff on consignment. We did buy things obviously from people who were leaving this country. But for a lot of the bigger ticket items, I didn’t particularly want to put money into it. I would say to somebody, “Look, we’ve got this space. It’s in the centre of Hobart. We’ll put stuff on consignment. If we don’t sell it, we’ll send it back to you, if that’s okay.”
B: At the end of a season, if we had been trading and we hadn’t managed to sell that big item, we’d just ring them up and say, “Look, you can take it back till next year and we’ll have it back again.” Anything that was left over, we’d just put into a box and pack it up and put it in my shed and store it till the next season. Because most climbing and camping gear is quite light and quite compact. And it was very easy.
T: So, does that mean that most of the people providing you with inventory were actually from Hobart?
B: Oh, without doubt. Right from the start. Most of the people that provided stock to us were pretty much gone. I’d hazard a guess it’d be more than 80 percent.
T: Yeah. I can imagine all the outdoor people in Hobart, very much like Canberra and myself – I’ve definitely accumulated gear. As time goes on, you might have different needs so you buy something lighter, you buy something more robust.
B: Oh yeah.
T: Well, first of all are you still using consignment today?
B: No, we gave up on the consignment thing. Partly because of the documentation and partly because we really didn’t need to do it anymore because we’re no longer a pop up shop. We could keep it pretty much until it was sold. Or we can negotiate with a customer who’s selling it and say, “You know, if we really think it’s going to sell, why aren’t we just buying it?” So, that’s what we decided to do. But seriously, the documentation killed it because it’s just so hard to keep track of multiple items.
B: When the business was small, it wasn’t so difficult. I mean, I literally remember going around to people’s houses at the end of the season saying (because I’d rang them three or four times), “I need to give this back to you. I’m flying out of the country tomorrow.” And I’d actually have to go to their house and drop it off on their doorstep.
B: I’m not going to be doing that anymore. It was a very personalised business at the start. And now because it is big and now because we’ve got the two branches, obviously there’s going to be those sorts of things that do fall by the wayside and there’s no way we could do consignment.
Making old (and new) gear new again
T: Right. So, are all your pieces of inventory, are they all coming in via other people or businesses?
B: How do you mean?
T: Well, if I go to Op Shop (thrift store), it’s pretty much all coming from someone’s household. But when I was looking briefly through your inventory, some of it looks brand new.
B: Yeah, I understand where that is coming from then, because we get lots of people coming into the store, and we do take a lot of time and effort to present it really carefully. I do get multiple people who walk in (particularly in Canberra where they’re not used to us yet) and they’re saying, “Is all this second hand? I can see labels and brand new tags and stuff.”
B: And I think it’s probably—I’m not really quite sure if it’s positive or negative—but there’s an awful lot more people now than were in the past buying stuff online. They’d probably ordered it from overseas, and they get it in Australia. The post is prohibitively expensive to return it.
B: But they find that they can’t wear it. It doesn’t fit. It’s not the right size, even though they knew they were the right size in that brand. The brand is no longer being made in that country. And the size, particularly in shoes, has then changed and they don’t fit anymore. We’re getting a lot of people who’ve got in that situation, brand new, with tags. It’s privately purchased, but they haven’t worn it. It’s lucky it ends up in our shop in brand new condition, and the people who come in can benefit.
The Recycled Recreation customer
T: Yeah. Well, with just a quick view of your shop, you do have what seems like pretty much everything that people might need from little beanies for those that are skiing to real solid waterproof type material.
T: The kind of person that that visits your stores, you’ve obviously been in Hobart for a long time and now this Canberra store. What kind of customers do you normally get?
B: Well, the Canberra market is different because I’m not really sure having been open not that long. We’re definitely getting the serious bushwalker market who are updating their gear constantly. They’ve either worn it out or they’re getting older and they’d rather have something lighter and more technical. They can on-sell their older stuff, which is really durable and really beautifully made. But for various reasons, they can’t use it anymore.
B: We’re very grateful because we’re buying from some customers and often selling to the same customer, another product before they’ve even left the store. Which is really satisfying.
B: But in Hobart (and I suspect that’s the way the Canberra market will develop), we have a really broad base from tourists coming to Tasmania. They suddenly realise that the Tasmanian climate is more severe in summer than what they expected, because we are an island. And if the wind changes and it comes from Antarctica, it’s cold and wet. It’s not necessarily really seriously cold, but that wind and wet can be quite serious, and we get lots of people who are totally unprepared for it.
B: We have backpackers who turn up, and they have thongs (flip flops). They’ve just been travelling through Central Australia or through Malaysia, places like that. It’s hot and they don’t need anything serious. They haven’t even got a jumper (sweater). They have a limited budget, and they don’t want to buy an expensive piece of kit so they can go walk on one of the iconic trails that Tasmania offers, like the Overland Track.
B: So, we can sell them some gear. And then at the end of their trip, after two or three weeks, they can sell it back to us. It works like a hire (renting). And those guys are thrilled to bits because it’s obviously environmentally sensitive, it’s economically beneficial, and they go prepared with the proper kit. They’re not just trying to make do with some horrible piece of totally un-functional something that they’ve bought to try and do the job and then have a horrible trip. So, that’s great.
B: Our main market and the absolute guts of our business is mums and dads buying stuff for their kids who’ve grown out of it. Or local Hobart people going, “Oh I’d really like a nice old fashioned woollen jumper instead of one of those modern things in fluoro colours. I just want something that looks nice and comfy and warm.” That’s our main market. Just local people getting good quality kit.
T: And it might not even be for outdoor wear?
B: Quite, yeah. Tasmania’s got a climate where you’re probably likely to wear your puffer jacket walking down the street in the middle of winter.
T: Canberra too in the wintertime.
B: Yeah, I think that’s very similar. Yes.
Seasonal inventory, function over style
T: Do you have a seasonal inventory concern? Do you get a lot of ski gear that just sits for a really long time, and then goes out of style or anything like that?
B: I guess we’re fairly careful what we buy. We don’t buy everything. We don’t feel an obligation to recycle every single thing that somebody comes in to sell us. We’re very careful to say it.
B: Quite often people will come in and they offer something that really isn’t in our market, (but) just outside of our main stock type. I would always give them advice and say, “Look, we could buy it, but we’re going to buy it cheap because it might sit here for a long time. And I’d really recommend that you sell it privately because you’ll get a much better price.”
B: So, in that respect, we probably are not getting things that sit around for a really long time just because we’re careful what we buy. But I don’t actually believe things go out of style because we’re selling for function, we’re not selling for style? So, we’re selling somebody some jacket that keeps them warm. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s 25 years old.
B: We’re selling them something that keeps them waterproof. We don’t really care if it’s 10, 15 years old. It doesn’t matter whether it’s purple with green spots. It’s really important that it does the job it was designed to do. And if a customer likes it, who are we to complain that, “Oh, well, it’s a bit out of style.” Style isn’t something that I think that you have the luxury to be concerned about when you’re really buying for function. And that to me is the guts of it.
T: So if you’re buying for function and not for style, what are the kinds of things that you would turn away?
B: There are things in garments that turn up, particularly for example, in the laminated waterproofs. If something has deteriorated to the point that it’s meant to be a waterproof jacket and is no longer waterproof, there really isn’t anything I can do with it. I can fix a button, or I can fix the seam, or I can do some patching on a woollen jumper. Our staff are trained to do those sorts of things. But once a laminated coating goes on a waterproof garment, there’s nothing, it’s bin-able. And it’s such a shame because sometimes they look beautiful.
Margins and gaiters
T: Yeah. What did you decide at the very beginning would be your typical margins? Was it something that you played with or was it something that changed over time?
B: I think it varies considerably depending upon if the item is really desirable. For example, in Hobart, we pay really highly for gaiters. Now, I don’t even know if your audience know what a gaiter is. Gaiters protect you from the mud. You wrap them around your leg, below your knee. They hook onto your boot and they basically protect you from mud. They protect you from scrub. They protect you from leeches (those lovely little bloodsucking things you get, and we get lots of them).
B: The bushwalking or hiking clothing of choice is really wearing shorts with gaiters. It’s quick. It’s easy. You can adjust your temperature and it protects the bottoms of your legs. And it stops little rocks and things going down the back of your boots too that you have to constantly stop and pick out.
B: We pay really highly for second-hand gaiters because they’re expensive little buggers and you need to be able to sell them. We get 10, 15, 20 inquiries every couple of days for gaiters and we haven’t got enough. So, we pay really highly for them when we don’t make much margin on them. It’s really exciting to be able to say to a customer, “Hey, yeah, we’ve got gaiters, Now you can come and get a pair.” Instead of saying to them, “No, sorry.” Because of course, if you think from a business perspective, if that customer comes in to buy the gaiters, they’re bound to find something else they want as well.
B: So, in terms of margin, yes, sure, if we know it’s going to turn over really fast. We also know we don’t have to do any work on it. We also know that we really need them. Then we’re going to pay really high, and we don’t make much margin on it. But it’s important for us to have that stock in the shops. So, we don’t have to keep saying to our customers “Oh sorry. Actually, we haven’t got any.” Because that is the bane of our life, that we never have enough to provide to the customers that come to ask for things.
Expanding Recycled Recreation
T: I know you’ve just opened the Canberra store. Let’s talk about the growth, because I do find it really fascinating how you just tried something because there was a need in your climbing store. Then you ended up with a pop-up shop and then you decided to go full in and have a full retail business at this stage of it.
T: Your partner, Rex, who I met as well – I’m just wondering, when did you make this decision that you really wanted to go outside of Hobart and consider another geographic location? Because that’s not a small change for a business that has a very local presence, and one that’s been in one community for so long. To say, “Oh, let’s make this harder on ourselves right now. Let’s expand.”
B: I’m probably a sucker for punishment. It’s a bit like the whole growth of a business. It just kind of crept up on us. We’re in the Hobart store, and we’re getting customers constantly coming in, particularly over that summer period. And they’re saying to us, “Oh, what a great idea, this is amazing. How come we don’t have one in Canberra?”
B: And obviously they said, “How come we don’t have one in Sydney and Melbourne and Perth and Adelaide as well?” There was definitely a really strong support and encouragement from people from all over Australia saying “This would just be amazing, it would seriously work now in our city.”
B: Canberra has a really great demographic and really interested outdoors people who are really environmentally aware. And that overlap of that type of customer seemed to suit us so well in our business. Once we’d started investigating the possibility of having a store interstate (and it was primarily customer driven), we said “Really, Canberra’s the place to do it.”
B: And the other side of it, to be honest, we can probably afford the real estate here in Canberra. We just couldn’t with Sydney and Melbourne. It was just way out of the league of the returns that we’re getting from the business. So, we did a few trips to Canberra. We checked out what was available in terms of a location. And we settled on this area in Fyshwick which is slightly industrial. But it’s got all the major outdoor stores here. And we need to be located close to them and the climbing gym, which is helpful.
B: We found that this particular store that we’re in now and this location. We just went, “You know what, that would really work there.” Finding the location was really the clincher. If we hadn’t found the location, we never would have moved. To be honest, it took us nearly four years from the day we decided that we’d start investigating to being here now.
T: Four years? Wow.
B: I mean, we’re not great movers and shakers. It’s just the two of us. My husband, myself and obviously the staff we have involved in Hobart. So, it’s not a grand plan or anything like that. We just thought we really ought to do it. And I’m one of those people that I’d be very angry with myself if I hadn’t tried it. I’d be always saying, “You know what? We really should have done that.”
T: Well it’s still hard because you’re still largely running it yourself. It’s a retail business that requires you to be here every day. You must have had some great staff.
Lifestyle business and managing two stores
B: Oh, my manager in Hobart, she’s gold. I couldn’t do anything without her. We’ve managed to have a lovely arrangement for the last nearly five years where she’ll take long breaks because it’s a lifestyle business. We want to go off, and we want to have our holidays, do our hiking, do our skiing. We want to do whatever. And she does, too. So, she’ll go away for a long period, maybe six or eight weeks. I’ll step in and I’ll manage the store while she’s not there. Then we’ll go away (and I’ve got to admit our holidays are a heck of a lot longer than hers).
B: We’ve been away to Europe for up to four or five months. Our manager in Hobart, she’s just taken the whole she-bang and done what she needs to do. It’s just fantastic. So, having that relationship with a person who’s got all of the responsibility, and we’re not even necessarily in phone contact. That is just amazing. And we could never have done that if we hadn’t had her.
T: So how are you going to do that now with two stores and two very different locations?
B: We’ve played with lots of business models. I think the best one that’s going to work for our business, because it is still a home-grown business and it is still very personality driven. We’re going to have three managers running two stores. And we’ll be able to switch and play with where that manager is located based on where they needed. For example, in Tasmania, we’re really busy in the summer. But in the Canberra store, we expect to be really busy in winter. So the two busy periods really complement each other.
B: We can move staff where we need to. In fact, we could potentially – we haven’t done it yet, but I’m seriously thinking about training some of the staff in the Hobart store, which is flat out, and bringing them back to Canberra. With that expectation of what we want, what our delivery’s like, what our customer base is like, basically how hard I expect them to work.
T: But that’s complicated. You have to get some sort accommodations for them when they’re moving back and forth.
B: Yeah, we haven’t finalised that yet.
Funding decisions for Recycled Recreation
T: Well, it sounds like you’ve funded all this through your own savings or perhaps the sale of your other business. It’s growing really fast, though. And, as in all businesses, one of the most expensive thing to do in retail is your staffing requirements.
T: As you’re thinking about the expansion into Canberra, I’m just curious, did you have criteria up front to say, “Well, the only way this is going to work is because we believe that we can increase revenue by 2.5 times what we’re doing in Hobart.” Or did you have some modelling in mind when you started to think about the business opportunity?
B: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I’m certainly not going to go into the detail on that one because this is the area that my little silent partner who’s not here standing right with us at the moment, Rex – he’s actually a pure mathematician, and he has this background in playing with computers and numbers and things. He’s driving that side of the business. He’s making certain that, yes, we’ve ticked all the boxes in terms of our profit margins and the business growth plan and things like that.
B: I’m very much the hands-on person. And I’m very much the person who deals with the customers. In fact, he’s dealing with customers now, which is going to be quite interesting. But we’re all multitasking. I certainly take that in my stride that he’s driving that side of the business and making certain that what we’re doing is going to be financially viable, and we’ll grow. Our business, is really, it is growing. It’s quite scary.
T: It’s so exciting.
B: It is exciting.
Growth signs already
T: That’s the one major thing that most businesses struggle with, as far as the growth rate is concerned. It’s usually assumed that after the first store, no matter where you’re at in that cycle, the second location is the hardest one to set up.
B: Oh, that’s interesting.
T: So, for you guys, you’ve only been here a few months – to already have that kind of feedback from this community is great.
B: Absolutely. Yeah. I still go back to the original conversation about when we built the climbing gym. And really seriously – the small business associations all said, “This is crazy. This is a really out there thing to do. You’ve got no business modelling.”
B: And I just said, “Look, I’m comfortable with this. I’m going to put my own money behind it. I’m going to back it. It’s called a gut feeling. And my gut feeling is that indoor rock climbing is here to stay.” This is back in 1995. “It’s here to stay. It’s going to get huge. It’s going to be really mainstream. And I want to be there, and I want to be a part of it.”
B: I think that’s very much the same analogy that we have here with the Canberra store and the whole Recycled Recreation thing. Even when we had a couple of quiet days when we first opened the Canberra store, and my first staff person was sitting there going, “Oh, this is really scary.” I’m saying, “No don’t worry about it. It’ll be fine. My gut’s telling me this is seriously going to go. It’s going to be fine.” And I know it feels a bit silly to keep saying that, but now it’s obvious.
Location, location, location
T: What were the major challenges that you had with setting up that second store? You said it took four years.
B: I think the four years part was held off mainly because we just couldn’t find the right location. And as anybody in business, particularly in retail, would realise, is that location, location, location. If you can’t find the right location, just don’t do it.
B: And it was very much the same with our Hobart store. My husband Rex said to me when we were talking about going full time in that store, “If you can’t find a proper shop – a decent shop in the right place, then we aren’t going to do it.” And that was really the clincher that made us decide to stop being a pop-up shop and being permanent in Tasmania because we were able to find a gold plated perfect shop. You wouldn’t bet money on it, that it would turn up. It was just amazing. And that we managed to get our hands on it, and we are permanently located.
B: Then we bought that premises. So, we know that we’re permanent. And we bought this premises here (in Canberra) and we’re permanent. And we’ve committed. And we don’t have to worry about what’s happening with next year’s lease and all that kind of stuff.
B: That gives you then the confidence to say, “You’ve gone and stuck your money behind it, you’ve got to make it work now, don’t you?” Once we’d found the location, then it was really quite a quick process.
Extending end of life gear through warranty work
T: Is there anything else that you guys are doing from a corporate perspective to maintain sustainability values?
B: Without question, because one of the problems that we have with this business and particularly if we grow as we are, is the guaranteed supply of equipment to sell. We can sell everything that comes in the door, but we do have issues with been able to get enough equipment in the store to keep it filled and keep it interesting, but also to provide what people are asking for.
B: So, we are trying to set up partnerships with some of the other outdoors companies, particularly in relation to product that would be what we call ‘end of life’ stuff. It’s not necessarily very usable unless somebody does some repair work to it. And, or, say a company in Australia might be a wholesaler and their main job is to have warrantee claims. And so, they supply a retailer in another state, that retailer gets a customer who comes back with a piece of equipment which has failed. And the wholesaler replaces that item to the customer through the retailer.
B: The retailer will then return that damaged item, which probably might be something as simple as a piece of stitching and a buckle. And they’ll return that item directly to us in our store in Canberra, where we’ll do the repair on it. We’ll purchase it and we’ll resell it on.
T: How brilliant.
B: Yeah. So there’s some really complicated issues in there to do with warrantees and things like that. But that’s the way we believe our business will grow. And it’s obviously those partnerships with some of those other organisations (retailers and wholesalers alike) that’s going to really put us in good stead for the future when we need more gear.
Repairs and avoiding landfill
T: I’m thinking specifically about a bag that I used on a long overseas trip and one of the wheels broke. And so, I took it back thinking it could get repaired. And they said, “Well, we’ll just replace it.” And I don’t know what happens after that.
B: Unfortunately, in the past, I suspect what happens is most of it just ends up in a bin. And that hurts me. It’s not only just a waste of resources. Just think of the landfill.
T: And so now you have arrangements in place?
B: We’re putting them in place at the moment, yeah. It’s really exciting.
T: So you’re able to take, like that one bag that only had that one issue – to replace the wheel and then put it back on the shelf.
T: Such a great way to do it.
B: I’m not sure if we can do something as complicated as a wheel yet, but we’re working on it.
T: Oh, I’m sure they have spare parts.
B: Yeah, but I mean seriously, the things that get replaced on warranty in an outdoor retail environment are ridiculously simple. And it’s just farcical. The wastage that happens because somebody doesn’t have the skills to put a button on a pair of pants. I kid you not. They’re so simple things.
B: And the customer believes it’s their right to get that replaced because it’s failed, and it’s a new item. You can’t really question that too much because it failed. I mean, that’s fair enough. But I think at the next step, that retailer who’s then replaced the item to the customer, really ought to do something ethical with the product.
T: But for them, without a system – I don’t know if you can buy it off of them at a small price and then you repair it?
B: Yeah. Well, the retailers that we’ve spoken to so far, their biggest concern is the time that it takes their staff to document things. they’re concerned about not just the carbon miles for shipping stuff all over Australia from one state to another. Australia’s a big country and shipping and mailing stuff is incredibly expensive. And it’s not cost effective for them to do anything with that item that’s damaged that’s sitting in their store, taking up their storage space. And so, they’d rather see the back of it. They’d rather put it in the bin.
T: And that’s probably what they do.
B: Yeah, I’m sure it is. So, for example, if we were able to purchase those items at a nominal cost, but I mean it’s something that’s reasonable because we want it. We can sell it if it’s valued on the basis of how much repair work we need to do. And it’s the same stuff we’ve already talked about. But if we can get that into the store and we can put it back out in the community, we’re making money out of it. So that’s fine.
B: Not only that, is that the person who’s got it sitting in their storeroom in the other side of the country is thrilled to bits because they can just send us a whole box of stuff. And it doesn’t just have to be a pair of pants or be a backpack because we handle everything.
T: And they’re getting some money out of it.
B: That’s right. And it’s paying for their freight.
T: And the waste management costs go down too.
B: Yeah. And the ethics. They can then say that they’re able to get an outdoor product from point of sale to end of life and handle that entire process.
T: Well, at least to a reasonable end of life.
T: Which makes more sense.
B: Well look, even if something’s dead, by the time we get it back to our store – suppose we got something that we honestly can’t repair for whatever reason. And I mean even a waterproof jacket with a waterproof laminated coating that’s completely gone on it, we can still cut buckles off things and use them to repair something else. There’s always something that you can do with it.
T: I don’t think people try that hard, though. So, for you to provide them with an option where they will actually be benefiting financially. And then you will be benefiting financially and so will the customer, plus the environment. It’s just a win-win-win-win.
B: Yeah, because I’ve experienced very much this entire growth of the second-hand industry having been involved in it for so long. And I still believe to this day that people are not, particularly in retail, they’re not motivated unless they can get revenue neutral or make some money out of it.
T: But you’ve figured out a business model that works.
Value based business
T: Barbara, we’ve just talked about a whole lot of things that you’ve been driving for the benefit of the environment. And yeah, you’re making a living from I, but the reality is you’re in a value-based business that you really care about the outcomes.
B: Oh, yeah.
T: What makes you so passionate about the environment? How did you grow up in such a way that, right now, this matters to you?
B: I think there’s definitely an age thing. I’m in my mid-50s and in the environment that I grew up in Tasmania, we didn’t have heaps of plastic. We played with wooden blocks when we were kids, and we went bushwalking. We went on camping holidays. We didn’t consume things.
B: And it was that era that I grew up in, in a natural environment that Tasmania’s able to provide, that I got my values. And my values are those that I carry with me today. I think it’s something, it’s inbred with your parents.
B: We didn’t throw things out. We fixed stuff. And we found great pride and pleasure in going out to dad’s back shed and fixing it. Because the attitude was you looked after something. Particularly if it costs you a lot of money. And let’s face it, when I again got into the bushwalking, travelling, hiking, climbing sort of scene in the early 80s, gear was expensive.
B: I remember my first pack cost me $120. That was virtually my life savings out of my bank account to buy that so I could go on a trip with my husband to New Zealand. And so, that pack was something that I really valued. And I was heartbroken because we thrashed it. We were travelling in New Zealand for one and a half years, just living out of our packs.
B: After one year, my pack was nearly dead, and I was going, “Oh, but it cost me so much money.” So, we took it back to the retailer in Christchurch in New Zealand and had that pack completely repaired. They were amazing. And that gave me this really background of understanding that things need to last, but they also need to be repairable.
B: I took that with me. And I still carry that with me today. It’s a multi-faceted thing. I was really impressed with the service that we got from the manufacturer. I was thrilled to bits with the service that we got from the retailer. I was thrilled to bits with my pack, which kept going for another five or so years. And to be fair, loyalty as well.
B: I mean, I bought that brand pack. I still own that brand pack. I’ve only had three packs since 1980 and I have done a hell of a lot of hiking and travelling, but I’m still going around with that particular brand pack on my back.
T: Which one?
B: Can I say?
T: Yeah, absolutely.
B: It’s a Macpac made in New Zealand. They’re not made in New Zealand anymore. But my backpack is. So quality, loyalty and service. And if you take those things with you in your business, you know your customers are going to be happy. And it’s about buying a product and valuing that product and learning how to look after it.
B: Because I do feel that in this society, at the moment, people buy things on a whim. They like the colour or whatever it might be. Or they buy it to do a job, whatever that might be. But their expectation is much lower, that they’re really quite thrilled to bits if they get two years’ use out of it.
B: That was not the world I grew up in, the world I grew up in is you really, you expected if you paid $120 for a pack in New Zealand in 1980, you wanted it to last ten years.
Setting the precedent for sustainability
T: Yeah. Well fortunately a lot of the outdoor companies have actually set the precedents for how to be sustainable. You have some great brands here. Like Patagonia and The North Face and some of those brands are well known for their sustainability values. They’ve actually set precedents for other parts of the textile industry to think about how they make things and how it ends at life as well. So, the fact that you have a store full of those types of brands.
B: It’s all consumer driven, too, though. Because even the manufacturers these days are being driven by the consumer to really jump the correct hoops and be accountable for their environmental sustainability. So even the big companies like that, but there are Australian home grown companies like Paddy Pallin are really going out of their way to do everything possible to make certain they are sustainable as possible. And it’s community driven. Their customers are crying out for it.
Consumer driven changes
T: Have you seen changes in the way they make things in the last few years?
B: Oh, yeah.
T: Give me an example of something that you could say is consumer driven within this industry.
B: Natural fibres – that whole thing is totally down the entire circle in my bushwalking career from 1980 to now. When we started in 1980, bushwalking, going, hiking and stuff, almost everything that used was a natural fibre. And everybody who’s been out there in wet, cold environments knows you can’t use cottons. So, we were walking around in heavy woollen jumpers and woollen underwear. I can’t remember where I got mine from. I probably bought it second hand. But the point being that there really wasn’t any manmade fibres on the market.
B: And in 1980-81 in Australia, the first kinds of fibre pile, they used to be called, or fleece jackets as we know them now, started to come onto the market. And we were all thrilled because they were super light and you could dry them out overnight. And once your woollen jumper was wet it stayed wet for the whole bushwalk or the whole week. It was really an amazing time to be involved in the outdoors industry because suddenly fleece jackets were everywhere.
B: Of course now we know in hindsight that the plastic content and the breakdown of that and what goes into the oceans and that’s another can of worms. But at the time, we were thrilled to bits to have that lovely lightweight, quick drying things. And polypropylene was just the God’s gift to bushwalkers.
B: You could use it as a base layer and it wicks the moisture away from me. And you can stop being cold and wet for the first time ever. And decent waterproof coatings. I mean, Gortex suddenly came on the market. And everybody was like, “Oh my God, I can walk, and I can be dry.” This is just such a novel experience.
B: And now from that, natural fibres coming through the whole manufacturing process for how many years is that? 40 years. In the last five, six, seven years in Australia, it’s probably happening everywhere else as well. It’s all starting to come back to the natural fibres again.
B: With your baseline layers, hardly anybody wants to buy a polypropylene set of underwear anymore. Not just because of the environmental concerns, but because it just doesn’t perform as well as wool. Everybody’s buying merino wool underwear – your Icebreakers and you’re Smitten and all the other sports wool type brands.
B: Just go to any outdoor store and you will see the whole place is shouting “Merino, merino, merino”. And of course, that’s all coming from the New Zealand market. I’m very proud of New Zealand.
B: But now we are also having to, or the manufacturers are having to, look seriously at their waterproof coatings and what kind of DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coatings and what damage do they do to the environment. And how can you get a waterproof, breathable jacket that doesn’t deteriorate and cause environmental damage? Not to mention the production damage. And yeah, how can that be recyclable?
B: Because as I mentioned before, when a waterproof coating is dead on a jacket, it’s dead. And whereas, in the old days you had a wax cotton, or you had an oiled cotton, and believe it or not, wax cottons and oil cottons are just come starting to come back on the market. And you’re looking at companies like Fjallraven from northern Europe and their canvas packs are just to die for. They’re so beautiful. They look amazing. They’re beautifully made and they’re cotton. We’re going back to cotton. Oh my God, 40 years. And I’ve been there the whole time.
T: Well, I’m sure advances in the technology has allowed the merino wool to be thinner and lighter than it ever has been. You can use it even more so as a base layer where before you think about a jumper.
B: Oh, those big, heavy woollen jumpers you used to get, ex-army.
T: Yeah, those sweaters are just gigantic. They’ll take up half your pack. There’s always been some benefit for going to synthetic materials. And at least the outdoor wear as you’re doing right now, these things can last a long time if they’re made well.
Making recycling mainstream
T: You’ve already talked about a number of things that are coming up in terms of future plans. Is there anything else you want to share with our audience?
B: I guess what I’d really like to do is I’d like to make this whole area of recycling, this whole retail area of clothing and equipment and good quality stuff, much more mainstream. And that’s partly why we’ve made the store really presentable.
B: You walk in and yes, sure, people don’t know whether it’s secondhand or not because it’s beautiful. And it’s all clean. It’s all hanging really nicely. You can go to a rack of ladies’ clothes. You can go to a rack men’s clothes, you can find a down puffer, you can find a synthetic puffer.
B: You can go upstairs and you can find a tent and you can find a sleeping bag just like you would in an ordinary store. It becomes much more a comfortable place for a middle of the road person to walk in who’s never done any recycling before, who’s never bought anything second-hand before, potentially because of stigma.
B: You know, the stigma of, “Oh it’s second hand.” If we can knock that stigma, we can present to a point where that mainstream person is suddenly comfortable in our store, then I think we’ve made a huge win in society. Because there’s no longer any stigma with having something second hand. They’re actually proud of it.
B: That’s being driven a lot by younger people. You get a grade eight kid who’s about to do a grade eight school camp, which happens to virtually every grade eight school child in Australia. And if they have a friend who happened to come into Recycled Recreation and bought some amazing kit, and then went home and told their friends about it and their friends tell their mums. And they drag their mums into our store who’d never buy anything second-hand.
B: And that kid says, “I don’t want a new item, Mum. I know of this amazing store called Recycled Recreation. And my best friend went and bought amazing pack. And I want to get one like it.” If they drag their Mum in, we’ve hit the mainstream. And that’s where we need to be.
B: We need to make it comfortable for people. We need to make sure that the level of information that they’re getting from us is the same as they get from an ordinary brand new retail store. We need to make sure that the staff that work for us are honest and have great integrity – not just about selling a product to a customer who walks in the door, but making sure they only get what they need or they get the right items so they don’t have to go and buy another thing another time. And that that item does a job it was designed to do and will last.
B: Every time they pick that piece of gear up, that customer goes, “Oh, I got that from Recycled Recreation. I’ve got to go back there and have another look.” Because that gear is the best advertising that we can have out there.
Advice for listeners
T: Sure. Absolutely. So far, you’ve had a lifetime in the outdoor space retail to some degree. Do you have any advice for our listeners who may be people that are very interested in your recycled concept? Perhaps for them to be a customer or they might even be business owners or entrepreneurs that are interested in trying to do something similar. Do you have any advice for them?
B: I guess the main thing that I would like to say about people, and I’ve sort of touched on it. But I think people who purchase equipment, who are outdoors people, particularly those who go into our environment, those who value nature and what our beautiful Australian environments got to offer – they’re the people that should really think more carefully about what they consume, where they consume it from.
B: What are the ethics of how that item was made? And what are the ethics of the company that made it? I’d like those people to be a really leading edge in how consumers deal with the product that they’re purchasing, and I’d really like them to be a great role model for others. I’d like them to think carefully and to buy wisely and to buy only what they need.
B: I mean, it’s really, really super important. If you’ve got four cookers sitting at home. And you’ve got five down jackets and you’ve got 10… I don’t know. You know what I’m saying? There’re people out there, and we call them gear freaks. They’re lovely people. They’re gold for our business.
B: But could people just realise that if you’ve already got two down jackets, do you really need another one? And could you maybe offload the one that you have to us or a business like us before you go buy another one to stop consuming? It’s just nuts. It’s rampant. You don’t need two. And those are the people who are environmentally aware – if we can’t fix them first, how are we going to get to the mainstream?
T: Yeah, absolutely. I think we could all take lessons from you about re-use and just buying what we need. And when we are done with something, there’s places like Recycled Recreation where we can go ahead and…
B: Yeah, don’t feel like you can’t upscale. Just get rid of what you don’t need anymore. Stop cluttering up the wardrobe.
How to reach Recycled Recreation?
T: For sure. So, what’s the best way to reach you guys either if they want to come into one of the stores or if they just want to find out more about your businesses. How should they contact you?
B: Our marketing so far has, I have to admit, been extremely basic. We have a fantastic Facebook page. We have a really good following for our Facebook page in Hobart. We started a second one for the Canberra store. We’ve got Recycled Recreation Tasmania and we’ve got Recycled Rec Canberra. And if you looked at those Facebook pages, that would give you all of our contact details, our phone numbers and so on.
B: We often get asked, “Do we have a web page?” We do not have a web page. And I don’t have any intention of having a web page because I very much believe that you cannot convince people or help people purchase the right things through online marketing. I think you need to have one on one customer service in a shop like ours to be able to get people to buy the right thing the first time.
B: We will not be marketing online, which is totally against trend, I know that. But I think that’s way more businesses are going. And the other side of it, obviously you can ring us up. You can speak to a real person. We don’t have an answering machine. And we can give advice on the phone.
B: But we want you to come into a store. We want you to come here. We want you to talk to somebody. We want you to look around and see what we have and see how we can help you not just to sell something to you, but also so that we can buy something from you as well.
T: Fantastic. I’ll put all the contact details of your Facebook pages onto the transcript so that people can follow along. If not, they can just go ahead and do a Facebook search. And I’m sure that they can locate you as well.
T: Barbara. It’s been such an interesting conversation because you’re an outdoor enthusiast first and traveller and everything else. And then from that, you’ve created a lifetime with your husband as a business. And it’s just amazing to see someone who can follow their passions from the very beginning to current times because I think that’s something that most people want – to be able to be in a workspace that is aligned with their values. And you created that. You didn’t wait for someone to give you a job to do that. You created it.
T: And with all that came opportunities to not just be more active in climbing as an example, or to have a lifestyle brand that you could travel with. But you’ve also been able to take those values of reducing waste and fixing what you have and making sure that you don’t ever have too much of what you don’t need. Or if you’re going to upgrade, to be able to find a new home for that other piece.
T: You’ve incorporated all of this into your newest business, which has been around for a long time, obviously. But Recycled Recreation, I think is probably the way of the future. And I just love your passion. And I think it’s so incorporated within the business itself. It’s great to know that the Canberra store is doing well and that hopefully it follows suit with your Hobart store and maybe offsets your summer season there.
B: And then South America, here we come.
T: Thank you for the work that you are doing. I know that it’s a labour of love for you, but it’s also a case study for us to be able to understand what is actually possible in the space. And what we can do as consumers and as business owners to be better for the environment.
B: Thank you very much for talking with me. I’ve got so many ideas I don’t even know. Do we have to stop? Thank you.
T: Thank you. Cheers.