In the first part of a short series, David Lintern looks at choosing clothes and kit that work for you, how to extend the life of your gear, plus some of the eco-labelling to look out for when buying.
Responding to questions from readers and followers, Walkhighlands have asked me to pen a few thoughts on ‘green’ outdoor clothing and equipment. I’ve spent a good deal of time studying the issue over the last 3 years, and it’s worth starting on a positive note: It has become easier to find out about the outdoor trade’s environmental impact over that time. Brands have become more transparent (and consumers have helped them get there). The outdoor industry only comprises about 1% of the world’s rag trade, but has made great strides recently to clean up its act, and as such arguably leads the way in more sustainable textile technologies. At this point, it’s safe to stow a little of our cynicism; it’s not all ‘greenwash’.
By the same token, we haven’t arrived at the finish line, not by a long way. The outdoor apparel business still has some dirty habits, but it’s acknowledging and trying to do something about them. I’ll aim to cover both the challenges and changes in more detail in later articles. Changes upstream – at design and manufacture – will always make the biggest difference to our collective environmental footprint, but before we go any further, I’ll try to provide a few pointers (with links at the end) to ways in which we consumers can lower our own impact.
First things first, we had better address that enormous elephant in the room. Want, or Need? Do I really need that new jacket, sleeping bag, tent, etc? We apparently own twice as much clothing as our parents did, yet a third of it isn’t used regularly. Wear or use any item for twice as long, and we reduce its environmental footprint by half. All of us in the ‘developed world’ need to take a long, hard look at just how much stuff we buy.
If I’m honest, what I’ve observed in myself in the past was sometimes about laziness, occasionally peer pressure, very often not knowing what I needed. The latest or lightest is often sold on a promise that often doesn’t bear fruit… more often, any barriers to my further engagement in the outdoors are to do with time, commitment or experience, none of which can be solved or salved by throwing money at my perceived problem. The best money I’ve ever spent on the outdoors is on courses – skills, not stuff. So, the first rule of being more sustainable is to be sceptical of claims that the shiny new thing will change our lives (only we can do that), and more conscious of how marketing gets under our skin.
Use less – use the four R’s
Before choosing something newer (if not greener), there are other strategies to reduce our consumption: Recondition, Repair, Repurpose and Redistribute.
Reconditioning simply means taking better care of what we own to make it last longer. Nikwax, Grangers and others offer a wide range of cleaning and reproofing products for everything from jackets, boots and tents to stinky running gear. Some of these can seem a bit expensive, but regular care slows down wear and tear, can bring tired items back to life and so saves waste (and money) in the long run.
Similarly, our grandparent’s sense of frugality and ‘make do and mend’ is also back in vogue, with the advent of Patagonia’s Worn Wear project and Alpkit’s in store workshops, both of which will fix zips and stitch rips in gear from any brand, not just their own. A few cable clips, a Tyvek tape patch or a needle and some dental floss goes a really long way in the field, but there are also companies who will deep clean and repair kit if you cannot tackle it on your own (see footer).
Gear that is past revitalising in these ways can be repurposed – remove buckles to reuse on other kit, save fabric for future patch jobs, cut down old sleeping mats into new sit mats, or the perennial favourite; redeploy old boots as funky flowerpots.
Lastly, if you didn’t get the fit right and it still has some life in it, gear can often be donated to Mountain Rescue teams, outdoor education groups, refugee camp projects or your local high street charity shop.
There’s also a growing consignment market – companies that will resell your old kit for a small cut – my local one is a veritable gear cave stuffed full of bargains. Buying second hand is of course another option, whether from a consignment store, a FB group or online auction site.
In summary, it’s a false economy to replace an item before you have exhausted all these options, even if you are doing so with something that has an improved environmental specification – the carbon maths just doesn’t add up.
Fit for you, fit for purpose
If you still feel the need to buy the shiny new thing, it helps to get informed. Having made a bunch of schoolboy errors in the past, I’m a firm believer in ‘buy well, buy once’… and if in doubt, ask! In Scotland, we’re blessed with some fantastic independent and specialist gear shops and some really good, smaller chains – I’m thinking of Tiso and Craigdon Mountain Sports in particular – who won’t hard or short sell you because 1. They are staffed by outdoor people who are as a rule fairly chilled but knowledgeable souls 2. The shops are after your loyalty, your repeat business. This is a generalisation, but perhaps we’re a little better at supporting our LBS (local bike shop) and a little guiltier of internet impulse buying for outdoor gear.
When you are buying, use that physical, high street resource. Boots and shoes always benefit from a try on in store, but try to start with an idea of what you will use the footwear for. Trail runners generally don’t benefit from a GTX liner, winter boots will (and no, I’m not really sure what approach shoes are for in Scotland, either!). Are you wanting to fit a crampon to that boot, and if so which one… which in turn depends on what terrain you are out on, but also what you might want to tackle in the next few years. Be realistic about those ambitions, and put skills (and paying for them) into the mix. You may have heard the phrase “All the gear and no idea.” No-one wants to be that person. It’s also a waste of opportunity and resources we can no longer afford.
Fitting footwear is difficult, as nearly all of us have one foot that’s a different size or shape to the other. Do you have a wide forefoot and a narrow heel? Pronation? (that’s not a political question.) A good fitter at the store should ask you the right questions and help you work all this out.
A what-to-look-for in a Hard Shell jacket might include: Is it long enough to cover your bum for more weather protection, or sit under a harness? Are the pockets accessible when worn with a rucksack, or obstructed by the hipbelt? Are the arms long enough and articulated for good mobility? Can you get a mid-layer under it without feeling constricted? (Layers work because they trap air, which then warms up. Tight layers don’t allow as much air inbetween) Can the fasteners be operated with thick gloves on? Is the hood adjustable, will the adjusters whip you in the face in the wind, and does it have a stiffened visor and move with the head when it’s on your head? Are the seams and the quality of the waterproof taping sound? Does it have reinforced shoulders to improve durability under a backpack? Are you expecting a diaphanous 100g running shell to provide full protection in a 100mph hoolie on the Cairngorm plateau? (Spoiler: get something heavier!) A lot of these things are about personal fit and use, and are best decided in the flesh – you can’t wave your arms around like a helicopter to test the cut of the cloth if you only buy online.
Lastly, remember that all outdoor gear works best as part of a team with other items you use – I’ve found useful to take in my regular socks, rucksacks or mid layers to see how any new purchase might fit with my old favourites.
Note that these factors are (mostly) aside from the materials used, which of course can be more or less ‘green’. But attention to this does greatly reduce the risk of badly fitting kit, or stuff that doesn’t suit your type or level of activity, sitting in your cupboard. Buying the lowest carbon footprint jacket ever made and then never using it is about as far from eco-friendly as it gets.
I know some of you may be thinking: Can I get that item a bit cheaper online? In some cases, yes, of course. But I think the added value of looking and trying on in a store, with all that advice and experience on tap, is worth paying a touch extra for. Besides, they’re all outdoor folk – like us. We should keep them in work. Genuine sustainability goes beyond the buzzword that made us cynical about greenwash in the first place: it’s about sustaining our own communities, as well as the environment at large. Still want a high street? Let’s start by supporting our own.
Labels to look for
What makes a product more ‘sustainable’? There’s a mix of factors locked up in that new jacket; from the solvents used in waterproof membranes and laminates, the dyeing process and the impact of all these on water quality, whether the synthetics are recycled and whether the down is ethically sourced, the use of toxic perfluorinated chemicals (PFC’s) in waterproof garments, working pay and conditions in the countries of both origin and production, the impacts of transportation, whether the item is made to last and recyclable at the end of its life…
The textile industry is truly global and components for garments will often be made across dozens of countries and multiple continents. The outdoor industry is attempting to track progress through this maze by using social and environmental yardsticks, but as yet it’s not a unified picture. There are some umbrella standards, and others run on a business-by-business level, which can be more or less exacting and vary across brand collections. It’s still pretty confusing for those working in the trade, let alone the consumer! Without getting too bogged down in the detail at the moment, here’s a brief guide to some of the more universal measures that also make their way onto high street labels.
This is a reasonably exacting Swiss standard; in exchange for a fee, companies are independently audited, and a roadmap is offered for environmental improvements. It covers working conditions, raw materials, dye treatments, and waste by-products. Certain chemicals and production processes are either banned or can only be used within strict parameters. Particular attention is paid to water and air pollution resulting from manufacture, the aim being to reduce CO2 emissions and sewerage. There’s also a health and safety component, so a bluesign logo shows that the people actually making the gear you wear should have worked in a non-dangerous facility, with tests for noise, chemicals and dust.
Bluesign is not a panacea and so not everyone in the industry likes it (or paying for it!). To illustrate – at the moment, controls over components like buckles and zips are much lower than for fabric. But a bluesign label on clothing does show a brand is trying. It’s been quite widely adopted, but Berghaus and Vaude are good examples of brands with bluesign at the centre of their own in-house standards; look for ‘Madekind’ and ‘Greenshape’ respectively.
Global Organic Textile Standard
Brands that use 70% or more organic materials in a product can be certified with the GOTS label, which covers dyes and processing as well as social (workplace) criteria. You can look for their logo to help you guide a purchase.
Responsible Down Standard
The RDS label on clothing and sleeping bags shows that a brand is aiming to eliminate force feeding and live plucking of ducks and geese for insulation, primarily in bedding (by far the bigger market), but also in outdoor gear like jackets and sleeping bags. Farms and slaughter houses are audited and controls on how the birds are treated are put in place. After the early precedent set by Mountain Equipment and The North Face, many outdoor companies have now adopted RDS and will use a logo. The exception to this is Fjallraven, who have their own, perhaps even more exacting standard. Control and monitoring of the up-supply chain is notoriously difficult, but if you are concerned about animal welfare, an RDS tag is better than none.
Fair Wear Foundation
Signatories are charged with avoiding forced or child labour, ensuring that their workers are free to be part of a union, have healthy working conditions and reasonable hours, pay and contracts. Look for the coat-hanger logo.
To conclude (for now), it’s worth pointing out the growing practice of businesses publishing their environmental audits online. German brand Vaude and US enviro’ champions Patagonia are exceptionally transparent in this regard, but others are following their lead and improving quickly. Once again, if in doubt about materials or eco-labelling, do an internet search on the brand’s CSR pages or ask in your local gear shop. Ask which fabric has the lowest impact but still retains performance, ask if the brand is signed up to Fair Wear and protects worker’s rights. If enough of us show we are interested – in how things are made, with what materials and at what environmental cost – then the message that good provenance pays can and will travel up the line.
Not all companies are doing everything as yet, and not every retailer will know everything. Brands may lead on environmental product lines but it’s processes that make the real difference, so a certain amount of reading between the lines is still useful! And there are sometimes uncomfortable compromises to be made, at both design/production and consumer ends. Price, durability, performance, ethics as well as environmental footprint are all in the balance… but now at least they are on the balance sheet as well. We’ll get into more of that next time.