Wild Green

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

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The Whacking Big Impact of Your Outdoor Gear

7/14/2010 4:12:26 PM

Tags: Keith Goetzman, environment, outdoor recreation, outdoor gear, sustainable business, human rights, animal rights, Ethical Consumer

Camping gear

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.

Source: Ethical Consumer (subscription required), Sierra Trading Post

Image by Phil W. Shirley, licensed under Creative Commons.



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Post a comment below.

 

Jackson Hale_3
7/21/2010 12:33:02 PM
I tend to agree with Mary Wells on the point she makes about people being enabled to going outdoors instead of jetting around. As MW points out, people who are really into the outdoors tend to buy much of their gear once and then reuse it till it cannot be used further. However I also agree with the premise that the industry can probably do more to be sustainable, but that is what progress is all about and all of the polluted aspects of our lives need continual prodding. . .keep on 'muck raking'. . .it's all good. Probably more than any other industry, the outdoor gear industry (with the exception of the hooks and bullets crowd) is likely to be a receptive audience.

curlingriver_2
7/17/2010 1:17:51 PM
In addition to using toxic camping/hiking gear, many outdoorspeople highlight or bleach their hair. Needless to say, this can't be good for fish or other organisms. Hair color may not even be good for the user! Maybe henna… Good, thought-provoking article.

mary wells_2
7/16/2010 10:01:27 PM
Yes and No. Every corner of our lives are a stinking environmental disaster. When planes, Las Vegas glitz, backyard swimming pools, all night consumerism and 'eco travel' (to name a few) all abound, why pick on a hiker who most likely buys this gear once. I have my Limmer boots since 1979 and a Kelty pack from the 70s, yes new trekking poles and a new filter for water, but as for impact on the planet, please pick your battles. I applaud anyone who gets out to hike instead of jets off to Cabo. Keep on fussing. MW



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