Why should hillwalkers care about the environmental impact of their walking jackets? And how do we get the outdoor industry to be more sustainable? asks outdoor-nut and environmentalist Simon Birch.
As a self-confessed outdoor obsessive, over the past 30 odd years I’ve been lucky enough to have climbed, mountain biked and trekked over large swathes of the wilder bits of the UK, Europe and beyond. Since I spend as much time as possible getting muddy and sweaty outdoors, it’s always seemed perfectly logical to me to try and help protect the very thing that I feel so passionate about: namely the environment.
So it’s been with a growing sense of surprise and disappointment that in the course of the compiling of this buyers’ guide I’ve discovered that very few of my fellow outdoor obsessives share my environmental concerns. A recent reader survey by Trail magazine – one of the UK’s leading outdoor magazines - revealed that the environment barely registers on the radar when people buy new outdoor gear.
It’s a sad fact that few if any of the vast numbers 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 dramatic mountains to help market and advertise their gear, the public assumes that the industry is by default environmentally responsible.
Sadly as this buyers’ guide shows, this is far from the truth. Plus let’s not forget that it’s outdoor companies who are now increasingly acting like the fashion industry in being hell bent on flogging us ever increasing amounts of outdoor gear.
Whilst some in the outdoor industry are at long last starting to talk about sustainability, few understand the basic contradiction between aiming to produce more sustainable gear and a profit-driven business model that relies on selling more and more.
So what’s to be done? Some believe that it’s up to customers to wise-up and start piling the pressure on the outdoor industry to clean up its act. Well I don’t buy this as I’m getting increasingly fed up with the current trend of dumping the responsibility for raising the environmental bar onto consumers.
From where I’m standing it’s the outdoor industry that needs to start taking its environmental responsibilities more seriously. If a company is happy enough to use a mountain in its latest catalogue to help boost its profits, then it’s about time that the same company started to help protect it – and the rest of the environment too.
There’s a great irony that those who love the outdoors can have such a negative environmental impact through the clothes and kit they buy to enjoy it. And with policies on workers’ rights in the outdoor market lagging behind other clothing sectors it’s people, as well as the planet, that pay the price. While scandals about conditions in clothing supply chains have hit the big fashion labels and retailers, prompting change, the outdoor brands have failed to keep up. Few companies have environmental policies, with only two across all the products reviewed getting anything but a ‘Worst’ rating for our ‘Environmental Reporting’ category. And even fewer have policies on toxic chemicals or the controversial issue of nanotechnology.
As well as asking companies about their environmental and supply chain policies we asked companies questions about the following areas key to this market:
We asked companies if they have a policy that covers
• the use of genetically modified cotton,
• pesticides and herbicides,
• and sourcing from Uzbekistan, a country with an appalling human rights record and massive use of forced child labour in its cotton industry.
We asked companies if they have a policy that
• quantifies the chemicals used in manufacture and sets targets for the phasing out of the most dangerous,
• covers the use of nano technology, which is often used in the manufacture of waterproof and breathable fabrics.
• Do companies use goose down in sleeping bags, leather in boots or merino wool from Australia.
We asked whether companies manufacture synthetic products derived from oil. Those companies that have a majority of products derived from oil receive a half mark in the Habitats & Resources column.
Ethics v Performance
Some outdoor gear may be ethical but how does it perform, asks Simon Birch.
Ethics are all very well, but the crucial question for any hill-walker or mountaineer is whether a piece of gear is up to the job. OK some companies, such as Páramo, produce top-notch quality gear that's ethical to boot. The gear made by other ethical companies though isn’t as reliable.
Take vegan walking boots for example. Sure, they’re perfect if you’re bumbling along a country lane but when it comes to more demanding terrain then they’re just not up it. When I tested them out in the rigours of the Scottish Highlands the upper part of the boots were way too flexible and gave my ankles minimal support. The result was that I had a very long and very careful decent down a particularly steep mountainside to make sure that I didn’t go over on my ankles. Not good.
The path to sustainability is indeed a long and tricky trail.
Eco product labels
The Bluesign logo is a voluntary scheme for clothing companies. It is a certification and labelling scheme designed to provide environmental and health & safety standards and solutions for textile manufacturers. It is built around five principles: resource productivity, consumer safety, air emission, water emission and occupational health and safety.
It aims to tackle environmental problems at their root. Prior to production all inputs – from raw materials, to chemical components – are analyzed and receive a rating based on the toxic impacts on humans, animals and ecosystems. The hope is that this will eliminate potentially harmful substances from the process before production begins.
Many companies have signed up to the standard but few have the mark on specific products. It appears to be more of an aspiration than a reality. Christine Waeber from Bluesign said “Not all brands are interested in having a bluesign label on their clothes as their main focus is mostly to work in their supply chain and the environmental issues there in.”
The brands covered in this report that are working with Bluesign are:
- • Patagonia
- • The North Face
- • VAUDE Sport
- • Helly Hansen
- • Haglöfs Scandinavia
- • R.E.I. Recreational Equipment
- • Deuter Sport
None of these companies carry the Bluesign logo on any of their garments, but are working towards accreditation.
This was the world’s first environmental product label for textiles and existed before uniform safety standards for companies within the textile industry (such as the European legislation on chemicals known as REACH) were introduced.
In this buyer’s guide we have taken the decision not to give products with the Oeko Tex label a positive mark for sustainability. This is due to the recent decision of the International Oeko-Tex Association to approve SmartSilver additives, a form of nanotechnology, for inclusion into their standards. Thus products carrying this label may contain nano particles.(11)
A model sustainable outdoor company
Simon Birch finds inspiration in Canada.
With the notable exception of Páramo, virtually all the companies surveyed in this buyers’ guide are still struggling to even produce a sustainability strategy, let alone take any concrete action in reducing their environmental impact.
If the senior managers of the UK’s outdoor industry were looking for inspiration and guidance as to how to get started on the issue of sustainability, a top tip would be to look west at Canada, the home of the Mountain Equipment Co-operative, arguably the world’s most sophisticated outdoor company in all matters environmental.
Launched in the outdoors paradise of Vancouver in 1971 by a bunch of keen camping and climbing students, MEC has grown to become Canada’s biggest outdoor manufacturer and retailer with a staff of 1,500 and 13 stores right across the country. In the process it’s now widely acknowledged that MEC has firmly established itself as a key global player in driving environmental and sustainable innovation within the outdoor industry.
From product development using the latest sustainable fabrics and materials, to cutting-edge low-energy design for its stores and warehouses, MEC actively works to minimise the environmental impact of its business at every level of its operation.
For example only 100% organic cotton is now used in its own-brand garments and products whilst there are ambitious targets for the use of recycled nylon and polyester.
And in a move that would result in many a slack-jaw in other outdoor companies, MEC actively encourages its customers to swap and rent out their boots, bikes and other equipment as a way to recycle used outdoor gear.
So what makes MEC so different to other outdoor companies?
“A key factor is that the vast majority of our staff are themselves keen outdoor enthusiasts who bike, hike and ski and this connection with the outdoors translates into a big commitment to ensuring that the business is run in a truly sustainable manner,” explains MEC spokesperson Tim Southam.
The other main difference between MEC and other outdoor companies is the fact that MEC is run as a co-op.
“We’re not beholden to producing quarterly returns and maximising shareholder profits as our members own the business,” explains Southam.
“The co-op model provides us with the latitude to pursue goals such as product sustainability, green buildings and wilderness conservation, things that profit-driven businesses just aren’t set up to do.”
That only leaves just one question: when are MEC going to set up shop over here?
Visit www.mec.ca for more information.
How fair are working conditions in the outdoor industry?
Stories about the exploitation of workers in Bangladesh, China and even Manchester have been regularly popping up in the press over the past few years. But these nearly always relate to familiar high street fashion brands. As a result, there has been a surge in recognition in the West that clothing companies must adopt, implement and monitor a policy which protects the basic rights of all workers throughout their supply chain.
The Play Fair at the Olympics Campaign (PFOC), a coalition of Clean Clothes Campaign, Global Union and Oxfam has been ongoing since 2004 and piggybacks on Olympic events to draw attention to companies’ poor practice regarding workers’ rights issues. Other sporting events have been targeted by campaigners too, football being one. Labour behind the Label and the TUC teamed up in 2006 to publish ‘Sweet FA?’. This report revealed that while Football Associations and sponsors were earning millions from World Cup licensing deals and sponsorships, the workers producing the goods that make this money were paid poverty wages and being persecuted for attempting to form trade unions. Some were even found to have lost their jobs over this.
But somewhere along the line, outdoor gear companies have been overlooked, at least in the UK. The companies and the people who buy from them are undoubtedly aware of (if not always acting up on) their symbiotic relationship with the environment but nothing or very little is even said about the rights of people making the stuff. It is surprising that these companies are able to divorce environmental issues from social ones.
The Swiss are one step ahead here. Clean Clothes Campaign Switzerland have carried out testing on 15 internationally operating outdoor companies which are engaged in the European Outdoor Group. After researching this buyers’ guide, Ethical Consumer has to concur with their findings - not only do most outdoor companies have no supply chain policy in place, but the majority of them don’t appear to have even thought about setting the wheels in motion.
There are clear leaders in the field. Páramo, for instance, has 80% of its products manufactured in Bogotá, Colombia, by the charitable Miquelina foundation. The foundation takes ‘at risk’ women from Bogotá’s streets and provides them with training and employment. 90% of Miquelina’s production is Páramo garments. Profits are re-invested in the factory as well as in a kindergarten, housing, a canteen for local children, and a virtual library. Ethical Consumer recognises that it’s impractical for smaller companies to implement the kind of complex supply chain monitoring the best multinationals have developed. So for smaller companies we look for a company to demonstrate an effective policy addressing workers’ rights in its supply chain. Based on these criteria, Páramo gets our best rating for its supply chain policy.
Lowe Alpine, Mammut and Pentland Group are the only companies we’ve rated in this sector to have formal supply chain policies which meet all of Ethical Consumer’s criteria, including minimum standards for workers and independent monitoring.
While these companies are an example to the others in this buyers’ guide, we are talking about very basic standards here. Companies doing nothing to safeguard them need to catch up, and quickly.
So campaigners, let’s turn our attentions to this division of the clothing sector next – it’s long overdue an overhaul.
The small issue of nano-particles
Looking to buy gear with Superman-like strength and other tempting qualities such as resistance to stains, static, sweat, wrinkles and odor? Then get ready buy a product with nano-particles.
Nanotechnology makes it possible to manufacture particles with extremely small dimensions. One nanometer (nm) is roughly 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. At this scale, nano-particles can behave differently to bigger particles of the same material. Nanotechnology is found in everything from whitegoods to cosmetics, even food is a new frontier for the controversial technologies. Synthetic fabrics containing nano-particles can mimic the comfort of cotton, be stain or odour resistant, have anti-wrinkle properties, and most importantly in the outdoor market be waterproof whilst breathable.
The appeal of owning reliable gear that will keep you warm (or cool) and dry while out in the wilderness is clear. Yet companies rushing to hype the novel properties of their nano-enabled products have potentially ignored the novel dangers associated with them.
There is huge uncertainty over the adequacy of the provisions to regulate this quickly developing technology under the European Union’s REACH regulations, which governs the evaluation and authorisation of chemicals. And corporate lobbying around REACH by some of the multinational companies likely to most effected by its provisions could be cause for concern.
The European Commission plans to review a number of EU policies and regulations covering health and environmental safety issues related to nano-particles. The move comes in response to a call by the European Parliament to examine legislation in this area over the next two years, amid concerns that the pace of technological development has outpaced policymaking and regulation.(21)
There is currently no labelling requirement for the use of nano-particles in clothing and outdoor equipment.
Nano-particles pose the greatest risks to health if they migrate inside the body. Concerns over harmful exposure are therefore focused less on fabrics than on food, cosmetics, work environments where the new materials are produced and build up in the environment generally.
There is concern over the toxicity of certain nano-particles. Nanoscale silver has been shown to be toxic to fish and other organisms in soil and water. This begs the question: What happens when nano-particles are released into the environment and how will they be recycled?
Consumers will be tempted with the promise of futuristic products constructed with nano-technology. “Nano-generators” embedded in clothing could someday power an iPod via body movement alone. Clothing could change colour with the flip of switch.
As wondrous as some of these products can seem, they need to be critically evaluated. The gaps in our understanding concerning the behaviour of nano-particles are huge. And toxic nightmares produced by past “wonder materials” like asbestos should give pause for thought.
Find out more about nanotechnology:
‘Is Nano the new GM?’ Ethical Consumer, Issue 119
ETC Group’s pocket guide
More resources – www.foeeurope.org/activities/nanotechnology/index.htm
Synthetic v. Natural
We tend to think that natural products are better for the environment, but this isn’t always the case.
The table below shows the amount of energy needed to produce one kilogram of the fibre. As you can see nylon uses the most with cotton using the least amount of energy.(6)
||MJ/kg of fibre
Below we outline some of the issues in the cotton industry before looking at the problems associated with man made fibres.
How ethical is cotton?
• Bio-degradeable material
• Renewable resource
• Organic certified cotton does not use chemical pesticides
• Organic certified garments do not use toxic dyes or finishes
• In India, home to over one third of the world’s cotton farmers, cotton accounts for 54% of all pesticides used annually – despite occupying just 5% of land under crops. Hazardous pesticides associated with global cotton production represent a substantial threat to global freshwater resources and are now known to
contaminate rivers in USA, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Australia, Greece and West Africa.
• Cotton monoculture is a threat to biodiversity
• In addition to the environmental concerns, genetically modified cotton puts the control of cotton seed supply in the hands of large multinationals
• Cotton fabrics have a shorter life – more prone to staining and stretching
• Requires more washing and takes longer to dry so uses more energy/water/detergent
• Cotton growing requires large amounts of water
• Provides employment for cotton farmers and pickers
• Fairtrade certification protects farmers from the volatile world market
• Organic certified cotton is less harmful to the health of cotton growers and pickers
• Pesticides and dyes are harmful to the health of those who work with cotton at all stages of it’s life cycle, especially child workers. A 2004 study conducted by researchers at the Technical University of Lódz, in Poland, has shown that hazardous pesticides applied during cotton production can also be detected in cotton clothing.(17)
• High prices demanded by pesticide companies leads many small-scale cotton farmers into debt, and drives many to commit suicide.
• In Uzbekistan children are forcibly taken
out of school to harvest cotton from state owned plantations.
• Cotton prices often fail to provide farmers with enough to live on.
• Cotton seed is used as an animal feed and, in the form of cotton seed oil, as a common cooking product accounting for approximately 8% of the world’s vegetable oil consumption. World Health Organisation data shows the potential for pesticides to contaminate both refined cotton seed oil and cotton seed derivatives fed to animals.(17)
Did you know...?
• Most synthetic fabrics are made from oil based chemicals.
• Toxic sludge containing heavy metals and other poisons such as formaldehyde is a by-product of textile manufacture and is often sent to landfill.(1)
• The production of nylon and polyester creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that’s 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Polyester and nylon are also non- biodegradable.(2)
• Polyester uses 63% more energy to manufacture than cotton, weight for weight.
Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), such as PFOA which is used to make fabrics that are both waterproof and breathable, do not break down in the natural world and enter the food chain, ending up in wildlife and humans. PFOA has been shown to be toxic and carcinogenic to animals, as well as being linked in studies to human health risks. The US Environmental Protection Agency guidelines on “Carcinogenic Risk Assessment” says that PFOA is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” in cases of high exposure.(20)
• All synthetic garments can be recycled and some clothing companies are starting recycling programs.
• In the US each year the textile industry discharges 40,000 – 50,000 tons of dye and more than 200,000 tons of salt into rivers. Synthetic dyestuffs are highly toxic. They often contain heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, and poisons such as formaldehyde.(7)
• The process of dyeing cloth uses a great quantity of water. It takes between 5 – 35 gallons of water for every pound of finished fabric, to dye enough fabric to cover a sofa (25 square yards) takes between 125 – 875 gallons of water.(8)
• Azo dyes were commonly used on clothing in the EU until they were banned in 2003 due to their carcinogenic properties and adverse effect on aquatic life. They are however still widely used outside the EU.
Best Buy Páramo receives a half mark in Habitats & Resources for use of oil-derived materials.
Arc Teyx’s website explicitly states that it does not use recycled materials. They suggest recycled fabrics take more energy to produce than virgin materials and also do not perform as well.15 However, none of the other companies that used recycled textiles mentioned these issues.
Berghaus is ultimately owned by Robert Stephen Holdings, which also owns a number of other household brands including Brasher, Ellese, JD Sports, Speedo and Kickers. They are one of only 4 companies in this report with a top mark for supply chain policy. However they also have operations in China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and the USA that are currently on Ethical Consumer’s oppressive regimes list, which earns them a black mark under Human Rights.
Columbia Sportswear gets animal rights marks for the sale of hunting and fishing equipment and selling leather. They also own the Mountain Hardwear brand.
Owners of Helly Hansen, Altor Equity Partners, also own Meyn Food Processing, which is a massive manufacturer of equipment for processing intensively-farmed chickens. It also owns Ferrosan, which produces pharmaceuticals and health supplements, but has no policy on animal testing, therefore scoring Ethical Consumer’s worst rating in this category.
Ethical Wares sell hemp boots, which may be less sturdy but are a much more environmentally friendly alternative than leather or polyurethane (PU).
Vegetarian Shoes sell PU boots. This is a breathable alternative to PVC and is considered less harmful by Greenpeace. Greenpeace say PVC is one of the largest sources of dioxins. Throughout its lifecycle it requires hazardous chemicals in production, releases harmful additives and creates toxic wastes.
Blacks, Millets, Peter Storm, Eurohike and Karrimor are all part of the Sports Direct empire owned by controversial Geordie entrepreneur Mike Ashley. None of the companies in the group have an environmental report or supply chain policy and the group has come in for criticism that the pile it high sell it cheap policy has damaged once reputable UK brand Karrimor.
Lifemarque Ltd, owner of the Lifeventure brand, sells insect repellents, first aid kits and sun protection, among other things, putting it in a sector where Ethical Consumer expects to see an animal testing policy. No such policy could be found and therefore the company receives a negative mark in this category.
In Haglofs spring/summer 2011 garment collection, 35% of all fabrics will be made from recycled raw materials, and 35% will use bluesign-approved fabrics (see page 13). The company says it aims to gradually increase these proportions. The company is PVC-free and all its backpacks have PFOS/PFOA-free water repellent treatment. PFOA is potentially toxic to users and persistent in the environment.
Bell Tents and SoulPad produce high end cotton only tents. However, neither have a cotton policy so it is possible that they use genetically modified cotton and source from Uzbekistan, where child labour is endemic in the cotton industry.
Decathlon, which owns the Quechua brand, is in turn owned by Groupe Auchan, which is France’s second-largest food retailer. The group has stores throughout Europe as well as in China, Dubai, Russia, and Taiwan, which are considered by Ethical Consumer oppressive regimes, earning the company a Human Rights mark.
Marmot and Coleman are both owned by the Jardin Corporation. Both subsidiaries and the Jardin score worst for supply chain and environmental reporting.
The following companies have supplied outdoor equipment to the military within the last four years: Arc Teryx, Berghaus, Brasher, Highlander, Lowe Alpine, Merrell, Meindl, MSR, Patagonia, Royal, Salomon, Snugpak, Terra Nova, Wild Country.