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August 12, 2020 4 min read

Is Your Outdoor Gear Sustainable? Here’s How to Find Out

Sustainability is a term that’s thrown around a lot these days, but what does it really mean? When it comes to outdoor retail brands, sustainability can encompass a laundry list of initiatives, certifications, and operational considerations that can be difficult for the consumer to understand. It’s also a moving target, with information about what is  actually  the best thing for Mother Earth evolving almost daily due to rigorous research and innovation. 

The outdoor recreation economy generated   $887 billion in consumer spending  in 2017, a number that many expect to rise in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic. All that buying means more manufacturing, and it’s no secret that manufacturing takes an environmental toll. But these companies’ livelihoods  depend  on the wellbeing of public lands, so they have a vested interest in sustainability — a term which, by definition, means meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.

So, what makes a brand sustainable? And how can you make more conscious decisions on where you shop for gear? A good start is a quick scan of the Outdoor Industry Association’s (OIA) website for companies who have signed their  Climate Action Corps pledge.  In joining the program, companies commit to measure, plan, and reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and share their progress annually. Some of the Corps members are big names, like  Patagonia  and  L.L. Bean,  who have been known for their eco-conscious efforts for years.

If a company isn’t listed on the OIA’s website, it’s not a deal-breaker. There are plenty of other certifications and coalitions that might signal a brand’s sustainability, including  Bluesign,  Sustainable Textile Standards,  and  the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

Some smaller, local, or cottage gear companies are up-and-comers in the sustainability space, but don’t yet have the name recognition of a giant like  REI. In fact,  garage-grown companies might be some of the best choices if you’re looking to minimize your environmental impact. Whether you’re eyeing a big-name brand or a spunky upstart, here are some things to look for in a quick scan of any outdoor brand’s website before choosing to buy from them.

Materials and Sourcing

Does the company sell apparel containing animal-derived products like down or wool? Check if they’ve adopted the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) and Responsible Wool Standard (RWS). To make your search even easier, Textile Exchange — the organization behind RDS and RWS — provides a handy  search tool you can use to find a list of certified products. If you want to stay away from animal-derived products all together, check out  PrimaLoft: an excellent, sustainable alternative to down.

Look for companies that are using organic cotton certified by the  National Organic Program. Standards for organic cotton include restrictions on chemicals like pesticides and herbicides, promotion of healthy soil, water and energy conservation, and biodiversity through organic farming. Recycled materials are another thing to look for, as well as companies who repair, resell, or take back gear at end-of-life like  Columbia’s ReThreads program

But by all means, try to avoid purchasing synthetic fleece, even if it’s recycled.  Backpacker magazine goes into depth about the microplastics derived from synthetic fleece and why other options are better for the environment.

Operational Footprint

How much energy does a company require to operate, and where does that energy come from? Some companies disclose their emissions in publicly released  sustainability reports, and many have made strides to offset carbon emissions. Others have purchased Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) to offset the emissions they produce along the supply chain. A carbon offset represents one metric ton of carbon that has been avoided or sequestered, while a REC represents 1,000 kWh of renewable energy that has been delivered back to the grid.

Where are products manufactured, and how many miles are they transported along the supply chain? While this information may be harder to find, transportation accounts for a large percentage of a product’s carbon footprint. That’s why “local” brands often have a sustainability advantage over global, multi-national ones.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

According to the OIA, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is achieving commercial success in ways that honor ethical values and benefit people, communities, and the natural environment. The accountability of a corporation to society at-large is just important for sustainability as the environmental footprint. Ethical working conditions, living wages, diversity and inclusion, and other internal policies are part of CSR, along with ways the company gives back to the global community. 

If a company is a certified  B Corporation, that's a tip-off they're probably a good egg. Certified B Corporations are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. A company with good CSR might also contribute to a charity or participate in activism, like  Cotopaxi, whose business model allocates funds to and advocates for poverty alleviation.

Another CSR certification to look for in apparel brands is  Fair Wear, an ethical certification whose goal is to see a world where the garment industry supports workers in realizing their rights to safe, dignified, properly paid employment. To qualify, brands must adhere to a Code of Labour Practices derived from internationally recognized standards, like the UN’s Declaration on Human Rights.

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More Resources

Short on time to dig into the research yourself? For some pre-curated lists of sustainable gear options, check out Bearfoot Theory's  10 Eco-Friendly Outdoor Apparel Brands and Veggie Vagabonds'  Ultimate Guide to Ethical Outdoor Clothing and Sustainable Gear. Remember, sustainability is broad and ever-changing, so it can never be fully encompassed in one list of brands or certifications. This article is a good start, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg!