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