Before you get kitted out for the great outdoors this summer check out whether the companies you're buying from care as much about the environment as you do. Ethical Consumer investigates...
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.
At Glastonbury 11.2 tonnes of clothing, tents and sleeping bags are left behind after the festival every year.(12)
75% of left-over camping items are in a fit state for reuse, yet most have been sent to landfill, at great environmental and financial expense.(13)
Some of the tents are now collected by charities and sent abroad to help refugees and internally displaced peoples.
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.
You can find out how the companies scored on each using the score table above.
Click on the company name to see how they scored.
Clean Clothes Campaign
The Clean Clothes Campaign Switzerland conducted a survey in 2008 which evaluated company policies and strategies for taking responsibility and complying with social standards in the supply chain.
Five key aspects were marked from 1 (very good) to 3 (unsatisfactory) and an average taken. These were:
• code of conduct (written policy)
• implementation of the code
• monitoring and verification
• material of the products: organic, fair trade and recycling/disposal
Top score would have been 1 and bottom score 3.
From this guide Jack Wolfskin scored 2.4 and North Face scored 2.8.
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.
Cotton – ethical pros and cons
• 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.
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.
Clicking on each individual company on the scorecard table will provide a deeper analysis of the companies compared. However, this information is reserved for subscribers only. Don't miss out, become a subscriber today.
1 http://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2009/09/01/dyes-synthetic-and-natural/ last seen 10/5/10
2 http://www.sixwise.com/newsletters/05/12/21/the-6-synthetic-fabrics-you-most-want-to-avoid-and-why.htm last seen 10/5/10
4 http://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2009/09/01/dyes-synthetic-and-natural/ last seen 10/5/10
5 Synthetic Fabric vs. Natural Fabric justazipper.files.wordpress.com/.../synthetic-fabric-vs-natural-fabric.pdf last seen 10/5/10
6 Synthetic Fabric vs. Natural Fabric justazipper.files.wordpress.com/.../synthetic-fabric-vs-natural-fabric.pdf last seen 10/5/10
7 http://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2009/09/01/dyes-synthetic-and-natural/ last seen 10/5/10
8 http://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2009/09/01/dyes-synthetic-and-natural/ last seen 10/5/10
9 http://www.stepin.org/casestudy.php?id=fleeces&page=3 last seen 10/5/10
10 http://www.ecouterre.com/4041/can-leather-be-eco-friendly-ever/ last seen 10/5/10
11 http://www.azonano.com/news.asp?NewsID=9176 last seen 10/5/10
12 http://lizzydening.co.uk/journalism/music-festivals-green-events-for-hippies-or-landfill-nightmares last seen 10/5/10
13 Times on-line last seen 10/5/10
17 The Deadly Pesticides in Cotton, Environmental Justice Foundation in association with the Pesticide Action Network, 2007
21 http://www.framingnano.eu/newsletters/FramingNanoNewsletter5_morenews.htm last seen 25/05/10.