Wednesday 10 April 2019

Outdoor Gear and the Environment: What's happening?

This piece first appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine last year.

Not many years ago if sustainability meant anything to outdoor companies it was to have some recycled fleece in the range or wool from sheep that had been treated well or other worthy single action unrelated to the whole life-cycle of the products. Today that’s changed, and many companies now look at the environmental effects of gear from the production of raw materials to the end of life of the final product. Trade organisations work with companies too, so these developments are often not in isolation. The European Outdoor Group has a Sustainability Charter that’s been adopted by the Scandinavian Outdoor Group and the Outdoor Industries Association in the USA. This new spirit of collaboration is very positive as it both encourages individual companies to become involved and also means that information and research is shared, making working towards sustainability easier and therefore more likely.

In recent years three issues have dominated the sustainability debate: ethical down, PFC treatments, and microplastic shedding from synthetic materials. Ethical down means down from birds that are certified non-live plucked and non-force fed and otherwise well treated. Patagonia and Mountain Equipment led the industry in working towards this. Down from these, and now many other companies, is traceable back to its origins and this is independently audited. 

Taking this one step further recycled down is now available, retrieved from cushions and bedding. Patagonia are again a leader here with a range of 100% recycled 600 fill power down clothing. The European Outdoor Group has published best practise guidelines for recycled down. Re-using down is obviously an excellent idea and hopefully other companies will start using it. Mammut already is, with a hooded down jacket.

Fluorocarbon treatments (PFCs) became a big issue three years ago following a Greenpeace report, Footprints In The Snow, though Nick Brown of Nikwax and Paramo had already been warning about them for many years – neither company has ever used them. PFCs are harmful to human health and persist for a long time in the environment and in food chains. Why then are they used in outdoor clothing? The answer is because they make excellent durable water repellent treatments for synthetic items including waterproofs, windproofs, footwear, sleeping bags, and more. Many companies are now phasing out PFCs, which is good. The problem is finding an effective alternative. Whilst some companies have already dropped PFCs and are using less effective treatments that need renewing more often the biggest name in waterproof clothing, Gore-Tex, hasn’t yet done so but it is working towards achieving 85% PFC free fabrics in 2020 and 100% in 2021-23. One of the first companies to remove almost all PFCs was Fjallraven who say that ‘the compromise is that extra care is required to ensure your Eco-Shell garments retain their waterproofness’ but that ‘this is a price worth paying’. Vaude products are 100% PFC free this year and Jack Wolfskin’s 95%. 

One company that hasn’t yet stopped using PFCs is Patagonia, which says it’s first PFC free garments will come out next year. However, the company has been looking into this deeper than most, pointing out that garments with DWRs with shorter lifespans are likely to be replaced more often, an environmental problem in itself (of course renewing the DWR is one answer to this) and that it’s important that replacement DWRs don’t also have adverse environmental effects. To that end Patagonia has invested millions of dollars in Swiss company Beyond Surface Technologies, who are working to develop better alternatives. 

The latest problem to emerge is that of microplastic residues known as microfibres that are shed by synthetic clothing while being worn and, especially, when washed. These microfibres are nearly indestructible and they get everywhere – in the air, in water, in food – and are often treated with harmful chemicals and dyes. They can bond to chemical pollutants too. Ironically and sadly research suggests that garments made from recycled synthetics can shed more microfibres than ones made from new materials. Sustainability is complex.

There is as yet no solution to the microfibre problem. It’s not even certain which fabrics shed the most microfibres. Fleece is often given as this but that’s because most research has been done on it. All synthetics can shed microfibres. The worst way fibres are shed is also not known. Washing is certainly a culprit but so is wear and tear. Brushing against rocks or trees, rubbing against rucksack straps. 

Research is ongoing into manufacturing processes to see if new methods of yarn and fabric construction can make a difference. An initiative called TextileMIssion was set up last year by a group of concerned bodies including Vaude, Adidas, and Polartec, its aim being to ‘reduce micro-plastic particles release’. As well as production methods the project will look at the possibility of using biodegradable fibres as an environmentally friendly alternative. This sounds a good idea anyway. Vaude is already using biodegradable fibres, including Tencel, a wood-derived cellulose, in some products.

The European Outdoor Group has set up a Microfibre Consortium to better understand microfibre pollution and what can be done about it. The consortium has 28 members, not all of them outdoor brands (ASDA, IKEA, M&S for example).  Various projects are under way including one at Leeds University to develop a reproducible test method for measuring microfibre shedding.

Patagonia is also conducting research with two scientific studies. The first at the University of California looked at the extent of microfibres shed from Patagonia products in the wash and compared this with that from lower-quality gear, finding that the latter shed 170% more. The study also found that garments washed in top-load machines shed seven times as many microfibres as those washed in front-loaders. Patagonia’s second study, with North Carolina State University, has the goal of better understanding which characteristics of fibres and fabrics lead to microfibres being shed.

TextileMission is also looking at how to improve wastewater treatment to phase out more microfibres. In the meantime, consumers can do something about this. Not washing garments until absolutely essential is one way.  Another is to catch the fibres in the washing machine in a filter bag like the GuppyFriend, available from Patagonia. This recyclable bag has a slick inner and catches most of the microfibres which can then be removed and put in the bin. They don’t disappear of course, but this keeps them out of water sources. 

Compared with a few years ago much is being done to make the outdoor industry more sustainable. At the same time more problems are coming to light and difficulties are becoming clearer. PFCs and microfibres are not easy to solve. It’s good though that outdoor companies are working to find solutions and that they are doing this together in many cases. Praise should go to those who’ve led the way, especially Patagonia, Nikwax/Paramo, and Vaude.


Beyond Surface Technologies

European Outdoor Group Sustainability Charter

Jack Wolfskin PFC Free

Mountain Equipment Down Codex

1 comment:

  1. I remember reading this great article. We can translate our ethical approach to outdoor gear into everyday life, ultralight/minimum impact/leave no trace etc. Immoving back towards merino wool, and I'm very smug about my Sueme beechwood boxer shorts : ). Do I really need a suit & tie for an appointment with my solicitor? Merino/smart trail shoes and my woolen trilby hat is just as good there as in the hills. I think as outdoor lovers we can set a good example to others of sustainability. Great feature Chris.