Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
OK, all you outdoorsy people: How green is your gear? Chances are, not very green at all. Most waterproof/breathable outerwear is made from highly toxic compounds; many fabrics for tents and clothing are created from petrochemicals; and metals for your tent poles, cook kits, and high-tech electronic devices are typically ripped from the earth in a most unsustainable way. Now go enjoy your hike, jerk.
Change is coming, but slowly.
The U.K.-based magazine Ethical Consumer breaks down some of the greenest—and least green—outdoor gear in the “Outdoor Special Buyers’ Guide” in its July-August issue. While many of the brands analyzed wouldn’t be familiar to U.S. consumers, a few international names such as Patagonia, Lowe Alpine, REI, The North Face, Salomon, and Columbia show up. (Of these, Patagonia and Lowe Alpine fare the best.) Writer Simon Birch notes the paradox at work in a leadoff article laced with Britishisms such as “hillwalkers”:
It’s a sad fact that few if any of the vast number of walkers who regularly head to the hills every weekend and who clearly love the outdoors make the connection between their walking jackets, boots, and other clobber and the whacking big environmental impact that results from their production.
In trying to explain this lack of environmental awareness, some suggest that since the outdoor industry regularly uses the sweeping backdrop of panoramic mountains to help market and advertise their gear, the public assumes that the industry is by default environmentally responsible.
Ethical Consumer breaks this myth wide open by reporting on angles such as the environmental downsides of both cotton and synthetic fabrics and the potential dangers of nanoparticles that are being increasingly used in gear. Animal and human rights figure into the calculus, too: Other articles describe the mistreatment of Merino sheep by some Australian woolgrowers and unfair working conditions in the outdoor industry supply chain. Overall, the industry gets a poor rating and a good scolding. The cover headline is “Lost: Why the Outdoor Gear Industry Is Ethically Way Off Track.”
I’d love to see a similarly rigorous analysis applied to outdoor gear brands sold in the United States: If there’s a great independent third-party green gear review out there, I haven’t seen it. And it would be nice if the glossy outdoor magazines did fewer gear-porn photo spreads and more reporting on what actually goes into making that gear.
As in all product sectors, greenwashing is a problem. Sierra Trading Post, a large online outdoor retailer, used to maintain an eco-conscious gear guide but has abandoned it because of a lack of industry-wide standards. Sierra reports on its website that the trade group the Outdoor Industry Association is working on creating standards and plans to roll them out at the 2011 Outdoor Retail Winter Show.
In many other industries, industry-created environmental standards have ended up lacking teeth and can actually end up misleading consumers instead of helping. Let’s hope our gear gurus have the good sense to do the right thing and create truly sustainable, credible standards that don’t destroy the very thing—nature itself—that keeps us heading into the hills for solitude, inspiration, and adventure.