What is the environmental impact of outdoor clothing?
Much of our outdoor clothing is made from petrochemicals like Polyester and Nylon. It is tough, can be waterproofed and be formed into efficient thermal insulation. The problem with Polyesters are that they are not biodegradable, when our waterproof jacket has finally had its day and we throw it in the bin it will probably end up in a landfill site for several hundreds of years.
Also during manufacture Polyester and Nylon emit Nitrous Oxide which is a greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.
We all appreciate colourful clothing (although men still seem to veer towards black!) and a bright jacket can be a life saver if you ever get stuck on the side of a mountain in bad weather. The down side to the colours of our clothing is that current water based dying methods are highly toxic. To achieve the bright colours we want (and to make them last) involves the use of some horrendous chemicals such as sulphur and chromium compounds, it also involves some heavy metals such as copper, lead, arsenic, mercury and nickel.
Waste water from textile factories containing compounds from the dying process are difficult to treat, and so these chemicals are often discharged untreated into the water system in third world countries where some of our garments are manufactured as a highly toxic pollutant, that eventually finds its way to the sea. On route down the river systems they effect the locals lifestyles, killing fish stocks and creating all kinds of medical health problems, some of these chemicals are highly carcinogenic. An article giving more exact information about the effects of dying our clothes is – Textile dying industry an environmental hazard.
Another source of pollution in manufacturing is the waste fabric from cutting. The different shapes that are required to create a garment are cut from large sheets of fabric, This inevitably creates unwanted bits of the fabric which have no use and are waste, to be disposed of somewhere where they will remain again possibly for hundreds of years in the ground.
A big issue, especially related to waterproof garments, is Durable Water Resistant coatings. This is the coating applied to the outside of nearly all waterproof garments, it is what makes the water bead and run off of a jacket or trousers. This water-resistant coating is manufactured from PFCs which are Perflourinated compounds. These are toxic and do not biodegrade.Traces of PFCs that have eventually washed off of garments have been found in some of the remotest parts of the world and in some animal organs that can almost certainly eventually enter into our food chain.
So where does that leave us if we are wanting to make eco choices when selecting outdoor clothing?
Is outdoor clothing fashion?
Primarily, the aim of outdoor clothing is to enable people to enjoy the outdoors in all weathers. The major focus being upon weatherproof and thermal garments. Outdoor clothing has become highly technical, and the advertising tends to feature the more extreme activities in some of the wildest of climates for which this clothing is manufactured.
However it cannot be denied that there is a fashion element to the outdoor clothing industry. People want to look good as well as staying warm and dry! Every six months the manufacturers bring out new lines which they want to sell. Mostly the garments have technical improvements but also there will be changes in colour and style to bring a fresh appeal.
Some outdoor clothing firms have also veered towards the high street. It is a pretty common sight to see The North Face on the back shoulder of a garment in town, indeed I think the trend for placing the logo there was initiated by them. If not they were certainly one of the forerunners of the high viz branding on clothing. Currently The North Face seem to manufacture for two markets, the high street with specific street level styles, and the highly technical for the more wild at heart.
If someone wants a waterproof jacket for general wear then it makes sense to go to an outdoor retailer to buy one. Berghaus seem to have grown in popularity for everyday wear in more recent years, This trend is compounded through the change from specialist outdoor wear shops to more general popular high street outdoor retailers like Blacks and Go Outdoors, now Berghaus is one of the familiar brands to see on the pavements of our towns.
A growing awareness of plastic and fashion pollution
There is a growing awareness of the pollution that is being caused in our world through petrochemical based products, not just polyesters but also plastics, especially single use plastics items like bottles and bags. It was recently reported that the word of 2018 was “single use” which was related to these items. Over the last four years there has been a five fold increase in the use of the word. News stories and the BBC’s Blue Planet II program have brought to the public’s attention the pollution caused by single use plastics especially in the sea.
There has also been another recent BBC program investigating the claim that the fashion industry is the world’s second largest source of pollution, only beaten by the oil industry (which much of our modern clothing depends upon). The verification of this claim might be questionable, some statistics would put it at fourth or eighth, but even so it is significant.
In response to the public’s growing awareness of issues of world pollution, sustainability is becoming more important to them, people want items to last longer and have less of a detrimental effect upon our environment both in manufacture and disposal.
Is the outdoor clothing industry being responsible
You would think that an industry committed to people getting outdoors and enjoying our amazing world would be wholeheartedly committed to the environment, and our impact upon it. As e-outdoor are wanting to focus on being more ethically responsible, I decided to check out our main clothing suppliers at e-outdoor and see if they had any policies regarding their own company towards their impact upon the environment.
I was pleasantly surprised. Many of them recognised the difficulty they are in, wanting to supply effective high quality outdoor clothing yet also wanting to have minimal environmental impact. Most recognised that they were on a journey always seeking ways that they could improve their ethics, production methods and sustainability.
In 2015 and 2016 Greenpeace produced reports criticising the outdoor industry as hypocritical for using PFC compounds for their clothing. To be fair many manufacturers including Rab, Regatta and Jack Wolfskin have acknowledged the problem, transferring to short chain polymers from long chain which are supposed to be more biodegradable (?). They have also set targets to find a more environmentally acceptable alternative by 2020.
Some outdoor suppliers like The North Face and Berghaus are making moves to use recycled polyester to manufacture their garments This is a greener option which requires half the energy to produce, and keeps items like plastic bottles out of land fill sites. The down side to the process is that the bottles etc need cleaning which is mainly done by hand, so the plastic gets shipped abroad where there are lower labour rates. Transporting the plastic across the world undermines the object a little bit!
Manufacturing garments that will last is a goal of many companies and some like Arcteryx and The North Face offer a repair facility thus helping to make their garments more sustainable and creating less frequent waste. Of course this may undermine repeat sales, but in the longer term, for our world this is a good move.
Several outdoor clothing companies have signed up to different initiatives some of which are below. These promote ethical and sustainable methods in the clothing industry, and encourage the well-being of our environment.
Responsible clothing initiatives.
“The bluesign® system is the solution for a sustainable textile production. It eliminates harmful substances right from the beginning of the manufacturing process and sets and controls standards for an environmentally friendly and safe production. This not only ensures that the final textile product meets very stringent consumer safety requirements worldwide but also provides confidence to the consumer to acquire a sustainable product.”
Some outdoor clothing manufacturers are Bluesign registered for some or all of their garments, including Regatta, Berghaus, Jack Wolfskin and The North Face, the garments will have a Bluesign label.
“Fair Wear Foundation is a non-profit organisation that works with brands, factories, trade unions, NGOs and sometimes governments to verify and improve workplace conditions for garment workers in 11 production countries in Asia, Europe and Africa. FWF keeps track of the improvements made by the companies it works with. And through sharing expertise, social dialogue and strengthening industrial relations, FWF increases the effectiveness of the efforts made by companies.”
If an outdoor company is part of the Fair Wear Foundation scheme they will have a label on their product, these include Jack Wolfskin and Mountain Equipment.
“The Responsible Down Standard aims to ensure that down and feathers come from animals that have not been subjected to an unnecessary harm. It is our hope that the standard can be used to reward and influence the down and feather industry to incentivise practices that respect the humane treatment of ducks and geese. We believe that education – through the RDS – is a meaningful way to drive demand for strong animal welfare practices. The standard also provides companies and consumers with a tool to know what is in their products, and to make accurate claims”.
In 2009 Mountain Equipment launched their Down Codex project to ensure that their down supply chain was ethical. Since then most reputable outdoor clothing suppliers have signed up to similar schemes like the Responsible Down Standard. Again if a company is part of a Responsible Down Standard scheme there will be a label on their garment. Companies that have signed up to the RDS scheme include Rab, Berghaus and The North Face.
“The outdoor sector and the millions of people who enjoy the great outdoors are active champions for the conservation of nature and wild places. The EOCA defines ‘wild places’ as non-urban environments and ecosystems occurring in as natural a state as possible, given the area’s location and use. This may include for example moorland, hills, mountains, coasts, rivers, forest, grassland, peatland, lake and ocean areas”.
Some companies like Mountain Equipment support associations like the Euopean Outdoor Conservation Association in order to actively reinvest in our environment.
Being committed to a better environment
I checked out the main outdoor clothing companies that we stock here at e-Outdoor to see what their commitments were to providing sustainable clothing to the outdoor world. Listed below are their statements and the link to their web page so that you can read them yourselves and make your own decisions!
On a journey
It is a dilemma – we need clothes, it is not a good idea to go running up a mountain in the snow stark naked. Modern technology in clothing has enabled man to endure some extreme climates both for recreation and more essential purposes. Being able to explore some previously inaccessible parts of our world has been of great benefit to humanity. But the clothing we wear has had some environmental impact upon our world.
Most of us are not going to go to such extremes, we simply want to be warm and dry when we are outdoors but the same technology is essentially required for our clothing as above. If we care about our world we cannot ignore the impact of the clothing industry upon it and although the outdoor world’s contribution is relatively small compared to the huge fashion chains it cannot be ignored.
What I liked about many of the environmental and ethical statements above is the honesty. None of these named outdoor clothing companies are trying to pretend that the issue does not exist, or that some of the working conditions that clothes were manufactured in are unacceptable.
While wanting to provide us with good quality clothing they are all committed to a road that improves their environmental impact, as they say – it is a journey.