A Guide to Sustainable Brands in the Outdoor Industry
There are few things better than time spent enjoying the humbling magic of our precious earth, and we can all agree our time outdoors is made more enjoyable by the range of products designed to outfit every type of adventure. But do those products protect the wild places they allow us to access and enjoy? Do the companies making these products do anything to safeguard the dignity and worth of the humans, animals, and resources involved in production? Good news: more and more, the answer is yes. With the rise of designations like the bluesign® system, and companies like Patagonia setting an impressively high bar for grassroots activism, the outdoor industry is unquestionably trending toward sustainable action and responsibly sourced gear. And with that trend comes the need to understand which companies and products protect the social and environmental standards you care about.
Here’s a basic breakdown of who’s who and what’s what.
Brands Looking out for Animal Welfare
Down is arguably one of the most important materials for outdoor enthusiasts—especially those who are looking to lighten their packs. How do we get that down, though? Unfortunately, some of it is harvested from live birds that have been force fed and not adequately cared for. Hence, the development of the Responsible Down Standard (RDS). This standard prohibits live-plucking and force feeding, and ensures that birds providing our beloved down will be respected and cared for throughout the entirety of their lives. More and more companies are adopting RDS for the feathers used in their products, including Feathered Friends, Outdoor Research, Mountain Hardware, and The North Face.
Here is a complete list of outdoor gear companies upholding the Responsible Down Standard.
For those who are looking to completely avoid animal-sourced products, PrimaLoft is an excellent, sustainable alternative to down. PrimaLoft is a high-performance synthetic insulation nearly matching the packability, breathability, and warmth-to-weight ratio of down. Their relatively new Eco line is comprised of a gold, black, and silver series, each promoting sustainability through the use of recycled materials. PrimaLoft Silver, for example, is made of around 70% recycled materials, with an estimated 28 recycled water bottles used in each kilogram of insulation. It’s no surprise that this product line emerges in partnership with Patagonia, serving as insulation for extremely popular items such as the Nano Puff collection.
PrimaLoft’s gear finder is an excellent resource for identifying which companies are using this eco-friendly down alternative.
In a similar vein as RDS, the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) aims to care for not only the sheep from which we derive our wool, but also the land upon which they graze. This entails assurance of the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare (freedom from hunger/thirst, discomfort, injury/disease, fear, and impaired expression), as well as responsible and progressive farming methodologies that protect biodiversity.
Brands Utilizing Recycled and Organic Materials
Organically Grown Cotton
Not unlike the progressive farming practices required for RWS certification, the National Organic Program establishes organic cotton standards aimed at reducing environmental impact. This includes restrictions on chemicals (e.g., pesticides and herbicides) and carbon emissions, and promotion of healthy soil, water and energy conservation, and biodiversity through organic farming practices. A large and growing number of outdoor gear companies are using organic cotton in their products, including Patagonia, Prana, Black Diamond, Outdoor Research, and The North Face, only to name a few.
Organic and Non-GMO Backcountry Food
As many journalists and advocates have recently suggested, the distance between humans and our fuel for life is ever growing in the modern age. Sustainable backcountry food is about positively affecting the food supply chain, making decisions that spare unnecessary harm to animals and the planet, and allowing us to remain connected to where our food comes from. Thankfully, there are increasingly more options for backcountry snacks and meals that promote health and wellness for you and the earth. Increasingly diverse options include granola and bars by Clif Bar, numerous organic nut butters by ProBar, Mary Jane’s Farm freeze dried meals, Patagonia’s Provisions line, and Honey Stinger energy chews, waffles and bars.
While we’re talking about food, let’s take a look at some snazzy and sustainable mess kits and efforts to offset carbon emissions with a new take on camp stoves. UCO’s Bamboo Elements Mess Kit is durable and plastic-free, made from 90% natural content; it includes a bowl, plate with leak-proof lid, a spork, and a cord to keep it all together. Their Four Piece Mess Kit is an ever-so-slightly simpler version of the Elements kit. Bambu also makes eco-friendly utensils and plates, worth checking out. Biolite has reinvented camp stoves to harness energy and reduce carbon emissions through smokeless wood flames. Furthermore, using a business model called Parallel Innovation, their mission is to “bring energy everywhere,” simultaneously serving the outdoor industry and off-grid households in developing nations.
Brands That Are Paying It Forward
Let’s be honest, stopping to filter water in the backcountry is not everyone’s favorite thing, mostly because it takes time. But imagine if we didn’t have the everyday luxury of safe drinking water with which to compare that. An enormous number of people live in a vastly different day-to-day reality, and what is a burden for us is a privilege for them. LifeStraw was born from an endeavor to fill this gap in human experience, and continues to reinforce this mission with their Give Back Program: for every LifeStraw product you purchase, a school child receives safe drinking water for an entire year of school. Furthermore, the Safe Water Fund for Kenya is an extension of this program, allowing LifeStraw to reach schoolchildren in Kenya.
Cotopaxi’s Gear for Good initiative is built within a fairly elaborate poverty-fighting business model, with 2% of revenue going to the company’s nonprofit partners in efforts to promote health, education, and livelihoods. Check out some of Cotopaxi’s current and previous grantees here. On top of their dedication to social responsibility, Cotopaxi also promotes environmental sustainability through efforts such as utilizing leftover fabric scraps for new products and llama hair for insulation.
In addition to promoting sustainability through RDS, organic cotton, bluesign®, and recycled wool, Prana also has a giving back initiative, providing support for local and international charities year round. They have a very cool holiday giveback program as well, donating a portion of sales to Outdoor Outreach—a nonprofit designed to facilitate positive change among young adults from low-income communities through the power of outdoor recreation.
Both of these companies have teamed up with an international nonprofit called Trees for the Future, aimed at alleviating poverty, hunger, and deforestation. Oboz donates a tree for every pair of boots sold, now with over two million trees planted. This past spring, ENO also added TREES to their giveback program, contributing 1% of their annual sales to the organization–approximately two trees for every hammock sold.
If you’re curious, here is a useful article outlining what planting trees does for the earth and its inhabitants.
Think Global, Shop Local
Chances are high that you’ve heard or seen the phrase “Think global, shop local” over the past decade. But what does it mean and why does it matter? The idea is that we can improve our global impact through local action—everything from voting to groceries can make a difference. By shopping local, we support fair wages, community employment, small(er) businesses, and more sustainable and ethical production lines. Some of the more well-known companies in the US cottage industry include Feathered Friends, Western Mountaineering, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, ULA Equipment, Z-Packs, and Tarptent. For a thorough list of gear made by companies that don’t outsource to other countries, this website is an incredibly useful resource.
Are you feeling overwhelmed? How do you even begin to make any decisions with all these considerations in mind? I’ll be honest; I’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg with these limited highlights, so just take it one step at a time. Start with small choices aligned with your existing values while you learn about what’s left. The outdoor industry’s trend toward environmental and social responsibility is rapidly gaining traction and my guess is that it won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
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