Which are the most ethical sports optics brands?

Our new report, Shooting Wildlife III, helps birders and conservationists find binocular and other sports optics brands that don’t have links to the hunting industry or the military, while taking their environmental commitments seriously.

The report co-author Anna Clayton gives her brand recommendations, reviews the findings and laments a sector that is failing on many fronts.

Sport optics’, such as binoculars, spotting scopes and monoculars, are used by many wildlife watchers. They are also essential pieces of equipment for conservationists, hunters and military personnel.

It is therefore no surprise that 90% of the optics companies covered in our latest report continue to have links to hunting and 69% have links to the military and the arms industry.

In addition most don’t appear to be proactively addressing their own environmental and climate impacts despite appealing to wildlife watchers and conservationists on both sides of the hunting debate.

Who to buy from

For the report we contacted 30 optics companies, asking for thoughts on the hunting and the military and requesting information about current environment and climate policies.

After assessing this information against a series of criteria we recommend the following brands:

Recommended companies to buy from are Canon, Olympus and Opticron.

They could not be directly linked with the sport-hunting industry.

However, of these companies, only Canon has good environment and climate reporting and all of them had links to the military.

Other options

The six companies had weaker links to sport hunting and may also be a good choice: Celestron, Pentax, Kowa, Viking, Visionary, and Barr & Stroud.

Of these companies, Pentax is the only company with reasonable environment and climate reporting.

Viking, Visionary, and Barr & Stroud are the only companies without military links.

Consumers should also consider buying second hand which is always recommended from an environmental point of view.

Discussion: Should we care who makes our optics?

Shifts away from sports hunting?

While its true that ties between the companies and the hunting community remain close its interesting that many seem to be feeling the pressure of increased public scrutiny since the publication of the last ‘Shooting Wildlife?’ report. 75% of the companies we researched  have removed some photos, website sections or text references to hunting from their marketing work, and the number of companies explicitly referencing ‘big-game’ or trophy hunting have fallen by 2% since the last report (from 43% (2016) to 40% (2018) to 38%).

For example, fewer pictures of trophy animals were found on Leupold’s website and Nikon had removed references to trophy hunting from much of its website and social media profiles, and ended its sponsorship of all but one of its corporate partners with links to sports hunting. Bresser no longer mentioned trophy hunting in the text on its website. (although the profiles of its pro-staff still featured pictures of recently killed trophies such as deer heads and turkey tail fans).

This could be an important shift, considering evidence that these kinds of hunting can pose a risk to animal populations.

Three companies (Carson, Fujinon and Nikon) have also quietly withdrawn from the riflescopes business, suggesting that the industry feels there is less public support for its involvement in sports hunting.

The question is whether these changes are a genuine move towards ‘wildlife-friendly’ optics brands, or if they are mostly a cosmetic marketing exercise. None of them had stopped marketing to hunters completely.

Hunting - the debates

man carrying dead animal

If hunting is well regulated and managed under the guidance of ecologists, it can provide revenue for conservation projects while helping to manage animal populations in a ‘sustainable’ way.

However, the reality can be far from this. Poor or corrupt management can have disastrous affects on ecosystems, and can in some cases lead to population decline and extinction. For example a review of 176 studies found that bird and mammal populations across the tropics had declined by 58% and 83% respectively as a result of hunting.

Even a quota system (where the number of animals killed is restricted) can have unforeseen impacts. For example, if fewer animals are hunted, it can result in those of a larger body or antler size being selected as trophies. This often means killing the strongest males in an area, potentially distorting mating patterns and reversing the natural evolution of a species, where natural predators often kill the weak, old and young. The implications are both short and potentially very long-term, from altering population dynamics to the transference of genes.

In addition, hunting animals for sport or recreation is increasingly opposed in the UK and by broader Western society (particularly amongst urban dwellers), especially when it is considered ‘unnecessary’ or cruel.

This was perhaps symbolically highlighted by ‘Cecilgate’ – the global (predominantly US and Europe) outrage, social media response and campaigning that followed the trophy shooting of a ‘celebrity’ Zimbabwean lion in 2015 by American dentist and tourist, Walter Palmer.

Nonetheless, the complex relation between hunting and conservation plays a role in ongoing support for hunting by optics companies: 90% of the companies reviewed in this report marketed at least some products for hunting and 69% continue to have strong links to hunting, by selling riflescopes and/or marketing products for sports hunting.

Environmental impacts

Unfortunately optics companies’ approaches to managing their own environmental and climate impacts often fall short of those required to meet the science-based targets agreed in Paris in 2015.

83% of companies reviewed in the Shooting Wildlife III report were considered to have poor environmental and carbon management and reporting, either because they had no sustainability reporting at all (52%) or because they reported in very general terms, without publishing environmental reduction targets and concrete plans to lower greenhouse gas emissions (31%).

Of the five companies with reasonable environment reporting (Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Ricoh and Zeiss), four were considered to have good carbon management and reporting and reasonable environmental reporting – publishing climate change mitigation strategies that were in line with international agreements such as the Paris Agreement.

All four were Japanese electronics companies, and so it’s likely that they did well because of Japan’s mandatory greenhouse gas accounting and reporting system and its support for developing science-based decarbonisation targets.

hunter with far right iconography
Steiner Facebook image featuring man using far right iconography

Links with the far right

Links were also found with the gun rights movement in the US. 28% of companies were found to have industry links with the National Rifle Association, while 10% (Beretta, Leupold and Vortex) were deeply embedded in the world of “hunting, shooting, public lands, the second amendment and good food”.

Beretta released a limited-edition shotgun named Second Amendment 687 EELL Classic at the 2017 NRA annual meeting, to celebrate the second amendment and its supporters. Its Steiner brand also used some imagery related to militia and white supremacy in its marketing.

Military tensions

Historically, optics manufacturers have had close ties with the military and the firearms industry, including several of the companies in this report that were originally part of weapons manufacturing companies e.g. Beretta and Vista Outdoor. As the range and accuracy of rifles have expanded over the years, optics technologies have also advanced to facilitate increased accuracy of long-range shooting. These innovations have then passed into citizen’s hands – facilitating tech advancements in hunting and wildlife-watching equipment .

Many of the optics companies covered in the Shooting Wildlife III Report continue to have close ties with the military and the arms industry today. 69% of companies were found to supply optics or other imaging equipment to the military directly and/or market their optic products for military or tactical use. For example, Leupold has been criticised for its military links, specifically its supply of sniper rifle scopes to the Israel Defense Forces.

The Portland Trail Blazers basketball team ended a partnership with the company in 2019 after protests against Leupold by organisations such as the Portland Democratic Socialists of America, Lutherans for Justice in the Holy Land, Portland’s Resistance and Jewish Voice for Peace.

These ties raise some interesting ethical questions for 20th century wildlife watchers and conservationists – particularly considering the military’s complex and widespread environmental impacts on ecosystems and wildlife around the world, not to mention the millions of human deaths and human rights abuses experienced during wartime.

Catherine Lutz, a professor on war and its impacts at the Watson Institute for International Studies describes the inherent ‘ecocide’ of war in an article that explores the environment impacts of modern-day warfare: “in the military ‘the environment goes out the window even outside of war’ ... The maintenance of standing armies just to counter the threat of war exerts enormous strain on environmental resources”.

Company profile: Swarovski

Swarovski Optik was founded in 1949 in Austria and is part of the bigger Swarovski group, a family-owned company founded in 1895 by Daniel Swarovski. The Swarovski group works across a range of different industries including jewellery and other luxury items like chandeliers, perfumes, optics, gemstones, concrete sawing and drilling equipment (through the Tyrolit brand), entertainment, and road-safety products (through Swareflex).

Swarovski Optik produces long-range optics for hunting, nature observation, and birding as well as travel and leisure. It also published a print hunting magazine called Closer.

In its policy on hunting, Swarovski Optik states it “supports hunting if it is carried out sustainably, responsibly, legally, and in harmony with nature [and] considers it to be its duty to take care of the environment, protect nature, and safeguard biodiversity”

Dean Capuano, the Swarovski Optik North America Director of Communication, continued to host the hunting show Swarovski Optik Quests that was aired on The Outdoor Channel. 

“SWAROVSKI OPTIK Quests tests the most high powered hunting equipment in extreme places around the planet, as host Dean Capuano travels the globe in search of trophies that are on every hunter’s bucket list. Catch the action only on Outdoor Channel.”

Swarovski also participated in various hunting and arms fairs, including the (cancelled) 2020 National Rifle Association exhibition, which would have run alongside its annual meeting.

More company profile can be found in the full report. Download Shooting Wildlife III now >

Further Consumer Actions

As an individual you can:

1. Tell friends, family and conservation networks about the ‘Shooting Wildlife?’ reports and the issues raised. Perhaps even host an event to discuss the topic in your local area.

2. Contact your optics brand and let them know your concerns, encouraging them to increase their transparency by publishing a policy statement on trophy hunting, sponsorship of hunting activities, and how it aims to reduce its climate and wider environmental impacts.

3. Ask manufacturers to adopt an ethical position on marketing their products to hunters which addresses: the glamourisation of ‘big game’ and trophy hunting; the use of hunting imagery that contains animals that have been impacted by hunting (evidenced in scientific literature); sponsorship of sports hunting; and animal rights.

4. Contact the companies with no links to hunting that are working to reduce their environmental impacts, encouraging them to use this in marketing materials, and to develop ‘wildlife-friendly’ optics ranges.

Cruelty free optics

Information from all three Shooting Wildlife? Reports has now been consolidated into a new website: crueltyfreeoptics.co.uk

The website supports existing and potential optics users in exploring the issues surrounding the sports optics industry whilst offering advice for buyers based on their own ethical views. This includes looking in more detail at some challenging subjects that include trophy hunting, animal rights, illegal practices within the shooting industry (such as bird of prey persecution), military links and the pro-gun movement, and environmental credentials.

Free Issue

Sign up now to our email newsletter for a free digital copy of Ethical Consumer magazine.

Sign up now for our email newsletter