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Zero Impact Challenge

Is it possible to build a backpack that doesn't contribute to global warming? Not yet, but five pioneering companies gave it one helluva try. (Cue standing ovation.)

Ten months ago, we issued a challenge to more than 60 pack makers: Create a trail-worthy 3,500-cubic-inch midsize with materials and manufacturing that entail minimal environmental impact. We knew enough about pack design to understand the enormity of the task. But we also knew that creating sustainable gear is a priority for an industry dedicated to the outdoors. Five companies–GoLite, JanSport, L.L. Bean, Mountainsmith, and Osprey–rose to the challenge.

Once the packs hit our offices, we headed out to the Grand Canyon and Colorado’s backcountry for field testing. But we also wanted to examine their carbon impact. For that, we turned to our climate-analysis partner, Cooler, a Bay Area outfit whose methodology is backed by three major environmental organizations (see Cooler collected reams of data from each company about their energy use–from the materials they use to their manufacturing processes to the amount their executives fly–and provided detailed reports on each pack.*

From the reports, we learned that our contestants have made a huge leap forward, yet there’s a long way to go. Manufacturers face two big challenges: 1) a limited supply of low-impact materials tough enough for the trail, and 2) an even shorter supply of independently vetted information on the various "eco-friendly" options out there.

We also discovered that–without such info–it’s very difficult to calculate footprints as precisely as we’d all like. As Michel Gelobter, Cooler’s top scientist, told us, "We can assess variations in energy consumption between recycled and virgin packs, but we can’t tell a Coke from a Pepsi." That’s why, for now, you won’t see carbon ratings on products reviewed in BACKPACKER.

Here’s what we do know: The average footprint of our five packs is about 130 pounds of CO2–compared to 190 pounds for a standard model of the same size. The difference is equal to the amount of CO2 one tree sequesters in a year. And the impact of making every pack sold in the United States with recycled polyester would be a reduction of 20,000 to 30,000 tons of CO2 a year, enough to offset 10,000 roundtrip flights from Boston to Seattle.

Three simple rules also emerged that will undoubtedly influence pack designers–and may change what you look for. They are:

1. Weight matters. Lighter fabrics–or less of them–means less carbon. GoLite and JanSport embraced this tenet with a vengeance.

2. Simple is better. As in, reduce buckles and zippers. Trim those, and you get fewer suppliers, lower manufacturing emissions, less waste, and less shipping. GoLite and JanSport aced this one, too.

3. Recycled materials rule. So do recyclable and biodegradeable ones–all three slash carbon. Four of the packs use polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a polyester that can be recycled two to three times; Bean chose a poly that can be infinitely recycled. And all but GoLite used polylactic acid (PLA, a corn-based plastic) for buckles.

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