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'We're a solution to pollution': MKE Outdoor Indoor Exchange

Audrey Nowakowski
MKE Outdoor Indoor Exchange owner & founder John Cameron.

Reduce, reuse, repair. Those three words are central to the mission of the MKE Outdoor Indoor Exchange shop in Bay View, Wisconsin. It specializes in making outdoor gear more affordable and accessible all while prioritizing sustainability.

From equipment for hiking, biking, camping, travel and more — the Outdoor Indoor Exchange buys, sells, consigns, rents and repairs it all. It was founded by John Cameron in August of 2022, who was inspired by other gear exchanges he’s seen out of state. As a former energy load reduction consultant, he also had the tools to add up just how much energy new gear and clothing costs the environment. Cameron sees his shop as a way to make a circular economy in Milwaukee and beyond.

"My whole kind of vision is I’m cleaning up the gear industry," he says. "I’m cleaning up the perimeter of the gear industry — there’s a lot of overflow, there’s a lot of excess, there’s a lot of overproduction."

Cameron says he's always tried his best to "live off the bottom of the world. I don't think that I need to consume much and I think I've lived pretty large as far as living off the bottom goes. So I've always kind of tried to live without consuming and I see that that's growing culturally so I'm trying to just kind of contribute [with the shop]."

While thrift stores are popular, Cameron says a "cringe factor" still persists culturally when it comes to buying second-hand. However, he believes there is a huge margin of people that are happy to consume and pollute less — especially when they learn about the collective energy effort it takes to make and buy new products, also known as "embodied energy."

"Everything I think about in life I feel like kind of comes back to embodied energy," notes Cameron. "You know, it took this shirt two boats, four factories, like 600 gallons of water a bunch of pollution and die out the backside of the factory. It took a cotton field to make it, it took synthetic fibers to weave it together — all those things and places and the origin of them add up to the embodied energy of the shirt that I'm wearing right now. So if we can alleviate all those processes by just using new or second hand or repurposing things those numbers are huge, they're giant."

So why outdoor gear? For Cameron, his connection to the outdoors first started when he was 15 years-old taking inspiration from punk rockers riding trains. "I just wanted to be like them, so I did it. I went to Key West on a one-way ticket and I've slept in 48 out of the 50 states at least one or more nights doing that. So whether it was by thumb, by boot, or by rail that's kind of how I got around our country."

He adds that hitchhiking is definitely one way to test out a multitude of different gear. "I don't share that all the time because it's not a focus of like outdoor hiking kind of health culture, but that is my experience. I slept on the ground a whole bunch," says Cameron.

His personal experience as well as market research influences what gear or brands he decides to carry at the MKE Outdoor Indoor Exchange. While the focus is always on used products, you will also find new gear that are consigned with brands directly.

"The brands have been really reaching back to my business model and appreciating what I do," says Cameron. "Then we can take it down to even the local vintage hunter that goes out and they go to the thrift store and they dig through everything and then they bring me in garments. And then there's people who just simply are cleaning out their house or serious athletes and have closets full of stuff. It's endless, the resources."

It wasn't an intentional venture to change careers and become an entrepreneur, but for Cameron he didn't have a choice.

"I am a cancer survivor and I could not do my old job. I could not physically do my old job and then I also was no longer able to have my old job because I had cancer for too long," he recalls.

Cameron says that if it wasn't for needing to figure out how to work after getting sick, he would have never taken the risk to start MKE Outdoor Indoor Exchange.

"I was absolutely crazy to do this, to start a retail store and especially cringey used consignment shop in a state that's never even had a gear exchange, so they don't even know what I'm doing. It's definitely a little fringe and I just think that I had faith in people wanting to recycle and I just think that I had faith that would work," Cameron adds.

"It's definitely a little fringe and I just think that I had faith in people wanting to recycle and I just think that I had faith that would work."

While there are constant struggles and learning curves to being a business owner, Cameron says he can feel the traction and the potential for even more growth. He says one of the best things about running the store is getting to be a part of people's lives.

"Wherever you're going you worked really hard to get there and I get to basically listen to how excited you are, help you with a couple things that are gonna help you along the way, high five you and then send you on that trip. And that is freaking cool because I get to see the best part of people. You're here to buy something special for one of the most memorable parts of your life and that's fulfilling," he says.

Cameron is also hopeful that his store can not only contribute to sustainability, but help to break down the "fake barriers to entry" the outdoors can have to become more accessible and provide a better outdoor experience for everyone.

MKE Outdoor Indoor Exchange owner John Cameron in front of his shop in Milwaukee's Bay View neighborhood.
Audrey Nowakowski
MKE Outdoor Indoor Exchange owner John Cameron in front of his shop in Milwaukee's Bay View neighborhood.

"I try to make sure you know if you're a glamper, a camper, an RV or a hiker, a hobo — I don't care. You're welcome here because you know there's only two places: There's outdoors and indoors. And if anyone wants to go and stake claim on it, you know you can take the white flag and throw it in the river. That is not acceptable," notes Cameron.

He hopes that MKE Outdoor Indoor Exchange will be his last job, that it can continue to grow as people continue to shift their spending and sustainability habits.

"I want to be in here with big ears and big old hair coming out of my ears, wearing overalls having the same kind of attitude," says Cameron. "If we can blow this thing up and have three, five locations ... we've already brought over $60,000 worth of consignment out of basements, attics, yards and so on [last year]. So if we're generating that kind of revenue out of the basements and yards, so like we can do that on a constant I think we're a solution to pollution as far as that kind of stuff goes."

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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