Buying Australian gear often seems like a good idea… but is it? Should supporting local brands be further up your priority list? Joel wanted to find out just how much better off he’d be buying Aussie gear, so he went straight to the source.
Should You Buy Australian?
There you are, standing in your favourite camping shop. Your fingertips glide over gossamer Pertex and eVent fabrics like Russell Crow drifting through the wheat fields in Gladiator. Gripped in your fist is a stack of hard-earned cash that you’re willing to hurl at the nearest shop assistant that says ‘asymmetrical pole geometry’.
Glossy posters promise that ‘freshly-helicoptered-in’ look with the latest range of wilderness headbands and smartwool baselayers. A bewildering barrage of technical jargon, features and considerations assault your senses.
Ultralight. Compressible. Loft. Denier. Lumens. Free-standing. Moisture-wicking. Ret value. Fill power. Hydrostatic Head rating. DWR. UPF. Insulated. Ventilated. Percolated. Zip-off everything.
We know. There’s so much to consider. And now we’re adding another…
One of the things we’ve been noticing here at We Are Explorers is that people are becoming more brand-conscious. By that, we don’t mean that they’re sewing North Face patches onto Chinese knock-offs, we mean that people want to know more about what they’re buying: who made it, what it’s made from and how it will affect the planet. And something that keeps coming up is the concept of ‘buying Australian’ – supporting local producers and buying gear that is designed and/or produced in Australia.
It sounds great, but is there really any difference between international brands and Australian gear brands? What are the advantages for us, as consumers, apart from the fuzzy-feel-good? And are Australian environments REALLY that different from anywhere else?
We approached a wide range of Australian gear producers to understand what buying Australian really means for the consumer.
Harden Up, Sunshine…
By far the most common design feature mentioned in relation to Australian conditions was robustness. Australia is known for its scrub, which can be hellishly thick, abrasive, and close to the ground, as well as its rough sandstone environments (think the cheese-grater pagodas of the Western Blue Mountains).
Stretchy nylon, which is popular on international packs that are designed for open tracks, tends to get shredded when you go into the Australian bush. A number of producers also noted that Europe and North America are typified by larger numbers of outdoorspeople and well-trodden paths and campsites, whereas here in Australia, it’s easy to find yourself a couple of days walk from the nearest road, and without any mobile coverage.
Rougher, more marginal tent sites, thicker bush, disappearing tracks and the increased need for self-reliance means that gear has to be more resilient. Key design features that are specifically adapted to the Australian environment include thicker tent floors to deal with rough campsites and the use of stronger materials like canvas to prevent abrasion on packs designed for expedition use, as well as fewer straps and outside pockets to catch on vegetation.
Australia also receives some of the highest rates of solar radiation in the world – this pushes many Australian gear companies to treat their materials for UV resilience to a higher level than may be necessary in other parts of the world.
We’re Pretty Special
Australia does have some specific environments that are unique. Oztrail highlighted the amount of coastal camping that is undertaken in Australia, which is unlike European and American conditions. Mont spoke about the need to design tents with a high level of ventilation for the Australian climate, while One Planet noted that, in Australian snow conditions, which are quite icy, snow flaps on tents don’t as make much sense as in other areas, where powdery snow creates a better seal.
For these particular environments, buying a product that is developed for those specifics makes sense. However, in many other respects, Australian environments aren’t unique, and companies like Black Wolf and Wilderness Wear noted that they supplied their products very successfully to overseas markets.
The other characteristic of Australian environments that influenced the design of gear was the variability of environments. From some of the harshest deserts to roaring alpine ridgelines, we’ve got it all down here. This has prompted many designers, such as Mont and One Planet, to offer different configurations to suit the user and the environment. This flexibility is most apparent with tents, where the same model of tent can be configured with different thicknesses of fly and floor, as well as nylon or mesh inners, for different uses and different Australian environments.
Help Me, Help You
Dealing with companies who understand, and are responsive to, the Australian market is central to the idea of buying local. The Australian outdoors community has distinct tastes and preferences when it comes to features, sizes and durability – responsive local providers who are in touch with market preferences are more likely to produce gear that meets these needs.
For example, One Planet values a close relationship with their dealerships around the country, seeking their feedback when designing, releasing and tweaking new products to understand market demands within Australia. This results in products that are more suited to Australian needs, rather than those designed overseas and distributed globally.
Customer service and direct communication with producers is one of the most tangible benefits of buying Australian gear. This means that customers can contact the company directly with any questions or if the gear needs repair, without going through distributors or importers, or to someone on the other side of the planet. With factories, staff and gear ambassadors based here, Australian gear producers are more responsive to the customer over the life of the product, and can also accommodate special orders or requests. One Planet, for example, are able to tailor their packs to ensure their customers are getting the right fit, mixing and matching from multiple interchangeable back lengths and hip belt configurations.
Mont, Summit Gear and One Planet are all committed to offering a repair service over the lifetime of the gear – this both extends the life of your gear and also gives the producer an opportunity see how designs and materials wear over the lifetime of the product and make continual improvements. Accessible repairs and servicing is offered by some international brands, through their distributors – but certainly not all.
Quality, Not Quantity
It’s no surprise to those who have supported these brands that quality is a driving factor. Mont, One Planet, Wilderness Equipment and Summit Gear all identify making gear that lasts, and can be repaired throughout the lifetime of the product, as a key tenet of their approach to business and sustainability. That quality comes at a cost – literally.
High-end gear isn’t cheap, compared with mass manufacturing, but consider value for money. Quality gear can last for 2 decades or more. Furthermore, Black Wolf noted that international brands run under a distribution model in Australia, which can mean a mark-up of up to 30% on prices compared to its native country. Therefore, for the same quality of gear, buying local could end up being cheaper.
In the context of quality, some producers highlighted the difference between ‘lighter’ and ‘better’. Lightweight packs are excellent when used correctly, but weight shouldn’t necessarily be the defining factor when choosing gear – overall weight must be balanced with comfort and safety (overloading packs which have less support can make injuries or strain more likely). Furthermore, really lightweight fabric is great for open trails, but for overgrown areas or scrambling over rocky terrain which is typical in some parts of the Australian environment, they’re far more prone to ripping than heavier canvas.
The Bottom Line
What does all this mean when you’re buying your next bit of kit? Well, it depends on you! To help you decide, ask yourself these questions:
In relation to design features, are you going to really be going toe-to-toe with the Australian bush?
If so, the particular robustness of gear designed for those conditions, with heavier materials and UV treatment is going to be crucial. But if you’re mainly doing on-track walking in open environments, this probably won’t be a motivating factor.
Are you going to be using it in an environment that’s uniquely Australian?
If you’re partial to thick scrub, sandstone scrambling, or extensive snow or coastal camping, consider whether the specific design features of gear designed for that environment are relevant to your needs.
Do you value personalised customer service and do you want to take advantage of local repairs?
The access to advice, repairs and servicing that comes from buying from Australian gear producers is an advantage to any consumer – consider whether this tips the scales for you.
How important is it for you to support local businesses, communities and the environment?
For many people, supporting local businesses, particularly those who in turn support the outdoor community, is an important factor when choosing where their coin goes. As are considerations like environmental and social responsibility.
To help you make those decisions, we’ve done a round-up of the prominent Australian gear brands below. We asked them what being ‘Australian’ means to them (in terms of ownership, manufacturing, and sourcing of materials) and about their commitments to sustainability and supporting the local economy and outdoor community.
Mont is an Australian owned and operated company, headquartered in Canberra (their Fyshwick factory sales are legendary). Design and custom manufacturing is carried out in Australia, while all other production is carried out by international manufacturers. Materials are also sourced globally on the basis of quality – Polartec Fabrics are sourced in Italy and the USA, waterproof fabrics from Japan, and backpack canvas from right here in Australia.
The Mont Production Team conducts inspections of all major production facilities during production, many of which are WRAP (Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production) Certified. Mont emphasises producing high-end gear that lasts and will repair gear of any age at their Canberra workshop. Finally, Mont take pride in supporting the Australian outdoors community, sponsoring Mont Ambassadors, supplying gear to many World-first expeditions, hosting the annual Reel Rock film night in Canberra, and supporting the Canberra Indoor Rock Climbing’s Climb Against Cancer.
One Planet has been operating for 35+ years in the Australian retail market, with core product lines in packs, tents, sleeping bags and rainwear. The company is Australian owned and the majority of their gear is designed and manufactured in their Melbourne workshop, with materials from local and international suppliers. They offer a manufacturer’s warranty (10 years for most packs) but also commit to providing repairs for the lifetime of the gear.
One Planet has also manufactured gear for various emergency services units like the SES, and their gear has been used extensively by research teams across Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica. Their Melbourne factory has been carbon neutral since 2005, a first for the outdoor industry.
OZtrail is an Australian owned business that manufactures and supplies its products globally (current production is mainly sourced across Southeast Asia). The research and development are still undertaken at the head office in Brisbane, Queensland, where it started in 1994. The company has focused on making quality camping gear affordable for the average family, combining Australian-based product design with expert manufacturing partners globally to deliver value and quality for its customers.
Summit Gear is an Australian-owned specialist gear manufacturer that has been operating since 1981, producing packs and bags that are made in Australia, by Australians, using Australian manufactured Canvas.
Summit Gear supports local bush fire brigades, local trail running organisations such as Running Wild and local schools. They supply not only to retail customers, but also develop bags specifically for a wide range of the Emergency Services Organisations across Australia.
Along with a commitment to locally made and supplied gear, they have received Gold accreditation from Blue Mountains Low Carbon Living – an independent organisation which audits the environmental sustainability of businesses.
Wilderness Equipment was started in 1977 by Ian Maley, who continues to be the lead designer, while his son, Henry, has taken over the brand management. It’s an Australian-owned company which sources fabrics from Australia (for canvas packs) and Korea (for tenting), with production centralised in Vietnam.
Historically, Wilderness Equipment has been heavily involved in keeping logging companies out of Western Australian old growth forests, resulting in the establishment of National Parks to preserve these areas for future generations. They are a foundation partner of Outdoor Education Australia, have developed and produced equipment for the Australian Antarctic Division, and have supported the University of Sydney’s Australasian Wildlife Genomics Group in their working partnership with the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program and The Tree Projects (who work to fuel forest conservation through public awareness campaigns).
Black Wolf / Vigilante
Black Wolf supplies a range of equipment for travel and outdoor activities and has been operating in Australia for just over 20 years, while Vigilante, which supplies technical clothing, has been operating for 16 years. Both brands are Australian-owned and gear is designed in Australia, yet manufactured in Asia.
Wilderness Wear is an Australian-owned company that designs and manufactures 100% Australian-made outdoor technical clothing. All of their wool yarn is purchased direct from Tasmanian wool growers and as many of the other materials as possible are sourced locally.
Wilderness Wear’s approach to sustainability is encapsulated in its ECOLOGY platform, (green inputs; ethical processes; carbon responsible) which includes directives to always use fibre and material products that are environmentally friendly and traceable, such as mulesed-free wool. They ensure packaging is made from 100% post-consumer waste boards and papers and source raw materials from like-minded, carbon-conscious suppliers to generate low company emissions. Operating for the last 28 years, Wilderness Wear also sponsors a number of local outdoor adventurers.