‘Sustainability’ is a buzzword in the outdoor adventure industry, with every brand jumping on the green bandwagon. But what does it mean? And is it really worth it?
Despite the best efforts of Trump, global attitudes to climate change remain fixed: it is demonstrably real, increasingly alarming and must be tackled as soon as possible. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the outdoor adventure industry. Brands are actively attempting to make their production more sustainable, using responsibly sourced materials and low- or zero-carbon methods. For an industry so closely married to wild environments, this makes a lot of sense.
Just how sustainable is this all, though? Down filling farmed from a renewable source still has to travel thousands of air miles throughout its journey from goose to consumer and, ultimately, outdoor adventure brands are still in the business of selling as many responsibly-made jackets as possible.
Take The North Face, for instance – considered a global leader in the outdoor industry and a prominent advocate of sustainable production, they made $2.3bn of annual revenue in 2016 by marketing not products, but ideas. Ideas of adventure, exploration, and an ethical relationship with nature. The thing is, as noted in an analysis of The North Face and Patagonia by The Guardian, these inspirational ideas are really used to sell products – and lots of them.
Paul Kingsnorth, in his fascinating essay Dark Ecology, calls sustainability “just another opportunity for selling things”. It seems a fairly cynical view at first, but is it really that inaccurate or unfair? At the Outdoor Show in Friedrichschafen this weekend, chances are that things will be much like at ISPO in Munich back in January – each and every brand proclaiming their green credentials, each clamouring to espouse how fervent they are in becoming ‘sustainable’. Ultimately, though, the purpose behind this campaign is to sell more products, however ‘eco-friendly’ they are. Behind the green façade lies a relentless drive to sell as many puffer jackets and baselayers as possible. And is that really sustainable? Kingsnorth thinks not: “A world of nine billion people all seeking the status of middle-class consumers cannot be sustained”.
None of this is to say that outdoor adventure brands are evil or have no real interest in tackling climate change – far from it. Many brands are doing fantastic work, like United By Blue – for every item of clothing sold, they remove one pound of rubbish from the ocean, and thus far have cleaned over a million pounds of plastic and other trash from our seas.
There are innumerable examples of brands working innovatively to benefit the environment: Tentsile and tentree planting trees for every product sold; Patagonia providing a free repairs service; Millican and Onsight Equipment weaving materials harvested from recycled plastic bottles into their rucksacks. Clearly, good and well-intentioned work is being done.
But we must change our approach to consumerism, including in the outdoor market, if we are serious about taking on climate change. Put simply, we have and buy too many things, and too many of those things have a short lifespan – either through their construction or our desire for new things – and so we buy more, and on the cycle goes. No matter how ‘sustainably-made’ these things are, farming the materials, producing them, shipping them abroad; it all has an unavoidable environmental impact.
In short, cut down your spending and make more conscious choices about what you do buy, and make sure that your purchases will last. There has been a resurgence in recent years of brands reverting to traditional materials like waxed cotton rather than synthetic plastics, as it lasts far longer, not to mention looking and feeling better, too. Brands like JAGO, Netherton Foundry and Trakke are creating products that are built to last and improve their looks as these hard-wearing materials weather and age; Trakke call it “sustainability through longevity”.
Change won’t come quickly but a truly sustainable approach to outdoor adventure involves not just companies manufacturing goods in more environmentally responsible ways, but consumers actively choosing to buy high-quality goods that will last a lifetime. If we can enact that change, we might just be able to make a difference.