Unravelling the ethical and environmental impacts of outdoor clothing
Words by Fiona Russell and illustration by John Holcroft
The last time you bought a new bit of outdoor kit, did you think about how it was made? Did you check where it was manufactured and by whom? Did you consider the journey that your new jacket, base layer or pair of walking boots took from factory to warehouse to shop?
While fit, function, features and price are all important aspects of any piece of clothing destined for the trail or hill, modern consumers are increasingly concerned about green credentials and sustainability – as well as the veracity of ethical claims made by manufacturers.
In recent months, consumer rights groups and environmental campaigners have highlighted the toxic chemicals used by outdoors brands in textile and clothing production. A Greenpeace report published in January 2016 analysed the use of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in outdoor gear. PFCs and PFOAs are used to add waterproof and dirt-repellent finishes to products such as jackets, footwear, rucksacks, tents and sleeping bags. Worryingly, traces of the chemicals make their way into the environment through air and water during the production process and pose serious health and environmental concerns. Greenpeace’s Detox campaign now calls for a complete PFC ban.
Increasingly, outdoor brands are taking this message seriously. Earlier this year, British company Páramo became the first outdoor brand to sign up to the campaign and pledged to exclude hazardous chemicals from all its garment production. All Páramo waterproofs and water-repellent garments are treated with its own Nikwax chemistry, which is ‘water-based, solvent-free and safe for humans and the environment’.
Similarly, German brand Vaude has agreed to become fully PFC-free across its apparel by 2018 and the entire collection by ‘no later than 2020’. Another British company, Berghaus, has pledged that by 2020 all their water-repellency treatments will be PFC-free, and has recently launched PFC-free hydrophobic down.
Swedish brands Fjallraven and Didriksons also report that all their water repellent treatments are free of PFCs. Many other brands, including American companies Patagonia and Columbia, as well as Germany’s Jack Wolfskin have taken steps in a similar direction.
Yet it’s not only PFCs that cause concern for green lobbyists. The process of turning fibres into fabrics often includes harmful bleaching and dyeing processes. In some cases, by-products end up in rivers and lakes. Some cloth is also bleached using environmentally damaging dioxin-producing chlorine compounds. And solvents, such as those used in glues to fix plastic coatings to waterproof fabrics, can impact on the environment too. Moreover, the manufacturing of products often relies on high levels of energy and water use, as well as the burning of fossil fuels, which release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Some companies are making amends. Columbia has eliminated the fabric dyeing process in the production of its flagship Outdry Extreme Eco jackets and reduced the volume of water, energy and chemicals used in manufacture. They estimate that this saves 13.5 gallons (51 litres) per jacket. The jackets itself is also made of 100% recycled polyester from 21 recycled plastic bottles. Last year, Didriksons introduced a spin dye technique for some of its fabrics that ‘decreases water use by 80% and energy and chemical consumption by 60% compared to traditional techniques’. Berghaus’ award-winning COLOURKIND process also claims to ‘transform the manufacturing process of synthetic fabrics resulting in significant water, energy and chemical savings’.
These are just some examples from across the outdoor sector. Consumers can look for products marked with a Bluesign Standards logo, which is a seal of approval given to manufacturers that meet strict safety and environmental requirements.
From A to B
As well as the carbon footprint of manufacturing, there’s the environmental impact of transporting products from source to shop. Many brands use factories in Asia, South America and Eastern Europe. This has a big impact – indeed, according to Vaude, 10% of a waterproof jacket’s environmental footprint is attributable solely to transportation.
If this is a concern, then surely it makes sense to buy British. Interestingly, this is still possible when it comes to outdoor clothing. UK-based outdoor equipment designers and manufacturers include Snugpak, Buffalo Systems, Aiguille Alpine, PHD Designs and Terra Nova – all based in England, plus Cioch Outdoor Clothing on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.
When it comes to supply chains, there is of course another question to ask: ‘Who makes the products?’ Manufacturing in the Far East, where labour is cheap, allows clothing companies to compete on price at point of sale. But many brands have moved production to countries with a history of sweatshops and child labour. Is this on your conscience when you buy an outdoor product?
A glance at a label doesn’t always reveal the full picture. For example, 80% of Páramo production is in Colombia, a country often associated with poor conditions for workers. However, Páramo has a long-standing partnership with the charitable Miquelina Foundation in Bogota, which is strictly managed according to International Organization of Standardization (ISO) guidelines. The foundation offers training and employment to at-risk street women, while profits are re-invested into the factory and have helped to build local houses and a kindergarten.
Other brands are members of the Fair Wear Foundation, which works with companies to verify standards of workplace conditions, or other bodies such as the Ethical Trading Initiative and Better Work.
The raw materials from which outdoor products are made are a source of further ethical debate. This includes down and synthetic insulation, as well as polyester and nylon fabrics.
Where down is sourced is one area that demands attention. At the most worrying end of the scale is live-plucked down from geese and ducks, whereas Patagonia’s ‘Plucked from the Trash’ initiative uses recycled 600-fill power down. Some brands declare the traceability of down and others adhere to a Responsible Down Standard (RDS) policy. Created by The North Face (TNF) and administered by the global non-profit organisation Textile Exchange, RDS ensures that down comes from ducks and geese that have been ‘treated well’. Other companies are committed to the European Down and Feather Association Codex, which ensures ‘down is a by-product of a slaughterhouse or harvested during moulting periods and, crucially, not illegally live-plucked’.
If down still seems unappealing because birds form part of the manufacturing process, you might want to consider synthetic insulation. However, this alternative must still be checked for its environmental impact, especially the energy consumption used during manufacture.
To lessen this, some companies are now using recycled synthetic insulation. For example, from next autumn, all Torres garments from Páramo will use 55% post-consumer recycled fill.
Other common man-made fabrics used in walking apparel include nylons and polyesters. Polyester’s characteristics mean it is well suited for the outdoors, but it is made from oil – a non-renewable, fossil resource that is energy intensive and non-biodegradable. Similarly, nylon manufacture creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is claimed to be 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
To tackle this, some companies now make use of recycled polyester, such as fleece jackets made from recycled drinks bottles. Vaude’s Ecolog range, for example, is both recycled and fully recyclable, right down to the zips and buttons.
Berghaus has committed to tripling the amount of recycled fabrics it uses by 2020. In the same period, Swedish brand Fjällräven expects its own proprietary fabric, G-1000, a polyester-cotton blend, to be ‘fully eco’. On the flip side, some brands argue that polyester’s durability may actually save on waste and environmental harm in the long-term. As a result, many are introducing garment recycling or repair schemes to prolong the useful life of their products.
You might think that natural fibres like cotton, bamboo and wool might be better alternatives. But did you know that cotton is the world’s most pesticide-intensive crop? The Pesticide Action Network found that ‘conventional cotton production accounts for the use of 25% of all insecticides and 11% of all pesticides in the world, although it only covers 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land use’.
Cotton farmers in developing countries can be exposed to dangerous pesticides that cause illness and early death, while these chemicals also damage local ecosystems. Chemicals can even remain in the fabric after finishing and are then released during a garment’s lifetime. One option is to buy organic cotton, the production of which is standardised by the Soil Association and other worldwide organisations.
In recent years, bamboo has been increasingly promoted as sustainable and eco-friendly. It is naturally pest-resistant, grows very fast and can help to rebuild eroded soil. But sadly, some growers have started to over-produce the crop at the expense of others, thus reducing biodiversity and leading to an increase in pests that then have to be controlled with pesticides.
Merino wool is commonly used in base layers and fleeces as it is breathable, insulating, soft and lightweight. However, some merino sheep farmers in the US and Australia employ a practice called mulesing, where the sheep’s rear end is in effect chopped to prevent flies laying their eggs. Efforts are now being made by brands like Icebreaker, Finisterre, Smartwool, Ibex Outdoor Clothing and Patagonia to track the supply chain of merino.
The way ahead
It’s clear that the outdoors industry still has a long way to go in creating ethical products, although many brands are making changes. Some companies are leading the way and one British firm, Páramo, is consistently rated above all others. The company is rated number one in the outdoors industry by Ethical Consumer for waterproof jackets. But all the big brands can still do more. Pressure from campaigning organisations and ethical watchdogs has improved public awareness and the need for brands to be transparent about how they make their products. Ultimately, however, the power lies with consumers. Ethical purchasing is a matter for one’s personal conscience, but increased knowledge about the production of outdoor clothing will help to shed light on this murky subject.
Note: This article has sought comment from a wide range of outdoor brands within the parameters of research time and cost. Some brands that were contacted declined to comment or did not respond within the specified timeframe.
Our pick of the best ethical and environmental initiatives from the outdoor sector
- Bergans’ Eidfjord waterproof jacket is made using a fabric that is 30% plant-based, as part of their Expedition 2020 sustainability plan.
- Columbia jackets are shipped in single-wall cartons designed to use 30% less packaging materials.
- Páramo offers a repair and alterations service at their English workshop, as well as a garment recycling scheme.
- By 2017, Berghaus aims to have saved nine million litres of water and 30,000 tonnes of CO2 through the use of ColourKind fabrics. The ColourKind collection includes a world-first partnership with Gore-Tex.
- Scottish brand Keela was the first waterproof clothing manufacturer to sign up to the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP).
- Fjällräven’s Keb Eco-Shell waterproof is PFC-free and has received several industry awards.
- Recycled materials are an important element of Vaude’s product strategy. They reuse abandoned fishing nets and recycle plastic bottles.
- Recycle Outdoor Gear is an initiative created by Rohan co-founder Sarah Howcroft. It allows consumers to sell or swap unwanted kit and works with companies and retailers to encourage re-use.
- Patagonia pioneered the production of recycled polyester fleece in 1993. Other companies that now do the same include Sprayway, Fjällräven, Montane, Craghoppers and Decathlon’s Quechua brand.
- The European Outdoor Conservation Association (EOCA) raises funds for worldwide conservation projects. It now has 125 member companies, including most of the major outdoor brands.