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An interview with Gavin Fernie-Jones: “See the loss for yourselves”

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By Caitlin Smith, Gavin Fernie-Jones

· 7 min read

When Gavin Fernie-Jones perceived the extent of the loss of nature and community in his alpine village, he decided it was time to shake up the outdoors industry’s consumer model…

On the windowsill of Gavin’s alpine home, a vintage bottle of metal polish basks in the blazing October sunshine; a distinctive red bottle whose contents promise to bring back lost lustre and shine to a scuffed and jaded exterior. 

Anyone who has put elbow grease into using this product knows it takes time, and requires a certain optimism. When it comes to restoring former glory, where there’s a will, there’s a way. 

Gavin, co-founder of Re-Action, embraces the concept of hope when it comes to climate change. 

Despite witnessing the loss of biodiversity in the forest surrounding his home and the daily bombardment of depressing statistics and apocalyptic climate emergency photos, Gavin believes hope lies in applying a bit of elbow grease: keeping outdoor clothing and equipment out of landfill through repair. 

Witness to the loss of natural habitats

“I feel inherently that a lot of what I’m doing now has to do with loss. Having experienced and dealt with loss, I’ve become pretty resilient,” he remarks, as we chat in his garden on an unseasonably warm autumnal day. “I spend a lot of time outdoors in the mountains, and there’s a loss of nature. It’s drier. There are fewer birds and insects. The trees are dying. Fire is a huge concern.” 

Growing up in the UK’s Peak District, Gavin was part of an outdoorsy clan, kitted out in lightweight, breathable, waterproof fabrics to protect them from the inevitable wind and rain. 

He quit the Derbyshire crags for higher summits, working as a chalet host in the chic French ski resort of Courchevel. A veritable adventure playground for someone who loves nature and being active. But the self-indulgent, luxurious side of the resort with its glitzy designer ski gear left an unpleasant aftertaste. 

These scattered one-road mountain hamlets, whose waistlines expand each year as concrete and glass rise up from the rocky subsoil into luxurious voids, have changed beyond all recognition from the clusters of drafty stone farming cottages. 

What are now world-famous ski resorts were once populated with tough farming families, cut off for the long winter months and scraping a living for themselves, stitching their clothes, patching their houses, and fixing their tools. 

Mining came and went, and then tourism arrived and stayed. Whether that will be lost too depends directly upon the carbon emissions which are leading to annually reducing snowfalls throughout the European Alps.

For now, ski resorts continue to attract skiers who tend to fall into two categories – those who want to explore the mountains and temporarily become a part of the mountain’s heart, and those who flit from one luxury lifestyle to another, embracing all the shiny, mass-produced outfit opportunities that accompany the hashtags.

“I almost lost what it means to be human, living in Courchevel, in that luxury environment, surrounded by wealth, in the Alton Towers of skiing. A lot of people don’t really go there to ‘be outdoors’ in nature. It’s all for show. We had a nice community there, but that was lost too – we all had to move out because it was so expensive.”

It was time to act.

An idea germinates

At the end of one winter season, Gavin organised a ski clothing repair workshop in Courchevel. Handy local seamstresses helped bring locals’ old ski gear back to life with a new zip, a patch over a ripped seam… Such was the enthusiasm this seed of an idea received, he didn’t stop there. Workshops grew into ‘One Tree at a Time’, a permanent repair and reuse hub which took root in the valley. 

Through the hand-painted glass frontage of this thrift shop on the main street, a buzzy atmosphere welcomes shoppers looking for repaired and second-hand ski wear at bargain prices. Crafty types come to learn how to re-zip, stitch up and patch their own gear to keep it going for longer, just like the residents of the village did, decades previously. There are also bike repair workshops, a knitting group and a local artist and volunteer prints her original designs onto second-hand T-shirts and hoodies. 

Grinning, Gavin acknowledges that there’s a bit of rebellion at the heart of the project: “We patch over the swanky designers’ logos, or print on their old stuff. I would never have worn Ralph Loren before!” 

The community spirit is also part of its appeal: “It’s such a great space, it’s creative, and I’ve made so many friends hanging out in there. Creation and craft bring people together. You can sit around a table with someone who holds opposing views and end up understanding each other’s differing viewpoints. That’s important.”

A community ready for action

Re-Action, founded by Gavin and a sustainability-minded friend, Heather Davies, rose from One Tree at a Time and followed a natural desire to ride the wave of enthusiasm for reuse which extended way beyond the valley. 

Their aim is to share circular economy ideas in the outdoor sports industry and link them to similar reuse projects. The network currently consists of small, like-minded member organisations which spread from Canada to New Zealand, the UK and Europe. Repair, sharing, upcycling and donation are shared themes that have inspired support from filmmakers, councils, festivals and conferences.

Can this community summon enough momentum to drive systemic change? 

“Our focus is to keep clothing here,” he emphasises, pointing out that less than 1% of fabric is recycled and only 15% that is ‘reused’ stays local, the rest is shipped abroad, “I don’t want to scale this up. Different circumstances and different needs require different spaces, and different ways of working. Each of the reuse concepts needs to be original and serve its own community. I don’t particularly want to see carbon copies of the One Tree shop somewhere else in the world because it’s tailored to what’s needed right here. Each of our members’ projects should come from, and be for, local people. What I do want to see is a citizen-driven economy.”

A common thread between the members of Re-Action lies in getting people outdoors (“but in a respectful way”) to see the depletion of the natural world with their own eyes. “They will then understand why we need to take action on climate change in whatever ways we can, no matter how small. People have to see the loss for themselves. It’s only then that they’ll be ready to act.”

An era of citizen-led action is what Gavin believes will bring about the change we need to change the outdoors industry. Just like he did, we have to witness loss to provoke the desire to get involved in community-based regeneration and refuse the temptation to indulge in ever-better outdoor gear. “After all, having the latest gear isn’t really necessary, is it?” 

Acknowledging that you don’t really need the lightest, the most up-to-date equipment is an issue Gavin feels strongly about. On his doormat are a pair of worn-out, dog-eared trainers with patches where the toes have worn through. Still perfectly adequate for running, dog walking and family hikes. 

We discuss marathon runners and over-designed trainers: Gavin also has his eye on the sports industry, hoping to target elite athletes to turn to secondhand and repair rather than showcasing their sponsors’ latest designs. Again, this spark of optimism rises in the face of overwhelmingly powerful consumerism. 

But by encouraging people into the natural world and showing them how a dose of elbow grease and small, creative (even rebellious?) acts of repair can make a difference, Re-Action hopes to galvanise the outdoor industry into tackling its economic model. Will it reach the upper echelons of the luxury lifestyle market? There’s always hope.

This article is also published on the author's blog. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the authors

Caitlin Smith is a writer and translator based in France. Her lifelong interest in the planet's health has been shared with a wider audience through sustainability storytelling for SMEs and NGO organisations.

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Gavin Fernie-Jones is the co-founder of Re-Action, a global network of organisations that are keeping outdoor equipment and clothing out of landfill.

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