Tuesday 20 September 2011

The Ethics of Outdoor Gear

The article below was written for TGO in 2008. Some of the information will be out of date now but the overall tenor of the article is still vaid. It is rather long but I think the subject matter deserves serious consideration.

The photo shows porters on a trek in Nepal. One use for uneeded gear is to donate it for use by such people.


Many years ago I read an excellent book by top American mountaineer Yvon Chouinard called Climbing Ice, something I was trying to learn at the time, though not very successfully. Last year I read another book by Yvon Chouinard, a very different though equally excellent book called Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman. When Climbing Ice was published back in 1978 Chouinard was boss of Chouinard Equipment, which made climbing hardware, much of it to Chouinard’s innovative design, and a fairly new clothing company called Patagonia. Chouinard Equipment was bought out by its employees in the late 1980s and became Black Diamond. Patagonia stayed under Chouinard’s wing and became the successful outdoor clothing company we know today. But Patagonia isn’t an ordinary company and that’s the story of Chouinard’s second book. “At Patagonia” writes Chouinard “the protection and preservation of the natural environment …. they’re the reason we are in business.” Chouinard sees Patagonia as existing to show that a company can be environmentally and socially responsible, a role model for other businesses. This began back in the 1980s when Chouinard first became concerned about the environment and felt that Patagonia should support conservation groups and also “look within the company and reduce our own role as a corporate polluter”. With that in mind Patagonia produced the first outdoor equipment catalogue on recycled paper and began to make regular donations to groups working to save or restore habitat. Then in 1986 the company made the commitment to give 10 percent of profits to these groups (later changed to 1 percent of sales or 10 percent of profits, whichever was higher), something it has done every year ever since. Patagonia also initiates campaigns and uses its catalogues and website to promote environmental causes. The company has a set of detailed “philosophies” covering everything from product design through production and distribution to image, finance, human resources, management, and, of course, the environment, all of which are described in Let My People Go Surfing. Chouinard isn’t unrealistic and says that “Patagonia will never be completely socially responsible. It will never make a totally sustainable nondamaging product. But it is committed to trying.” And it is setting a great example for everybody else. I think this is an important book that deserves attention, especially by those running companies. Reading it is not a chore either as it’s well-written, entertaining and packed with thought-provoking ideas.

Reading Chouinard’s book set me thinking about the ethics of outdoor gear, something that has concerned me for many years. I’ve always believed that a reason for buying good quality gear is that it lasts and therefore uses less resources as it needs replacing less often, that unwanted gear should be passed on or sold rather than thrown out and that gear that can be repaired should be. However the equipment world has become far more complex than when I realised, after a few soakings and uncomfortable camps, that choosing proper equipment was also a good idea for comfort and safety. Back in those days virtually all companies made equipment in their own factories which gear writers, whose ranks I soon joined, received regular invitations to visit. I saw gear being made, talked to machinists and warehouse people as well as owners and designers and developed a good idea of how companies worked. I learnt that setting up new designs was expensive and time-consuming so once an item was in production a company wanted to go on making it for as long as possible. All that has now changed. Only a few small companies make their gear in their own factories in their home country. Instead the industry has gone global and gear is made in many countries worldwide, often in the Far East but rarely in the developed west. Materials may be made in one country then transported across the world to another to be made into products which are then shipped to the country whose name is on them. A quick glance at a jacket I am about to review shows that the company is French, the fabric American and the factory Tunisian. Companies are now designers and marketers but rarely manufacturers. And designers want to design new products all the time and marketers want new products to promote all the time and the manufacturers who make these products are happy to make new ones all the time. In the past products only disappeared when sales dropped drastically. Today there may only be one production run of a successful product before it is redesigned or replaced, something made much easier with computer-aided design. The speed of design and production has soared, which means far more products far more often clamouring to be bought. Is this healthy? Do we need all these products? Choice is good but I think there are too many lookalike products where the only real choice is which logo is on the product. And often features are added to a product simply to make it different from rivals even though they have no practical use and may, indeed, actually reduce the performance.

The new system of production throws up new ethical problems. Just how damaging to the environment is shifting all the products and their components back and forth around the world? Just how well are those faraway factories run and the workers treated? Just what effect does the increased use of resources have on the environment? Of course there were ethical problems with equipment manufacture in the past too. Wastage of resources was probably greater than now and less thought was given to polluting the environment. But it’s the new globalised world we have to deal with today. What do outdoor companies think about the environment, about the people who make their products? What do they do to minimise the damage caused and to ensure proper treatment of workers? How many are like Patagonia? Which products do the least damage? Is natural best? Can anything be done with old worn-out gear other than adding it to the world’s waste mountain? There are questions here for companies and for us, the people who use their products.

Does it matter anyway though? Should we be concerned? Isn’t this an issue for politicians and bureaucrats, a boring matter of legislation and dull committees? Maybe we should just get on with enjoying the hills and forget about these ethical matters? Some people no doubt will. However concern for the environment in which we walk and camp is common amongst walkers and backpackers, many of whom support organisations working to protect wild lands and wild life. This is hardly surprising if we want to have beautiful wild places in the future but surely the same people – us – should also be concerned that the tools and toys we use in the outdoors are not adding to the forces that damage the environment.

For those who are concerned there is good news. The outdoor industry is collectively starting to address the questions I raised above and many individual companies are taking a lead in this. There are two big umbrella organisations, the American Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), and the European Outdoor Group (EOG), that represent outdoor companies and both have groups working on conservation and the environment, the OIA Eco Working Group and the EOG Association for Conservation. The first of these groups is most concerned with the actual practices of outdoor companies, stating that “we believe in a world where we live, recreate and do business in harmony with our land, air, water and communities. We are committed to finding solutions that will lead to positive and measurable societal change and significantly improve our environmental footprint and protect our valuable earth for future generations”. The EOG as a whole has a rather less grand aim: “to help establish platforms of ‘best practice’ on issues such as the environment, sourcing and other areas of common interest”. However the EOG also has an Association for Conservation, founded in 2006 with an address, on video, by Yvon Chouinard, that has the aim of “protecting wild areas that we care so passionately about” and raises money from member companies to donate to conservation groups. Although less than two years old the EOG Association for Conservation has over 29 members and has already provided funds to several groups including the John Muir Trust, proMontBlanc (an organisation for the protection of the Mont Blanc Massif), and Travel for Others Onlus (a joint Italian-Nepalese project to develop education, health, training, employment and environment in the Thame Valley in Nepal).

The Association for Conservation follows the example of The Conservation Alliance, founded by Patagonia, REI, The North Face and Kelty in 1989 to “engage outdoor businesses to help protect and conserve threatened wild places for their habitat and recreation values”. This organisation now has over 130 members and has donated more than £2.5 million to conservation projects in North America.

A wider based American organisation is One Percent for the Planet, set up in 2001 with Yvon Chouinard as one of the founders. The aim of this organisation is to “use market forces to drive positive environmental change by inspiring companies to give” and members donate 1 percent of sales to environmental groups. One Percent for the Planet has over 700 member companies, over 100 of them from Europe and many not outdoor companies. One Percent for the Planet, the EOG Association for Conservation and The Conservation Alliance are all clearly expanding on the programme of giving Patagonia set itself back in 1986.

There is less happening in the field of working practices and factory conditions. The EOG has its aim of establishing best practice in sourcing but that’s about it collectively in Europe. In the USA the OIA has a Fair Labour Working Group which has produced “Guidelines to Ethically Operate Supply Chains” and a Code of Conduct which it hopes all OIA members will sign up to. However some individual companies are active in this field. Timberland has its own Code of Conduct and has been recognised as in the top ten of 100 best corporate citizens by Business Ethics magazine. GoLite, whose shoes are made by Timberland, follows this Code of Conduct and says “we monitor our factories to ensure our products are made in workplaces that are fair, safe and non-discriminatory. We audit all our vendors, tanneries and major suppliers annually. The Code of Conduct requires all employment to be voluntary, prohibits child labour and sets standards for freedom of association, labour hours, compensation, workplace conditions and health and safety. The Code has been translated into over 20 languages and is provided to factories in their local language”. GoLite also endorses the OIA Code of Conduct.

One British company which is a leader in the field of working practices is Paramo. In 1992 Paramo founder Nick Brown came across a workshop in Bogota, Columbia run by the Miquelina Foundation to help desperate women, who would probably have otherwise ended up as prostitutes, learn skills and earn a wage, and decided to make Paramo garments there. Back then the workshop employed a dozen women and had two sewing machines. Today there is a factory with more than twelve dozen women and 120 machines that has a kindergarten and provides training and lessons in literacy for employees.
Paramo’s sister company Nikwax, founded by Nick Brown in 1977, has always made being environmentally friendly a central purpose and today says that “truly being green is about everything we do; the products we produce, our manufacturing techniques and protecting our planet by offsetting our carbon emissions and conserving endangered habitats with the World Land Trust”. Nikwax produces products without chemical solvents or fluorocarbons which when used prolong the life of outdoor gear and enhance its performance so that’s two environmental pluses.

Another British company, Howies, who make merino wool clothing amongst other items, are following the example of Patagonia with a playful yet serious attitude to work and responsibility. Howie’s “our beliefs” echo Patagonia’s “philosophies” and just like Patagonia they “pledge to give 1% of our turnover or 10% of pre-tax profits (whichever is greater) to grass-root environmental and social projects”, which they call an “earth tax”, as does Yvon Chouinard. And, says Howies, “we are in business……… make people think about the world we live in”. It would be good to see more British companies influenced by Patagonia, or indeed Howies, Paramo or Nikwax.

A significant company just starting on the ethical road is Berghaus, whose new “eco friendly” was announced as this feature was being written. The organic cotton clothing and recycled polyester rucksacks so far announced are travel and low level walking orientated rather than gear for the mountains but the important point is that Berghaus, one of the most respected names in outdoor gear in the UK, has taken this step. The company acknowledges that this is “not the definitive answer to sustainability in the outdoor industry” but says it is “the start of an important journey for Berghaus”.

Of course many other companies are working to become more ethical. Many are keen to talk about it too. It is, after all, good publicity. It would be na├»ve however to simply believe everything claimed. How do you know the fine words actually mean anything? Chouinard writes about how he discovered that some companies proclaiming how they gave 10% of their profits to environmental groups were carrying out accounting that ensured their profits were artificially low. That’s why Patagonia and members of One Percent for the Planet pledge 1% of sales not profits. One way to evaluate the claims of companies is to look at how much detail is provided. Do companies just state they are “sustainable” or “environmentally friendly” or do they detail what they are doing? If they donate to causes do they say which ones and how much? Are they members of 1 Percent for the Planet or the EOG Association for Conservation? Do they have independent audits carried out to see how they are doing? How much information do they provide on their web sites and in their catalogues?

Unsurprisingly Patagonia is again taking a lead in providing information with its Footprint Chronicles, a website that “that allows you to track the impact of five specific Patagonia products from design through delivery”. I chose to track the Wool 2 Crew, given that I like Patagonia’s wool products. A map shows that the wool comes from New Zealand then travels to Japan to be knitted into a fabric before being shipped to California to be sewn into a garment and distributed, a distance of 26,200 kilometres and that’s before the garments are sent out to shops. Total CO2 production per garment from manufacture and transportation is 21kg, 100 times its weight. The amount of waste generated is 255 grams, 56 grams more than the weight of a garment. And the amount of energy used per garment is 89 megajoules, enough to power an American household for 20 hours. There are good points: the wool is from sheep farms with stringent environmental standards and no heavy metals are used in the dyeing. However a huge bad point is the distance the wool travels, about which Patagonia says, frankly, “this is not sustainable”. There is the opportunity to comment on the Footprint Chronicles on the website and these comments make interesting reading.

An example of a British company taking matters seriously is inov-8 which says that “our first priority is to understand where we should focus our attention so the environmental impact of our products is as low as possible. We then find practical and creative solutions in our search for improvements, especially in those areas that we feel matter most”. To this end inov-8 had an audit to assess its ecological footprint and published the results for 2005-2006 on its website. Surprisingly staff travel turned out to account for 65% of inov-8’s carbon footprint, mainly due to flights (a disadvantage of manufacturing in distant countries). Freight was responsible for just 16% (presumably an advantage of making ultralight products!), materials and manufacture 14% and packaging less than 3%. Inov-8 go on to say what steps they are taking to reduce the figures, such as low use of cars, reducing road freight and minimising materials wastage. Nothing about fewer flights however. 

Of course some advertising and marketing is misleading. An example is the use of the word “natural” to suggest environmental purity and all round wholesomeness. There is an assumption by many people concerned with the environment that natural materials – cotton, wool, silk, leather – are automatically superior to anything synthetic. (Some have even claimed that wearing and using gear made from natural materials will enhance your spiritual appreciation of wild places, a view I find risible). Now natural materials may have many advantages – I certainly think merino wool is superb – but they aren’t necessarily environmentally less damaging than synthetics. Take cotton for example. What could possibly be nasty about it (other than that horrible cold clammy feeling of it against the skin when wet)? Nothing except for the 10% of the world’s pesticides and 25% of the world’s insecticides used to grow it, an amazing amount when you consider that cotton fields make up less than 3% of the world’s farmland. Do these chemicals matter? Well, there is much evidence to suggest that they pollute the soil, pollute groundwater and cause health problems for workers in the cotton fields.

Organic cotton is the answer to this of course. Patagonia switched to using only 100% organic cotton years ago and Howies also use nothing else while companies like Nike, Timberland and Berghaus use some organic cotton. Others however continue to promote conventional cotton as a natural, environmentally friendly material – Ventile, a fabric I like, for example describes itself as having “the benefit of cotton with environmental peace of mind” without any mention as to whether Ventile is made from organic cotton. Perhaps of more interest for outdoor clothing is wool, a favourite of mine. This can be harmful or relatively harmless, depending on where the sheep live, how they are treated and how the yarn is produced. Sheep can cause massive damage to alpine and forest meadows and desert lands – John Muir didn’t describe them as “hooved locusts” for nothing. He saw the damage sheep were doing to the meadows in the High Sierra in California. In many areas of the Scottish hills overgrazing by sheep prevents forest regeneration. However sheep in lowland areas, especially grasslands with damp climates, cause far less damage. Then there are the chemicals often used in wool production from pesticides in sheep dip to chlorine bleaches and heavy metal dyes, all of which are pollutants. And as for leather, well the tanning process results in masses of hazardous waste that can pollute groundwater and is dangerous for workers.

Wool, cotton and leather are still natural materials and not made from petrochemicals. Surely that makes them preferable? Again, not necessarily. Many of the chemicals used in the production of wool, cotton and leather are derived from petrochemicals anyway. Also, it wouldn’t be possible to produce enough wool and cotton to clothe everyone in the world. There isn’t anywhere near enough farmland. The damage that biofuel production is now doing by destroying rainforest, using vast amounts of artificial fertilisers and pesticides and utilising huge amounts of water shows the dangers of seizing on natural products as a simple answer to problems with petrochemicals.

Wearing products out and passing them on to others if unwanted is still part of the solution, as I thought all those years ago. That’s not enough though. Recycling is also very important, for both natural and synthetic materials. Recycled fleece, made from plastic drinks bottles, reuses synthetics derived from petrochemicals. Patagonia began using recycled fleece back in 1993 but its use has been slow to spread. I had one of the original recycled fleece jackets back in the 90s and couldn’t tell the difference between it and fleece made from new polyester. Much more recently, just a few months ago in fact, I was sent a Berghaus Activity Jacket in recycled Polartec 200 fleece. Again, I can’t tell the difference between this and non-recycled Polartec 200. Recycled materials are turning up in other products too, such as base layers (Patagonia, GoLite) and packs (Osprey, Lafuma, Berghaus). It still makes up only a tiny percentage of the materials used to make outdoor gear though. More recycled gear would be welcome.

As well as making products out of recycled materials there’s also the option of recycling the gear itself when it’s no longer functional. There are textile and shoe banks in many towns. However items donated to these are only recycled in the sense of being reused or shredded for use as fillers in various products. This is far better than sending them to a rubbish tip of course but even better would be to turn them back into raw material from which new products can be made. Vaude had this idea in 1996 when they introduced the Ecolog Recycling Network for the recycling of polyester products. More recently Patagonia introduced the Common Threads Garment Recycling Programme through which worn out Capilene baselayers, Patagonia fleece, Polartec fleece from other companies and Patagonia organic cotton T-shirts can be returned for recycling. Patagonia uses a process called the EcoCircle fibre to fibre recycling system to turn the old garments into new ones. This involves chopping the garments into tiny pieces then breaking these down and rebuilding them into raw polyester which is then turned into new fibre. Garments can be dropped off at a Patagonia Retail Store (unfortunately there are none of these in Britain) or sent to the Patagonia Service Centre, C/O CEPL BEVILLE Recycling Program, 7 avenue Gustave Eiffel,28630 Gellainville, France.

Much is happening in the outdoor industry to reduce its impact on the environment then. But far more needs to be done and could be done. Asking questions, encouraging those who are doing nothing to do something and those who are doing something to do more, are actions we can all take. In the words of Yvon Chouinard:

“Somewhere along the way individuals caused this whole mess and it’s up to us to fix it”.


Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard (Penguin, 2005)

European Outdoor Group Association for Conservation
One Percent for the Planet
Outdoor Industry Association
Patagonia Footprint Chronicles
Timberland Code of Conduct


  1. It clearly makes sense what is said in the article. I have no knowledge of how economics work, but we do hear that the world needs to trade and if we keep things for longer will this affect those poorer countries who are involved with manufacture?

  2. For me the surprising figure was the airmiles the wool travelled. That has huge environmental cost implications.

    Though how you get around that I really don't know. Unless of course you buy from people like Chocolate Fish Merino who 'grow the wool' and manufacture in the same country. That makes sense if you can get the economics to stack up.

    Thanks for that Chris - Thought provoking.

  3. I agree with the recycling of clothes and shoes. The stuff I buy is usually well made and to be honest probably still has some more years in it when I move on to something new. I am not a big clothes buyer but I do seem to find clothes that I haven't worn for ages and the best thing to do is to get them off to Oxfam or similar. I think some of the shoe banks also get the shoes out to where people need them - i.e. people that do not have shoes. But I don't leave out for door collections as I understand that this is a bit of a scam and many of the door collectors are not charities. I think your post is food for thought.

  4. It disgusts me how many manufacturers come out with entirly new lines of clothes each year. One gets the impression that they are more interested in fashion than outdoor recreation.

  5. Philip: I am stunned by your comment. These guys *have* to produce new lines or their competitors will clean up. Pure & simple business.

    It is up to the consumer to choose if he or she wants to buy it.

    Where have you been all your life? *Of course* fashion enters into it. Anyone who says otherwise is fooling themselves.

    (Word = "dizsing" - quite apt, really...)

  6. The fact is that research has shown that wool clothing is still less damaging to the environment than any synthetic. Whilst we can't speak for stuff made in China, our NZ MAPP merino fabric does not come from overgrazed land - the NZ government have strict controls over it, as indeed it does over the amount of pesticides and insecticides used - - nor is our fabric produced using chlorine.

    Synthetics by their very nature are almost exclusively made from non-sustainable, non-renewable and usually non-biodegradable sources. To turn them into fibres and then fabrics take far more energy than spinning wool and knitting or weaving fabric. The chemicals used for synthetics are every bit as polluting, if not more, as chlorine, with the addition of those used to try and make synthetics stop stinking to high heaven after a few hours wear.

    All manufacturing creates problems for the environment. All we can do is try to make sure that we create as few as possible. Issues of quality aside, we continue to source from New Zealand as this is the most environmentally sustainable option. 70% of New Zealand's energy comes from renewable resources. Whatever claims are made for Chinese manufacture, the fact is that the vast majority of China's electricity is generated using high sulphur coal from some of the most dangerous coal mines in the world.

    As to "organic" cotton - this is a very water-hungry crop, and this in turn can create environmental problems every bit as bad as those caused by standard cotton farming. It's how the run-off from the chemicals is treated that makes the difference to the environment, not simply their use.

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  8. For me, its all about influence. If the Outdoor Brand CEO's of this world aren't emotionally challenged by the environmental impact of their decisions, change will be very slow indeed.

    As an employee of an outdoor brand (Mac in a Sac), I have to say I agree with the vision of Yvon Chouinard, having also read and enjoyed Let my people for surfing. But as for influence, I can only hope to effect this change slowly, and I understand that it may not happen at all.

    Most brands are caught to some extent by the reciprocal 'buy and bin' culture that is shown by the people who buy. As outdoor brands develop more of a taste for the mass-market, it's inevitable that environmental concerns will become less of a priority.

    Change must be top-down, but I'd imagine that convincing the shareholders of a successful brand may be tricky...

  9. I also agree with the recycling of clothes and shoes.

  10. Outdoor sports and trekking clothing manufacturers does have a professional ethics in manufacturing clothes. People choose the reputable brands and don't care about the price because they know that the clothes and gear will serve them right.

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