Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016 12:13 am
Sustainably suited up
Gearing up responsibly for the great outdoors
The trouble with winter is that staying warm in the cold weather calls for lots of gear, and all of our manufacturing, selling and consuming takes a toll on the planet we call home. Here are a few thoughts on how to be smarter and what to watch for as you look to dress yourself for the snowy days ahead.
By now, the images of a garbage patch in the ocean and seabirds with bellies full of plastic have been widely circulated. But ongoing research into our oceans and waterways has found that much of the plastic in the ocean comes in the form of tiny microparticles – the kind that you can scoop up in a cup full of seawater in one of five ocean gyres where plastic concentrates and it’s thick like soup with bits of broken-down plastic. Gross.
Some of that comes in the form of microfibers, little pieces of fleece, including those jackets made from recycled water bottles. The Outdoor Industry Association has assembled a task force to study the issue, but ultimately, there are still a lot of unknowns.
“It’s just such a new issue that we’re missing a lot of data on how to solve the problem and how much the outdoor industry is responsible for,” says Beth Jensen, director of sustainable business innovation with the association.
Whether the plastic is shed during the manufacturing process or during consumer washing remains unclear. That information will guide whether the solution takes aim at clothing companies or at washing machine manufacturers and will entail measures like improving filtration systems or changing recommended washing practices.
Polartec, a leading manufacturer of fleece, dove into the issue with their own research, and studied the water coming into their plant and the water exiting their filtration system. Company-run tests found more microplastic in the water coming into their facilities than in the water leaving. If there’s a manufacturing source, the company has argued, it’s not their high-end products, but its lower-cost competitors.
The conversation about microplastic has driven renewed consideration of natural fabrics – cotton, wool and down among them, but these have their own environmental issues to consider. Growing cotton can require a suite of pesticides, fueling a shift to organic cotton. That’s a label worth watching for – and one you can expect to hike up the price.
After years of work certifying farmers as cruelty-free, down suppliers can now fill coats and, soon, bedding 100 percent with certified Responsible Down Standard feathers. Down is basically a byproduct of geese and ducks raised for food. Force-feeding geese to increase liver size for foie gras had historically been a problem, as had live-plucking. Keep an eye out for RDS hangtags and for companies that work with Allied Down, a “Track My Down” hangtag that lets you see the location of the farm where your feather insulation comes from. The system has already helped that company rebuff accusations from an animal welfare group that they were still using live-plucked feathers.
Patagonia separated their down supply chain so they could add a level of stringency that verifies that even the parent farms for the eggs hatched to become down-producers humanely treat their animals. They’re also one of several companies discovering that down can last longer than the jacket does, recycling used feathers into new products.
The Responsible Wool Standard is working to clear the wool supply chain of animal cruelty as well as to ensure sheep are being grazed in a way that doesn’t overtax the landscape. Eddie Bauer, Kathmandu and REI have already committed to using responsible wool, though certified products are still forthcoming.
Patagonia has also crafted their own standard for responsible wool, which adopts all those outlined in the Responsible Wool Standard and adds provisions about transporting animals, handling their slaughter and employee training in compassionate animal handling. Their ramped-up demands took a big hit on their supply chain, and for the time being, you’ll likely only see wool socks from them, and not their longtime staple merino baselayers.
In recent years, the outdoor industry has been adjusting the formula in the chemistry used to make Durable Water Repellent, the treatment used to keep you dry in rain and snow. Historically, they relied on perfluorinated compounds (PFC), a highly durable treatment, but one that can be released into the environment during manufacturing and shed off a jacket during wear. It doesn’t break down in the environment and can bioaccumulate. Research suggests exposure to it may be linked to endocrine disruption and, potentially, to cancer.
Those chemicals were discontinued, so brands have transitioned to a version of that chemistry they hoped would break down in the environment more quickly, but that’s seen as a short-term solution. The search is on for a longer-lasting solution that walks away from anything in that family of chemicals. Columbia made a breakthrough in that effort with OutDry Ex ECO Shell, a PFC-free rain jacket, but that technology has not yet moved to the rest of their line. Other brands, like Royal Robbins, have pledged to clear PFCs from their entire line by 2018 – not in time for this year’s holiday shopping, clearly. So maybe save those purchases for next year.
Depending on your outdoor ambitions, options like those available from Fjällräven, which uses a wax-based water repellent in some of its gear, can also be a viable switch.
PFCs have yet to become a familiar acronym among consumers, so don’t expect hangtags to make clear what chemistry was used to manufacture your jacket. If you’re investing in a new jacket or snow pants, it’s worth a little online research. And check and follow the care instructions to keep the performance up and restore the garment at home to refresh its water repellency.
Coming years should see more options, says Rick Meade, president of Nikwax North America. Their aftercare product has been PFC-free through its decades-long lifespan. In some ways, the missing ingredient in speeding this change is at the retail stores, he says, where consumer awareness and demand could pressure companies to ramp up testing for alternatives.
“All that we use, all that we create, remains with us forever,” says Robert Buck, technical fellow with Chemours, a DuPont subsidiary that recently released a PFC-free durable water repellent. “I think the consciousness of all of us is growing to understand that we have to be so very mindful of all the things we put into our products, because when they’re done with life one, we’ve got to be thinking about what life two is.”
Other feel-good notes
While you’re browsing brands, watch for references to their status as a “B Corp,” a benefit corporation committed to prioritizing people and the planet over profits; to Bluesign, a certifying company that vets their environmental efforts; 1 Percent for the Planet, which calls on businesses to donate 1 percent of their annual sales to environmental groups; and The Conservation Alliance, a membership organization that advocates for and even helps to purchase lands to preserve them for public use.
Some brands also make concentrated lobbying efforts to protect the places we play. Patagonia, The North Face, Kühl, Rossignol, Gregory, Petzl, Osprey, Armada Skis, Keen and Black Diamond have all been vocal supporters of land conservation efforts. They came together this year specifically to call on President Obama to use his last weeks in office to create the Bears Ears National Monument to preserve culturally significant sites for Native Americans and recreation areas for climbers, hikers and mountain bikers in southern Utah.
The biggest hit taken on the planet comes in the form of the manufacturing and distribution of your gear. Environmentally speaking, repairing your existing gear is a smarter choice than replacing it, even if you purchase low-impact products. Apply a PFC-free treatment to your jacket rather than replacing it if it’s not keeping you dry, fix those zippers and prepare to proudly sport a few patches.
Article is by Elizabeth Miller, who covers the environment, outdoors, education and city government as a staff writer at the Santa Fe Reporter in the capital city of New Mexico. She won first place in this year’s Society of Professional Journalists’ Top of the Rockies awards for a cover story weighing the city’s sustainability efforts.
Illustrations are by Anson Stevens-Bollen, art director at the Santa Fe Reporter, a graduate of the Santa Fe Community College Media Arts Program. He’s a photographer, painter, sculptor and sketch artist. The article is reprinted with permission from the Santa Fe Reporter.