The Plastic Promise

12 November 2019

It was a very specific moment that spurred Kristin Hostetter to act. 

“I was at an event at the Outdoor Retailer trade show, in a packed room, listening to a panel of speakers talk about climate change and the need to band together as an industry to mitigate environmental challenges — and it hit me: Three of the four people on stage had single-use plastic water bottles at their feet. The fourth had a disposable Starbucks cup.” 

Hostetter, an outdoor industry veteran and editor-in-chief of the publications SNEWS and The Voice, remembered her mind spinning with different thoughts: This is so wrong. This is so hypocritical. The outdoor industry shouldn’t be drinking out of throw-away plastic water bottles. 

“I could barely focus on the content being presented,” Hostetter recalled.. “It wasn’t the presenters’ fault, of course. It was us, collectively. That’s what we offered them.” 

It’s easy, especially when traveling, to take whatever’s handed to you — napkins, knives, spoons, forks, water bottles, a delicious microbrew in one of those ubiquitous plastic red pint cups. Hostetter was certain outdoor companies and events could do better. Soon after that morning, she wrote an editor’s note in SNEWS inviting outdoor companies to sign The Plastic Promise and agree to eliminate single-use plastic from their booths at trade shows and provide a water station for attendees to top off their own reusable bottles and cups.

When they’re not recycled, plastic containers and packaging wind up in quantity in landfills, incinerators, or oceans. © Getty_WereachtJa/PIA

A Promise with Promise

What happened next was a coalescence of energy and interest that took Hostetter by surprise. “Everyone wanted to hop on,” she said. “Retailers, PR companies, other media outlets. It organically became this collaborative effort to whack away at single-use plastics at trade shows.” 

Enough signees made the Plastic Promise that Hostetter formed the Plastic Impact Alliance (PIA), officially rolling out the program in June 2019 at the Summer Outdoor Retailer Trade Show in Denver, Colorado. Like-minded outdoor brands tapped into the buzz and flipped the switch.

“It’s low-hanging fruit,” she said. “Trade shows are where we all come together and have a collective impact and footprint. These are our flagship events — if we can’t get it together there, where can we?”

Starting the chain reaction

Scientists predict that the amount of plastic in the environment — already a crisis around the globe — will be four times greater by 2050. A full 30% of what humans throw away each year is containers and packaging, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and if it isn’t recycled, it winds up in landfiills, incinerators, or oceans.

Clearly the PIA was an idea whose time had come, and its creation helped stoke efforts other companies already had going or had in mind. Outdoor Retailer, the event company behind the outdoor industry trade shows, began looking for more ways to improve. “Part of what Outdoor Retailer is to make the choices our attendees do have easier. The rest will be looking at ourselves and how we, as an event, can achieve not only a net zero impact, but a net positive impact,” said Jennifer Pelkey, senior marketing director of Outdoor Retailer. 

The clothing brand Patagonia happily dropped in to the PIA wave and rode it even further. “We thought a brand-level audit would be a good place to start, so we booked one of our SER (Social and Environmental Responsibility) team members to witness the pre-pack, unpacking, run of show and breakdown of our booth,” said Patagonia Spokesperson Corey Simpson, adding, “But this is a one-show audit. It’s not gospel. We know we need to dig in deeper to many aspects of these trade shows to find the real impact.”

Choices and changes

Hostetter said she’s hopeful that the plastics discussion will follow people wherever they go. “Every day we’re faced with choices. Loose carrots or bagged ones? Glass milk bottles or plastic? If we start talking about issues as an industry, you can’t not take that home with you. As leaders of companies, you can’t not think about it.”

The Promise has now taken on a life of its own, and it shows. 

After attending the Outdoor Retailer trade show for 20 years, Hostetter found walking around at happy hour at the most recent show was incredible. “You were hard-pressed to find plastic cups anywhere.”

The PIA is now 300 members strong and counting. To learn more, visit the Plastics Impact Alliance webpage.


This article is part of an Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) initiative addressing important topics identified as critical to the protection and continued advancement of the adventure travel industry. Each initiative — eliminating plastics, women in leadership, climate action, and young leaders — has a dedicated team focused on building awareness of, advancing educational opportunities in, and creating a lasting impact on each of these areas within the adventure travel industry. We invite you to visit the ATTA’s initiatives page where you can access reports, read the latest news, participate in active projects, and join conversations within the membership community.