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Outdoor Apparel Companies and Environmental Sustainability

by Mackenzie Griesser

As an environmentalist in a capitalist society, I can’t help but think about how the gear and apparel I purchase are manufactured. It would be super disappointing if the companies making products that are meant to be used in the great outdoors were actively contributing to unsustaiimagesnable practices that harm the planet! I was curious to see just how sustainable the brands we carry are so I did some research and was happy to find some great information. When we talk about how sustainable a company or product is, we have to consider the “triple bottom line”: social, economic, and environmental sustainability. If the company or product does not meet all three of these qualifications, we can’t call them truly sustainable. In my research, I found that there is way too much information to discuss all three of these components in one blog, so this is the first of a 3-part series covering each factor that makes up the “triple bottom line”. The following is a brief summary of the environmental sustainability initiatives of some of the brands we carry, specifically outerwear and apparel companies.

When we think about the sustainability of apparel, there are a few questions we must ask ourselves: Where did the raw materials come from? How were they obtained? What processes do they go through as they are made into a garment? How long can they be used before being thrown out and added to the ever-growing landfill? Luckily for us, most of the brands we carry answer all of these questions directly on their websites and are great at providing consumers with transparency concerning all of their processes, from cradle to grave. Mountain Hardwear even goes as far as to publish lists of the manufacturers that produce their materials every year for the public to polybag-herosee! Most other brands, including Arc’Teryx, Ibex, Patagonia, and Prana, perform Life Cycle Assessments regularly, following products from manufacture to disposal to ensure that they are doing everything as efficiently and sustainably as possible.

When it comes to raw materials, the brands we carry are pros at finding the most sustainably procured materials at a reasonable price. Both Patagonia and Prana use several recycled and re-purposed materials, including down from old bedding that is washed and sterilized, wool from old sweaters and scraps from production, cotton also from production leftovers, nylon, and polyester made from pre- and post-consumer recycled plastic. They both also utilize hemp, which leaves the soil it is grown in healthy enough to grow food crops directly after harvest, as well as organic cotton, which is not genetically modified and does not require fertilizers or pesticides.  Patagonia takes it a step further and also utilizes Tencel, a branded lyocell fiber that comes from the pulp of trees grown on farms certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, yulex and guayule rubber, which together make a more sustainable version of neoprene, and undyed cashmere.

Chemical management is also very important to consider. The big “bad guy” often used in outdoor apparel is perfluorocarbons, or PFCs, which are used in waterproofing materials. However, several brands now use more sustainable alternatives including single polymer polypropylene and short-chain PFCs, which biodegrade much easier than other chemicals and take less energy and resources to obtain. Arc’TeryxPatagonia also adheres to a strict Restricted Substances List to ensure the materials they are using are safe for both the consumer and the environment.

The last thing to consider when determining the sustainability of a garment is what will happen to it once it wears out. Several brands, including Patagonia, Ibex, Chaco, and Arc’Teryx, encourage customers to send back worn-out or damaged products to be recycled or repaired in order to prevent adding waste to landfills. In general, however, all of the brands we carry make super hardy and durable products, so they will last a long time.

Another thing to consider is ensuring that the animals that materials are sourced from are treated well. Every brand we carry that utilizes down in their products (Sea to Summit, Rab, Patagonia, Outdoor Research, Arc’Teryx, and Prana) are certified under the Responsible Down Standard. To be accredited under these standards, the farmer and company must adhere to some standard principles. First, birds are never live-plucked or force fed. Also, the welfare of the birds is respected from birth to death. This means injuries and illnesses are prevented as much as possible and treated in a timely manner they cannot be prevented. Companies that are accredited under these standards are randomly audited multiple times a year by third-party companies, usually with unannounced visits, and only products with 100% certified sustainable down can carry the RDS label.

While down is utilized in many products we sell, we can’t forget about good old merino wool (AKA Miracle Fabric.) Ibex definitely leads the way when it comes to wool that is harvested sustainably. They only use ZQ merino, which has a pretty intensive certification process. Any farmer can be accredited if they meet the 5 freedoms granted to animals by the Animal Welfare Act. First, the sheep must be properly fed with wholesome foods that meet all nutritional requirements, as 24well as be provided with limitless water. Next, they must be given appropriate shelter. Another freedom granted is the freedom from unnecessary pain and distress, which means the farmer must know how to handle them to avoid distress and maintain their property so that there is little risk of injury. Also, mulesing is prohibited under this category. Mulesing is a surgical procedure where sections wool-bearing skin that are susceptible to retaining bacteria that attracts flies are removed. While this procedure does decrease the chances of flystrikes, there are more sustainable ways to deal with this issue, including regular inspections and cleaning and shearing of the vulnerable areas. The next requirement is that the sheep must be allowed to exhibit natural patterns of behavior, which essentially means they must be given adequate space to roam and interact with one another. Finally, the farmer must be able to provide prevention, rapid diagnosis, and treatment of injury, disease, and parasite infestation if any of these were to occur. If a farmer meets all of these conditions, they can be accredited under the ZQ merino standard. Every 3-5 years unannounced audits are conducted, usually by a veterinarian.

Environmental sustainability is such a. important thing to consider when investing money in a company by purchasing their products, especially when it’s a company that specializes in outdoor gear! While some brands offer more sustainability initiatives than others, every apparel brand we carry does a great job of being environmentally conscious when sourcing materials for their products and when manufacturing them. I always feel much better about supporting companies that consider these sorts of things, even if it costs them a little more money, than companies that are only out to make a profit regardless of what effects their processes have on the environment. However, environmental sustainability is only one third of the triple bottom line! Stay tuned for more info on the social and economic sustainability initiatives offered by the brands we sell here at Roads Rivers and Trails.