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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.

Get the Koch Brothers Out of Your Gear

 by Keith Goetzman

Tags: outdoor recreation, outdoor gear, climate change, energy, sustainable business, politics, environment, Keith Goetzman,

Pile of packs 

Would you want to go camping, hiking, biking, or trail running with the Koch brothers? Me neither. Well, then, why on earth would you want to do any of those things with the products they help make?

That’s the thorny question that may face many green-minded outdoor recreationists when it sinks in that a host of material brands used in their gear are controlled by the right-wing brothers David and Charles Koch, who have been widely outed as major funders of anti-environment politics and climate-change denial PR campaigns.

Like what materials, you ask?

Like the Polarguard insulation in your sleeping bag, the Coolmax fabric in your running outfit, the Lycra in your swimwear, the Supplex in your windbreaker, and—woe upon woe—the Cordura that’s ubiquitous in the gear world. I own duffels, backpacks, stuff sacks, fanny packs, bike bags, luggage, gaiters, and binocular cases made of the stuff.

Now, it’s no surprise to me that these materials are all made from petroleum, so I had an inkling they weren’t exactly the most sustainable products: Using “dinosaur squeezin’s” to make fabric and insulation is as problematic as using it to fuel our cars. But it pains me to think that the very gear that helps me journey out into inspirational natural settings is tainted because it’s part of a corporate machine that is quite literally and demonstrably destroying the very same natural world.

What’s the answer?

Well, for me, it’s going to start with taking a close look at the “ingredients” in any gear I consider buying and trying my best to avoid Koch-related components. I have considered replacing my well-worn canvas Duluth canoe pack with a lighter, more rain-repellent Cordura-based model—but hey, what’s the hurry? I’ve started to check out new bike commuter panniers as mine wear out, but I’ll look into rubber, hemp, and other materials before I’ll go for a straight-up replacement. And sorry, ladies, but my new body-hugging Speedo purchase is indefinitely postponed.

The sad fact is, you’d have to work really hard to keep the Kochs entirely out of your life—Daily Kos rounded up a full roster of Koch-controlled brands, and it’s dauntingly broad, from Brawny paper towels and Quilted Northern toilet paper to Georgia Pacific building products and Stainmaster carpet. But I’m one of those idealistic types who thinks that individual spending decisions really can make a difference, and if “outdoorsy” people aren’t going to go up against these modern-day barons, who will?

Some folks might claim that politics and commerce should remain separate realms, but the Kochs certainly wouldn’t claim any such compartmentalization. In fact, as The Nation recently reported, Koch Industries has aggressively moved to influence its own workers’ voting decisions in the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which held that corporations hold political lobbying rights akin to human rights.

There’s been a bit of chatter about the Koch-Cordura connection—a question on an REI forum, mutterings in green circles after boycott-Koch lists were posted—but frankly I think a lot of people conveniently avoid thinking too hard about how their gear-store decisions are tied to the planet. (Just like their SUV and air travel and sushi habits.) PR-savvy Cordura, perhaps aware that a storm may be a-brewin’, is running a hip new “Most Durable Person” sweepstakes that’s being co-sponsored and hyped by the Gear Junkie, the gear fetishist’s top online enabler, who in a breathless 30th birthday post in 2007 called Cordura “the fabric of our lives” and “a mainstay miracle fabric.”

Describing it as “a commodity material used by hundreds of outdoors gear companies,” the Gear Junkie noted that Koch acquired the brand in 2004 from Dupont—meaning that nearly all of my Cordura gear, since it predates the sale, is 100 percent Koch-free. Which will allow me to sleep just a little better in my tent at night.

I’ve previously called for the outdoor gear industry to step up and start greening up its act. Many gear companies could start, it seems, by looking at their supply chains and seeing if anyone named Koch is involved.

Sources: Daily Kos, The NationREI, Gear Junkie 

Image by mariachily, licensed under Creative Commons. 


beth jensen
5/20/2011 1:34:37 PM

The outdoor industry has been among the first industries to recognize that greater transparency and collaboration toward environmental impact reduction is needed within the supply chain. In fact, the industry has been working since 2007 on developing a common language and methodology for assessing the environmental impacts of their products - throughout the full life cycle of a product. This work, called the Eco Index (www.ecoindexbeta.org), is completely open-source and available for anyone to view and use, and has been (and continues to be) developed collaboratively, pre-competitively, by nearly 200 outdoor industry companies throughout the world who recognize that the majority of the industry's environmental impacts are happening within the supply chain. The challenges presented by today's complex global economy are immense and solutions will not happen overnight, but the outdoor industry is showing real, authentic leadership - and is being recognized as a model for other industries - in addressing these challenges using a collaborative, scalable, open-source model. Beth Jensen, Outdoor Industry Association

john peacock
5/20/2011 9:14:40 AM

You don't have to be so patronizing in your comment interrobang_3 - "It looks like you missed the point" - sensationalistic - instead, a simple "I believe you missed the point" - I was just pointing out that by saying that he feels better about having pre-Koch Cordura gear because of Koch's environmental record is completely missing the point of his actions since DuPont has a very spotty environmental record itself. From an environmental angle, one is as bad as the other, ownership-boycott aside. If the point you WERE making was that you wanted to boycott anything Koch-owned, then yes, it makes sense to use DuPont made Cordura, regardless of buying new or not. Doesn't have a thing to do with the materials used to make it, just the owners. As a gear dork, I think it's absolutely awesome that you have a pack that's still kicking it after 30 years. That shows it was well made and I hope it lasts a great deal longer. I ran across a guy who had a test made by The North Face that lasted 30 years, only to fail in some way and TNF replaced it at no cost (after 30 years!) - that's a testament to great gear. Many times, Cordura/GoreTex/Primaloft/eVent/etc make that durability happen. Boycotting aside, I wouldn't want to be caught on day 6 of the Patagonian Expedition Race that we send a team to without the proper equipment that many of these technologies provide. http://gearjunkie.com/patagonian-race

5/20/2011 8:41:38 AM

John, It looks like you missed the point. Koch Industries appear to be -paradoxically, in context of this article - anti-environment. It's not about what any other individual or entity did before, it's about now. About Koch Industries and the tendrils worming their way into every aspect of our lives, and specifically, outdoor gear. It's about those who love the environment being cognizant, and making decisions based on knowledge. Knowledge is power. Full Disclosure: NOT being a GearDork (I've never even heard of your .com), I'm happy to continue to use the same Jansport D3 I've owned for 30 years. Yep, it's Cordura spawned fresh from DuPont's bubbling womb, but I'm using it up, not buying new. Remember kids, reuse is better than recycling. Perhaps the best thing for the environment would be to simply leave it alone.

john peacock
5/18/2011 1:19:20 PM

Full disclosure: I work on and own a portion of GearJunkie.com - 1) "Koch acquired the brand in 2004 from Dupont — meaning that nearly all of my Cordura gear, since it predates the sale, is 100 percent Koch-free" - So DuPont is any better considering your take on the subject? 2) The REI forum topic was posted a month before your article, has had hardly any pick-up in that month (2 comments, one slightly for the posted angle on the topic and another calling the poster out essentially as a troll - hardly a controversy). 3) In addition to all of that, Utne has American Public University as an advertiser, owned by Wallace E Boston Jr who used to work for many pharmaceutical companies, essentially "Big Pharma" - it's the same angle as GearJunkie.com - they're an advertiser, just like Cordura is with us. While I realize it is difficult to find outdoor gear that isn't made with petroleum (it's difficult to find ANYTHING not made with it), I doubt it is a conspiracy handed down to Invista directly from the Koch bro's - it's like almost any business: an investment. I apologize that the computer I used to post this was made with and uses petroleum of some type to run - I was fresh out of carrier pigeons.