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Greening Gear: Q & A with Eco-Friendly Outdoor Gear Leaders

Imagine eco-friendly equipment that offers superior performance to today's gear. The future is bright, but how do we get there? A BACKPACKER roundtable discussion.

3. What effect has Asian manufacturing had on equipment’s environmental footprint? When you calculate your carbon footprints, is the energy used in the Asian factories figured in? Conventional wisdom says you should get all your groceries locally. Shouldn’t we apply the same rule to our gear?

Kevin: Asian manufacturing has not degraded the environmental integrity of products as much as not paying attention to serious environmental concerns which can—and does—happen anywhere in the world.

If the consideration is transportation, although important, it is really a small portion of the overall environmental footprint of the product (unless everything is air shipped).

Domestic finished goods manufacturing does not—by itself—account for all the externalities (e.g., environmental footprint) in making the product, for the supply chain is multinational regardless of where the final cut, sew, weld, glue, etc. occurs. Much of the environmental impact occurs at the raw material stage which can occur anywhere on the planet—and most often not in North America.

If the consideration is lax compliance with environmental regulations, then there is no excuse for this to happen anywhere. Brands must engage with their supply chain and understand their environmental priorities and performance. Again, if it is a textile product, we see no better way to do this than with the bluesign standard.

Bill: This issue is so complex and Kevin’s answer scratches that surface. Every product decision will have tradeoffs whether price, environmental impact, availability. We have seen our factories in Asia put serious energy into improving manufacturing conditions and waste. We not only encourage this but expect it.

The Outdoor Industry Association has created the Eco Working Group specifically to encourage, improve and promote more environmentally friendly manufacturing. The group has Hopefully other industries will follow. Kim: GoLite is a global company. We sell to a global customer base in over 23 countries around the world. We sell as much in Asia as we do in North America and as much in Europe as in North America. There were several years in GoLite’s history that we sold more products into mainland China to Chinese customers than we manufactured there. On top of that, most of the materials that go into our products are sourced internationally and manufactured in factories all over the world, including in Asia. To manufacture a jacket or backpack or tent that can withstand the wear and conditions associated with climbing Everest or hiking the Pacific Crest Trail requires garments and equipment with specialized fabrics and materials that are manufactured all over the world and most of which do not have domestic manufacturing.

Not only do we source materials from all over the world to make our products, but some of the world’s best sewers (people who sew) are in Asia: skilled labor to make the technical products we make is very rare in the USA. We don’t source factories on price; we select factories based on quality, and it just so happens that most superior textile factories are now located in Asia.

There are many products where buying locally makes sense, such as produce. Technical outdoor equipment is not one of them. The outdoor industry is definitely a global industry, manufactured globally for global adventures.

Though this makes all outdoor companies highly dependent on petroleum international transportation of our products, there’s still a lot that companies in our industry can still do to reduce our overall footprints. At GoLite, we conducted a full-spectrum carbon assessment for our entire operations that included everything that goes into our products from sourcing through to shipment to customers and consumers.

We were surprised to learn that greater than 60% of our corporate carbon footprint was from the manufacturing of the materials that go into our products, not from shipping or transportation. So over the past few years we’ve focused heavily on switching the majority of the mass of our materials from virgin petroleum-based materials to environmentally-preferred materials including recycled nylons and polyesters which have up to a 70% smaller carbon footprint than virgin equivalents.

As you can imagine, this materials shift has dramatically reduced our overall carbon footprint. We also make sure our products are light as they can be for their end use. Lighter products mean fewer materials, less petroleum, less carbon, less waste. We also seek to reduce transportation distances whenever possible by shipping direct from factory to customers, shortening distances between suppliers through supplier selection, etc.

We are also focused on making sure that our products are manufactured in factories (regardless of location) that are fair, safe, and non-discriminatory through a rigorous fair labor and social compliance process.

Dawson: Operational sustainability deals with where and how an ingredient or material or product is made. Product sustainability deals with the product itself. The other missing piece in all this is the consumer and their impact with the sustainable use, care and disposal of the product.

Some studies show that the consumer impact is where the biggest environmental impact exists. So while manufacturers are working to make sustainable products in the least environmentally impactful manner possible, we all need to educate consumers on how to use, care for and dispose of products in an environmentally preferred fashion.

To have a significantly positive impact it takes all members of the supply chain – suppliers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers to step up and understand their role and the steps they can take to reduce their impact.

Jill: I will take the questions in reverse. We have found with the calculations we have been doing for the past 3 years with our Footprint Chronicles website that transportation is a very small % of the overall impact on our carbon footprint. We still look at it and make it as efficient as possible but we should really be concentrating our efforts in the manufacturing of the raw materials to get the biggest reduction in our carbon footprint.

For example, closed loop polyester recycling that has only been done by an Asian manufacture reduced our carbon footprint on those products by 74%. This number is including the transportation to collect the garments at our retail stores and ship them back to Japan. Also with our introduction of bluesign into our supply chain, our Taiwanese mills were the early adopters. We had the strongest and most supportive response from these companies when we first launched the initiative.

With the fabrics that are produced under the bluesign certification, we have seen less water, energy and chemicals being used in our products so this has certainly had a positive impact on lessening our carbon footprint.

Extra Question directed at Jill, Kevin and Bill: What is the Eco Working Group, and how is it influencing tomorrow’s gear?

Kevin: The Eco Working Group is—quite possibly—the most collaborative industry initiated effort to address product sustainability.

Embodied in its mission is to: “… take a leadership role to develop environmental impact evaluation tools, programs, education and communication to stakeholders and consumers that will direct product life cycle and informed purchasing decisions”. It emerged from an idea that I (@REI) and Betsy Blaisdell (@Timberland) had back in late 2006 to take Timberland’s newly created “Green Index” concept to the rest of the outdoor industry.

It has grown to represent hundreds of organizations throughout the supply chain—and other various stakeholders including other trade associations (not just outdoor), NGOs, Academia, and government.

Its work is particularly special and unlike any other effort in the category because it is uniquely: Collaborative, Open Source, Transparent, Scalable and Global

Early on a decision was reached to focus the primary efforts on tools designed to be supply chain facing, rather than creating yet another consumer label. We took this direction because we knew that there were plenty of consumer labels, yet not enough agreement on the language (and measures) of sustainability.

We knew the quality of information passed on through the supply chain—and ultimately the consumer—lacked in depth and quality. We have been very focused on solving the information problem because until we do we cannot adequately provide great information to the end consumer. We’ve employed lifecycle thinking throughout our work.

The group will influence tomorrow’s gear because it is creating the way that we understand, measure and ultimately—communicate product sustainability. Since organizations are rapidly awaking to the critical need to incorporate sustainable practices in their operations and supply chain, and this group holds the key to how it is understood, it will have enormous impact on the products of tomorrow.

We live in a resource constrained, increasingly transparent, growingly legislated, global economy. Sustainability holds great promise to be a wonderful platform for innovation; in fact sustainability is to be as important as product quality currently is to the outdoor industry. Ultimately, this work is critical to not only the health and vitality of the outdoor industry—but to the greater world.

Bill: OIA’s Eco Working Group was created a few years back as a non-competitive, transparent way for industry companies to share best practices regarding environmentally sustainable manufacturing topics ranging from materials sourcing to transportation impacts. A key goal is to create an Eco Index tool that will help companies gauge the degree of sustainability of a product from conception to production so that they can make educated decisions before manufacturing a product. There are many variables but the group has a beta version in test.

The outdoor industry has great potential to promote environmentally sustainable manufacturing practices to the broader business community with the aim of large scale change in the near future. Regardless of performance or aesthetic improvements, the outdoor gear of tomorrow will be manufactured by companies that have a better handle on the impacts of their goods.

Jill: The Eco Working Group is a project of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) that is around 150 companies strong. This group has been working on a collaboration for the past 3 years that has produced an Eco-Index. This is an industry facing tool that is meant to show companies how to rate the products from an environmental standpoint and how to make them better from an environmental perspective. It is meant to give designers/product developers/sourcing people the tools they need to make good decisions in their part of the product creation process.

It is influencing tomorrow’s gear by showing companies how they can bring environmental improvements much like we have seen quality develop over the past 25 years. Quality is an expectation now, no matter what you pay for a product. I think environmental attributes of a product will go the same way, it won’t be a point of distinction but an expectation by our future consumers. So hopefully we will continue to see less toxic materials and just less overall materials going into our gear.

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