Last updated: September 2016
Most rucksacks are made by general outdoor companies, although there are a few companies who focus specifically on rucksacks, such as Osprey, Fjällräven and Deuter.
In this guide we focus on the materials that rucksacks are made out of, but since so many companies also make other outdoor kit, we also look at their policies on animal down.
While daysacks are still sometimes made of cotton canvas, it is considered too heavy for bigger packs.
Larger rucksacks are now nearly all made of polyester or nylon with a synthetic waterproof coating. The coating is commonly polyurethane (PU), the same coating used to make the vegetarian leather used in shoes.
However, there are some that still use PVC, which is much more environmentally toxic. Hi Gear, Trespass, Regatta, Fjällräven, Vango, Craghoppers, Gelert, Addidas, Puma, Reebok and Hurley all sell some PVC rucksacks, and have therefore been marked down in the pollution and toxics category on the table.
Bigger rucksacks also have frames, which are most often aluminium, although some high end rucksacks use expensive composite materials instead. Aluminium is famously energy intensive to make, and so it is believable when Fjällräven claim that their own analysis of one of their ruckacks showed the frame to be the part with the biggest environmental impact.
They now make a rucksack with a wooden frame, which they claim this has reduced the emissions of the frame by 90%. Rather disappointingly, no one seems to make a rucksack with a recycled frame.
Fjällräven, Haglofs, Jack Wolfskin and Patagonia all make some rucksacks out of recycled polyester. Each receives a product sustainability mark on the table above for this. As well as diverting plastic from landfill, recycling polyester uses about a-third-to-a-half less energy than producing virgin polyester, and generates half the greenhouse gas emissions.
Notable ratings – toxics and animal down
A number of toxic chemicals are used in the outdoor industry, particularly PFCs and phthalates, which have been linked to a range of health problems including asthma, obesity, breast cancer and endocrine disruption. As a result we rated all companies on their policies to phase out these chemicals. And they didn’t do too well. All brands receive our worst rating on toxics apart from Fjällräven, Patagonia, Mammut, Quechua New Balance, Adidas, Puma, Nike and Howies.
Of the companies who sell animal down, the only ones which have decent policies to prevent live-plucking are Patagonia, Fjällräven and Sprayway. We discuss live plucking more in our guide to outdoor jackets.
The only brands that do not sell products containing down are Howies, Arc’Teryx, Craghoppers, Haglofs, Salomon, Mizuno, Adidas, Nike and Osprey.
Company behind the brand
Fjällräven is the consumer-facing brand name for the Swedish company Fenix Outdoor International. It started in 1960, intending to design more comfortable rucksacks than were around at the time.
Fenix Outdoor is an environmentally conscious company, as can be seen by its exploring of ways reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of its rucksacks. It focuses on equipment that is high quality and functional rather than glitzy.
Fenix gets our middle rating for Environmental Reporting and Toxics, and our best rating for Supply Chain Management. It uses animal down in some of its products, but has a good policy to prevent the use of live plucking, and it only uses wool from non-mulesed sheep.
Want to know more?
If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table.
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2. “Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester”, by Cherrett et al, Stockholm Environment Institute