How Green is my gear?

Anyone who loves the outdoors is likely to want to care for it, protect it, and conserve it. It’s little wonder then that we, as walkers, climbers, cyclists, paddlers and all other variations of outdoor addicts, tend to have vociferous views on all matters environmental and ethical.
As well as really worrying whether or not our grandchildren or great grandchildren will have somewhere to protect, we also care about everyday matters such as the imminent extinction of rare and wonderful species, about the receding glaciers, about the lack of good winter conditions in Wales (well I do anyway!) and about the overall state of our countryside.
Sad then, that when Ethical Consumer magazine published its guide to buying rucksacks in 2006, that it was able to produce a lengthy list of environmental and ethical horror stories pertaining to the production of the gear that we all need in order to get out into the hills and enjoy them comfortably and safely. From minimal auditing processes in overseas factories, through regular use of ultra-hazardous chemicals, to cruel processes for filling sleeping bags with down insulation, just about everything we could possibly stuff into that ‘ethically purchased’ rucksack deserved to come with its own ‘Planet Health Warning.’ If Mother Earth couldn’t rely on its greatest devotees for meaningful support, things were indeed bad.
Fortunately the flame of hope hadn’t been completely extinguished from our industry and a few embers of true authenticity still burned hot – mainly in the shape of a handful of companies owned and run by lovers of the great outdoors, who wanted to do their bit to save it. The best-known of this select club is Patagonia, whose founder, Yvon Chouinard, placed green and ethical policies above all others, eventually becoming a role model not just for the outdoor industry but for business in general. But there were others: German giant Vaude brought out a range of ‘Ecolog’ recycled polyester clothing over a decade ago, but this was launched to an industry that was sadly not ready for it and sales never really took off; and our own Páramo has consistently shouted its best ethical and environmental practices from the rooftops.
As the phrases ‘climate change’, ‘carbon footprint’ and ‘low impact’ have found their way into mainstream vocabularies, so these embers have finally flickered back into full-blown fires and many of their contemporaries have been waiting there in the fringes,  ready to throw on a few logs and give them a quick stoke. As we start to get our first glimpses of the new product ranges for Spring/Summer 09, I am optimistic I can feel the warmth of those flames.
So what’s changed? Perhaps the biggest thing is our attitude. Instead of focusing our attention on specific products or fabrics, which was definitely the way things were 10 years ago, we are now looking at the whole caboodle. We’ve become less obsessed with the odd single ‘green’ product and have instead turned our attention to the whole production process from design and sourcing fabrics and materials, through manufacturing itself to marketing, sales and even where it ends up when it’s no longer needed. We now want to know where things are sourced, how they are transported and how far, how the factory was lit, what age are the people making it, how much do they get paid, how did it get to our shops, what the box is made of, how long is it going to last, and what’s going to happen to it when it’s worn out. We even want to know how much of the profit generated by the process is going to be used for improving our long-suffering world.
Not only has this new approach levelled the playing field slightly as it was always going to be easier for a producer of, say, woollen socks, to have a green product, than it was for someone using various metals and plastics to make skis or surfboards or mountain bikes; but it also has a larger impact as every little bit that every single company does, will make a difference. Change your power supply to photovoltaic cells as Vaude did, or wind power like organic wool sock manufacturer Teko, and you have reduced your drain on the grid; produce garments from recycled fabrics or even plastic bottles, and you are making a difference; make those garments themselves recyclable and you’ve made a difference; give 1% for the planet – a scheme started by Patagonia but now subscribed to by many – and you make a difference.
Go one step further and gain the prestigious ISO 14001 environmental management standard like cleaning and re-proofing specialists Grangers and you make a measurable difference. Or what about Kiwi woollen garment company, Icebreaker, who’ve began an ambitious scheme known as ‘Baacode’ which uses a code on each article they sell, to enable the consumer to trace the manufacture of their clothing all the way back to the sheep the wool originally came from on New Zealand’s south island – that’s what I call accountability. Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles offers similar transparency via their web site, and it’s a step that is to be commended.
One byproduct of this new way of looking at things is that it allows companies to be totally transparent about their processes, eliminating ‘Greenwashing’ (the name given to phoney environmental polices that are really just marketing ploys in disguise). In my research for this article, I was able to get information on current policies and future objectives /targets from Montane, Marmot, Lowa, The North Face, Teva, Primus, Crocs, Altberg, Osprey, Royal Robin and Nikwax as well as those already mentioned, showing that everybody really is taking this matter more seriously.
Others such as Patagonia, Vaude, Teko, Grangers, Páramo, Polartec and Icebreaker went a few steps further with specific policies and actions and are definitely leading from the front.
So is that it? Have we now got the green utopia we were looking for? Sadly, I’d say no – we’re still a long way from it. But we have come a very long way in the last few years, and suddenly the mountain doesn’t look quite as high as it did.
Our consumers now have sufficient information and choice to allow them to vote with their wallets. And if they do this well, they’ll be putting real pressure on retailers to feature only brands worthy of their support. When this happens, the effects of these purchasing decisions will be felt by everybody and I venture that changes will happen more quickly.
With any luck, Monsieur Chouinard’s famous mantra ‘business can make a profit without selling its soul’ will be proven right for everyone’s sake – but especially for our grandchildren.