You sort your recycling, carry out what you pack in, and splurge on organic food. In other words, you’re trying to be good to the planet. But can you say the same thing about your hiking clothes? Chances are, the petroleum-based fibers of your favorite fleece aren’t as green as you might like. Our enthusiasm for the outdoors involves an unfortunate paradox: The technical fabrics we wear may pollute the wilderness we love. Fortunately, the outdoor industry is taking steps to change that.
Over the last 30 years, only a handful of companies have made sustainable products. Now, however, being green is becoming mainstream. Nowhere was that trend more evident than at August’s Outdoor Retailer show, where dozens of vendors unveiled eco-friendly products made from organic materials-plus fabrics derived from corn, soy, coconuts, and bamboo. Many others have announced recycled packaging or energy-wise manufacturing. No doubt, record gas prices and climate-change worries are pushing the trend, but improved technology and consumer demand are making it possible.
Some companies see an opportunity for a new business model. "We won’t make a product if we can’t meet certain criteria," says Mark Galbraith, vice president of product design at Nau, a Portland-based apparel maker set to launch in early 2007. The startup’s rules are stringent: Synthetic materials must be recycled, recyclable, or compostable, while cotton must be organic. No products will contain PVC or heavy-metal dyes, and auditors will ensure that raw materials are up to code. Nau’s goal-to profit without harming the environment-mirrors that of many outdoor-apparel companies.
Such feel-good ambitions wouldn’t be possible without major technological advances. Scratchy hemp and stiff soda-bottle fleece didn’t fly with green consumers in the ’90s, so today’s eco-fabrics ditch the toxins without sacrificing look and feel. To make a better-recycled polypro, for instance, Malden Mills grinds down plastic bottles and fabric scraps to create fine, lightweight yarns. This recycled polyester is more durable than previous versions of chopped-up threads that pilled easily. Similarly, the latest organic cotton fabrics use thinner yarns to create a silkier feel.
Many companies are already using these cutting-edge fabrics in products. Nau’s spring 2007 line includes more than 30 new synthetics, including one made from pulverized corn kernels called PLA. Fox River and Teko are adding a PLA-derived fabric called Ingeo to their socks.
A quick look at just one category-sport sandals-shows that the buzz is getting louder. Chaco now makes sandals with water-based glues and 25 percent recycled rubber. Keen uses chrome-free leather and recycled cardboard packaging. Teva’s webbing is all recycled. And Mio’n uses injection-molded foam to produce lighter sandals with 90 percent less waste.
Of course, the industry still has a long way to go. More research is needed before zippers and waterproofing can be made without harmful side effects. Packaging and distribution remain highly consumptive. And even corn-based fibers are controversial-they typically come from genetically modified strains.
Ambitions are high at this early stage, but this growing commitment to green gear will only succeed if the products sell. Educating consumers is essential, one reason why Timberland is adding Nutrition-Facts-style shoebox labels to rate each model’s environmental impact. Another hurdle is getting that consumer who pays an extra dollar for organic food to swallow a $40 premium for a toxin-free jacket. Pretty soon, that decision will be coming to an outdoors store near you.