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.
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.