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.

This is the full text of a roundtable interview printed in BACKPACKER's April 2011 Gear Guide.



The Participants: Kim Coupounas:
After graduating with honors from Princeton, Coupounas earned a joint M.B.A./M.P.A. at Harvard before helping to found GoLite; she currently serves as their Sustainability Officer.



Jill Dumain: Patagonia’s Director of Environmental Strategy
attended UC Davis, before joining Patagonia, where she ushered in the organic-cotton movement and other green efforts.



Bill Gamber: A longtime outdoor-enthusiast and entrepreneur
, Gamber cofounded Big Agnes, intent on changing the way people looked at their camp sleeping system.

Kevin Myette: As Director of Product Integrity for REI, Myette ensures the quality of all products—both third-party and house brands—sold at REI.

Dawson Winch: In her role as DuPont’s Global Brand Manager of Sorona, a renewably sourced fiber used in outdoor apparel and footwear, Winch oversees the brand and its messaging and communications.

1. Flash forward 10 years: What will green gear look and perform like?

Kevin: We believe that “green gear” will not be called green gear, but simply gear. In fact we look forward to the day when the word “green” is dropped from the descriptor of any product or service. There is no reason that products cannot be high performing, aesthetically pleasing, affordable and environmentally optimized. Sustainability will be the next platform for innovation and we believe that we should not compromise on any of these dimensions. Companies are waking up to this fact and the development of common industry tools to measure—like the shared, cross industry, supply chain facing, Eco Index—will accelerate innovation.

Bill: Big Agnes has been pushing itself to produce all of our gear ‘greener”. As we develop specific green gear we open the door to develop regular in-line gear with greener components like our Insulated Air Core pad using Primaloft ECO and for 2011 the majority of our synthetic sleeping bags will be using a 97% recycled fill. A few years ago things like this weren’t available or if they were the price put us into a different price point. The general consumer doesn’t appear to be willing to pay more for eco products, therefore we feel it’s our responsibility to produce in-line green gear. The more we can make broad strokes and make larger impacts the better vs. bringing smaller run, smaller sales potential products to market.

Kim: Kevin Myette’s response above is GoLite’s view entirely. It’s so good, I’ll repeat a line! There is no reason that products cannot be high performing, aesthetically pleasing, affordable and environmentally optimized. Today, those companies that are actively reducing the footprints of their products are the standout brands, but in 10 years those companies that have done little to nothing will be the ones that stand out - in a negative way. Making gear that optimizes all of these dimensions will be the expectation of all companies, not the exception.

It’s no accident that the companies in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index consistently outperform the general market. At GoLite, we see reducing our environmental and social impacts as an enormous opportunity. Seeking new ways of doing business to reduce our impacts is driving overall innovation within the company. Our efforts to increase operational efficiency and to eliminate materials in our products that are manufactured from virgin petroleum are not only reducing our climate impact, they are actually saving the company money and reducing our petroleum exposure risk.

Reducing transportation distances for textiles through vertical integration and shortening distances between factories reduces carbon emissions and saves money. Achieving greater operational efficiencies through things like energy efficient lighting, energy use reduction strategies, alternative transportation efforts, reducing long haul flights, reducing air shipping of product, and many other things reduce carbon emissions and save money.

Staying ahead of the climate-related regulation curve reduces our exposure and legal risk. Being a company that walks its talk on the climate change and sustainability front enables us to attract and retain the best talent and to attract loyal customers who share our values. This leads to enhanced product differentiation, brand equity and market share.

This type of thinking by suppliers, manufacturers and brands drives innovation throughout the industry, and as a result, in 10 years outdoor products will not only be more sustainable, they will also perform better than today’s products.

Dawson: In 10 years (hopefully sooner) gear and apparel will inherently be ‘green’ or gentler on the environment than some of the options now available. Awareness leads to understanding and buy-in so now that the awareness of caring for the environment has been increased, it will hopefully lead to a more comprehensive understanding of steps that can be taken. Innovation will also lead to new products and that will lead to a reduced, minimal or zero impact on the environment.

In 10 years time, hopefully care of the environment in terms of gear / products will not be on the ‘to do’ list to check off, but instead, an integral and inherent part of how we do business and how we make products. It will become the ‘new’ norm. No longer will it need to be marketed as ‘green’, all gear will be green. After all, when did we decide that we were going to make products that aren’t good for the environment? A new (and ‘greener’) normal.

Jill: In 10 years, green gear won’t be a distinction; it will be an expected part of any of the products we buy. I started using this argument about 5 years ago while trying to implement environmental initiatives into our supply chain. (e.g. bluesign technologies) Arguing that ‘green’ attributes will be like quality is today, an expectation and not so much a point of differentiation. Consumers are heading this way now and with the next generation that is being raised living transparent lives (for the most part), they want to know more about where there is stuff is coming from and how it is being made.



Question directed at Jill: Can you explain what bluesign is, how it works, and why it’s important for consumers to know about it?

Jill: bluesign is an environmental protocol that works throughout the entire supply chain for dyeing and finishing in the industry. They go back as far as the chemical and dyestuff companies but mostly focus on textile mills to ensure the inputs used on a bluesign approved fabric are the most progress environmentally.

They focus on 5 areas: 1. Air emissions 2. Water emissions 3. Occupational health and safety 4 Consumer Safety and 5. Resource productivity. They make sure the inputs used meet environmental and toxicology criteria ( that I don't have at my fingertips right now but could get for you tomorrow if it isn't too late...think carcinogenic, mutagenic, endocrine disrupters...) and ban substances that don't qualify.

They do this by putting inputs on a blue list (good) or a black list (bad). They also use a grey list that has inputs that are okay to use as long as the process is taken care of properly. This is important for a company that is trying to make outdoor products that do require chemistry for performance but at the same time ensuring the environmental impact is minimized and more importantly doesn't pose a risk to the people in the supply chain that are working with the chemicals.

It is important for consumers to know about because as outdoor enthusiasts, our products use a lot of chemistry to meet our performance requirements. So we as consumers should want to know that the great outdoors that we love to play in, isn't being desecrated to make the products we use in our enjoyment. This standard also brings in resource productivity unlike many others so we are seeing a reduction in the water, energy and amount of chemicals that are being used in our products.

2. Like it or not, chemicals are a big part of performance outdoor gear—from DWRs to plastics to wicking and anti-stink treatments.

How much is the outdoor industry at the mercy of the chemical companies, and are they responsive to your requests for greener solutions?

Kevin: Yes, chemicals are part of every product—not just outdoor. We can’t make products without them (water is a technically a chemical). The key is not to convict chemicals per-se, but to have a policy and strategy that ensures a thorough analysis of the risk posed by specific chemicals, set clear expectations on what can and can not be in your products and expect full transparency from your supply chain.

The outdoor industry really can control its destiny around harmful chemicals. We just need to be educated on the risk and clearly articulate our requirements. Again, greener solutions, or “green chemistry” will come about when we gain a more thorough understanding of the risks and create appropriate market pressures.

In the textile world, we see no better strategy for appropriately managing the chemicals in our products than spec’ing materials which meet the bluesign standard, for it is a pro-active, risk analyzed, input based, full process control, method for preventing undesirable chemicals to be used in your products—or in the processes which make your products (how they affect the worker and their communities).

BG: Nicely said Kevin. Even though Big Agnes is a small outdoor company, we do ask and have changed what we use. In a short period of time, we’ve seen positive changes. One example is the proprietary environmentally friendly anodizing process DAC uses on tent poles. Although a small impact environmentally, a big step in the right direction.

Kim: Again, I agree with everything that Kevin has just stated. The only thing to add relative to your question as to whether chemical companies are “responsive to [our] requests for greener solutions.:” Individual companies in the outdoor industry do not, in general, have the power to move chemical companies that are far larger in scale and where the amount of outdoor gear produced with their chemicals is relatively small compared to other consumer products.

It’s the combination of voluntary standards adopted by brands (like bluesign and the OIA Eco Index), regulatory demands, transparency by both brands and suppliers, media exposure, consumer awareness and demand, market competition, and the collective buying behaviors of a conscious industry that create the right pressures and incentives to move the needle on innovation towards greener solutions.

As a brand, we are responsible for doing what’s necessary keep banned, restricted, or CMR (carcinogenic, mutagenic, and reproductive toxin) substances in our products through clear policies with our supply chain, factory assessments, frequent factory visits and communication, full transparency, and through multiple collaborative industry-wide, multi-stakeholder efforts to improve standards and reporting within our supply chain.

Dawson: In many cases, the products themselves are chemicals – not just as additives and treatments but the very products themselves – polymers for fiber such as nylon, Gore-tex®; coatings, etc. In many instances the advances of science have enhanced not only the product’s performance (neoprene) or durability but it often provides the added benefit of increased enjoyment and comfort on the part of the outdoor enthusiast.

Innovation with a purpose (performance and sustainability) rather than innovation just for the sake of innovation is an important step in creating this balance. Chemicals have often served to sustain the environment (i.e rubber, and synthetic materials to preserve overharvesting of the ‘natural’ source of some ingredients and materials).

To say we’re at the mercy is misleading – instead we should be working together to find alternatives, solving the puzzles and combining the best of all science – biology, with chemistry and polymer science to create ‘greener’ alternatives with uncompromised performance. There’s one Earth and the space is finite – as are many of the resources – it requires a balance of preservation, conservation and use. Jill: For Patagonia, the biggest breakthrough that we have been involved in with chemicals in our industry is bluesign technologies. Given the complexities and toxicity of the chemicals that are needed to make outdoor gear, we needed help. On bluesign approved fabrics, all the chemicals are screened through their environmental filters with the worst ones being screened out and not allowed for use, this is their black list. They have a gray list of chemicals that are chemicals with some concern unless they are handled properly in the textile mill.

If there is a proper procedure in place for the health and safety our colleagues in the mill, the gray listed chemicals are allowed to be used. There is also a blue list with chemicals that don’t have the same restrictions of use. We have found that the chemical companies have reacted well to bluesign and their program because it consolidates their work and they don’t have to work to numerous Restricted Substance Lists. Most of our interaction with the chemical companies in the last 10 years has been in partnership with bluesign and it has worked well for us.

Extra question directed at Dawson: Chemical companies are often seen as big, bad, environmental brutes. Is that fair, and what are some of the specific actions chemical companies are taking to lesson their impact?



Dawson:
 In a word, No, it’s not fair. Many, if not most product are, or or are made with chemicals. The products that have changed the face of the outdoor industry and activities are technically “chemicals” – even water could be called a chemical.

Not only have the chemicals and the products made using them increased the opportunities of outdoor activities, they’ve also served to increase the safety and performance of outdoor enthusiasts. The BACKPACKER Editors’ Choice and Editors’ Choice Gold Awards often go to products that are products made with or are ‘chemicals’ – nylon, neoprene, Kevlar®, waterproof breathable membranes, Lycra, Cordura, etc. Granted it’s the design that generates the award, but chemicals are an essential part of many products.

Chemcials are used to make synthetic or man-made products so in many cases they actually help preserve the natural source of a product – like rubber.

DuPont has had an environmental statement since 1938, long before Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability were marketing buzzwords. In 2000, DuPont set 2010 goals for Sustainability and in 2006, DuPont announced its new 2015 Sustainability Goals. Progress towards these goals includes the following:

From 1993 – Present**

Safety & HealthWorld Leader

Major Incidents90% Reduction

Air Toxics75% Reduction

Air Carcinogens92% Reduction

Hazardous Waste (Dry)42% Reduction

U.S. TRI “Releases”77% Reduction

Greenhouse Gas Emissions72%

* Reduction (* 1990 to 2003 reduction. 1990 to present reductions excluding INVISTA are 60%.)

**Production during this same period increased 40%.

The DuPont Renewable Materials program was designed to support the 2015 Sustainability Goal of reducing dependence on oil and petrochemicals. DuPont Sorona is just one of the products that replace ingredients made with petrochemicals with those made with renewable resources. Many of these products also provide energy savings and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over their petrochemical based counterparts.

DuPont has been recognized as an environmental leader by many including Ceres and Business Week to name a few.

[Also directed at Dawson:] What question(s) should I be asking when it comes to chemicals? Ask the same question(s) asked of other companies. There are two aspects to ‘sustainability’ – operational and product. Sustainable products can be made in an unsustainable way – inefficient systems, dangerous work environments, etc. Likewise unsustainable products can also be made by ‘sustainable’ companies – safe work environments, facilities powered by alternative energy, minimizing consumption of depletable resources, etc.

With many products, i.e. rubber – the synthetic or chemical substitute helps preserve the natural form of this product. Synthetics or man - made products help ease the burden on resources – how much land would it take to grow the cotton or raise the sheet, etc. to replace all the synthetic fibers (polyester, nylon, etc.) used on all fiber applications? Is the question being asked relating to the company or to the products that any company produces? Perception vs. reality – education and understanding are important to really understand companies and the products they make and realistically measure the possible alternatives.

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.

4. Are your customers demanding greener gear and what are they willing to sacrifice (or trade off) for it? Are there good margins in green gear, or is it more expensive to produce than regular equipment? What’s creating the trend towards greener gear, consumer demand or a sense of corporate environmental responsibility?

Kevin: Yes, customers are asking for products which have a lower environmental footprint however they are not willing to sacrifice much—if anything—to get them. The challenge is when things cost more because they are truly better (not just greener), how to not let the idea that green costs more enter the discussion.

We do believe what is creating trends towards more environmental responsibility in products is actually multi-dimensional. Besides being the “right thing to do”, brands may view one or more of these as drivers for their behavior towards environmentally considerate products:

•Resource scarcity – The prices of materials/resources continues to skyrocket and being environmentally responsible is one of the best ways to responsibly manage cost

•Consumer demands – Consumers are definitely asking for this, as they should... doing it enhances brand reputation, not doing it will soon become a liability

•Governmental regulations – Whether full carbon footprinting/eco labeling, toxics management/compliance, or extended producer responsibility (take back programs), government is increasingly willing to legislate what they believe to be good behavior.

•A wonderful platform for innovation – sustainability is creating new opportunities for creating better (not just ‘greener’) products.

Dawson: Customers and consumers alike are starting to ask questions about how products are made and where they come from. Transparency of the supply chain is an increasingly important aspect of manufacturing. Pleading the 5th and not knowing the impact of each and every step of the value chain is no longer valid and transparency of product and production will continue to grow in importance.

Corporate environmental responsibility is also an important aspect of this as it’s the corporations that make the products, so it’s the corporations and companies that work on the innovation to bring ‘greener’ alternatives to market and provide choices for customers. Corporations that are making ‘greener’ alternatives need to experience the pull and success of these products, which in turn gets reinvested into the next generation of products.

Eric Lombardi, president of the Grassroots Recycling Network once said ‘let’s not kill the good in pursuit of the perfect.’ ‘Green’ is a continuum with many factors, and will continue to evolve. Both consumers and corporations play a role in this evolution.

Jill: Consumers are asking better, deeper questions about product so they are certainly paying attention but I think it is still a minority that are ‘demanding’ greener products.



5. What’s the most difficult product to make green? Is durability sacrificed?

Kevin: This is a super tough question to answer as “green” (I dislike that term) is so multi-dimensional. All aspects of the product lifecycle and environmental lenses must be considered in order to provide an environmental assessment. Then relativity between dimensions must play into the equation.

But before I totally punt on this question, I will say that a product’s degradation profile is determined by materials, and those materials are often chosen for specific performance characteristics—only one of may be durability longevity.

What is most important is that a full lifecycle and all impacts are considered when designing and developing a product. When a product must contain materials—for performance reasons—and the chosen material cannot break down easily in a landfill, and the product has a limited lifespan, then recycling options become greater in importance and should be part of the product’s total environmental picture. Great example, butane fuel canisters... They must be made recyclable.

Dawson: This depends on your definition of ‘green’ as well as your definition of ‘durability’. If ‘green’ is recycled, it still requires virgin materials in the initial products that will be recycled into other products. How often can/will it be recycled? Does continued recycling degrade performance? If its biodegradable, does that require ongoing use of virgin materials? If ‘green’ is defined as renewable, what impact does that have on either recyclability or sourcing raw materials?

Instead of looking at durability, I think the way to look at this is functional use; how ‘green’ can you make a product and still have it be appropriate for the use for which it was intended. Instead of a tradeoff – it’s matching the durability and performance needed with the sustainable products available.

Jill: The ones that are most difficult to make green are the ones that use the most different raw materials. There are so many aspects to look at with any one raw material but when you need multiple ones the work increases exponentially. Also, these are the most difficult products to be responsible at the end of life. Footwear, packs/luggage come to mind.

6. How have you used technology to create greener products?

Kevin: We are very mindful of the chemicals present in our products… for example, we have insisted on improving the environmental footprint of the DWR on our outerwear, moving from a C8 to a C6 technology so that we do not create unwanted toxins as a by product. However, we could not do this if we severely and negatively affected the durability of the DWR on these products—which up to now was a well documented trade off with C6 technology.

We believe that we’ve moved forward with both a C6 that is environmentally preferred, as well as durable enough to meet our performance standards. We did this through working with bluesign, our supplier, and employing rigorous laboratory and field testing for efficacy and durability.

Bill: We’ve seen our customer support our brand as a green-minded company more-so than green specific gear. Once again, we have found it to be our responsibility to incorporate green into our gear without sacrificing price or performance.

Dawson: One of DuPont’s sustainability goals is to decrease dependency on fossil fuels (oil and petrochemicals). Finding alternatives and combining biology with chemistry and material science has led to innovations in products that use renewable resources (those that can be regenerated in 1 year or less) instead of petrochemicals.

In many cases these products also save energy and reduce CO2 emissions over their petrochemical counterpart – and – they can be recycled at the end of their useful life. Sorona® is one of these products that reduces dependency on petrochemicals, reduces energy consumption and reduces CO2 emissions. By producing building block molecules or monomers that serve as both ingredients and intermediate materials, results in a larger reduction in the need for fossil fuels than simply focusing on one single product and making one product ‘green’. Biomaterials and advanced biofuels are two areas of focus.

Utilizing cellulosic material is just one option that is in development. History shows that technology has created new product classifications and that research and development continues at DuPont.

Jill: Two things: Closed-loop recycling, the ability to keep polymers in play is something so important for the future. If we could really take all the polyester that has been produced and recycle it into new polyester products and avoid the oil drilling and refining steps, it would be a huge decrease on environmental impacts.

I would also go back to bluesign for this one. There are a lot of mundane steps to look at in supply chain work but they are critical to the health and safety of all the people in the supply chain and the planet. The more production facilities we can get into robust environmental practices with the impact boundaries clearly defined, then you can develop all the technologies and products you want because you know you are playing within the environmental limits.

7. We’ve recently seen Merino wool’s resurgence as a high-performance, environmentally sustainable, biodegradable material. Are you experimenting with any other “miracle” fibers?

Kevin: Merino wool performs great. It is, however, not without its potential environmental drawbacks as is any other material. Besides a cost premium associated with wool, it is important to understand the way the fiber was processed (with or without chlorine) in addition to how sustainable the farming practices were where the sheep were raised. And further, Merino wool can have animal husbandry challenges in certain climates of the world where a pesky fly requires invasive procedures on the sheep.

The point? No material—yet—is completely devoid of issues which potentially diminish it’s environmental (and sometimes social) footprint. Wool remains a very important material for us and we are constantly trying to mitigate these concerns.

Clearly one of the most promising areas is the ability to make new fibers from previous scrap waste… waste that would have gone directly into a landfill and lost as a potential resource forever. These options hold promise as we continually keep performance high, but divert valuable materials (and the energy/resources to extract them anew) from going to waste.

Dawson: The short answer is yes. DuPont introduced nylon – a ‘miracle’ fiber - at the 1939 Worlds Fair. At the time, it was a totally new fiber, unlike anything on the market. Nylon was the brand name but due to its overwhelming adoption, it quickly became a generic term for fiber. Throughout DuPont history, innovation has led to totally new materials and new classes of products that had not previously existed.

Jill: Oh if only there as a ‘miracle’ out there! The most innovative research I have seen in the last year is really taking place in universities where they are taking all sorts of waste products and turning them into usable raw materials. From sewage waste to chicken feathers to agricultural waste products. I also saw a cool thing using mushrooms to grow foam! But none of this is ready for prime time yet.

8. Sleeping bag people: is recycled synthetic fill better than goose down (a byproduct?)

Kevin: [I am half punting on these next two questions for until a full LCA has been performed—which we have not done on these products—the answers are simply educated guesses]

I am assuming that both questions 8 & 9 are from a perspective of sustainability—and not one of many other dimensions which are critical when making materials choices. For if one makes choices on sustainability alone you end up with the recycled PET bottle fabric of the mid 90s, scratchy, ugly and overly expensive.

For sleeping bag fill, if performance is not considered you could have a bag that really does not meet your needs in many ways—especially when a lot of moisture is part of the sleeping conditions. Conversely, there are times that carrying a very light and compressible bag is paramount. Down offers near un-paralleled superiority in most cases when compared to a synthetic in most all conditions except wet.

That said, to truly determine what is best from a sustainability perspective alone requires a detailed Lifecycle Analysis (LCA) of both materials—going back and including feedstock and making sure that the boundaries are similar. We have not performed this task yet so any statements would be conjecture.

Bill: Tough to answer “better”. In general, the two fills are so different in performance, that in our opinion, both are still needed in the marketplace. Our position is to improve the eco impact of both fills. Down is our preference because it is a bi-product of food and therefore isn’t a new product produced with petroleum... also our reason to use as much recycled fill as possible.

Jill: See my answer to 9 (I didn’t answer in order) I think calling something a byproduct is a bit of an environmental copout. Even if a product is a secondary product because of the value assigned, it still contributes to the overall impact and should be counted with the allocation method described below.

9. Boot people: is synthetic (nylon) better than leather (a byproduct)?

Kevin: Again, lots of variables even if sustainability is the only dimension considered—not material applicability. Just a little more context rather than try to answer a question that is somewhat unanswerable without specific and comparable LCAs.

Synthetics for boots requires toughness therefore it is commonly nylon—an extremely durable polymer—derived from petroleum. Not only does nylon have a relatively large ‘feedstock’ footprint, but since it so relatively tough—it breaks down very, very slowly when discarded.

Leather, being a ‘natural’ material varies widely in its grade/cut and overall quality. But although it is a by-product of the production of meat—the process for turning it into a useable material can be very harsh. Additionally tanning practices vary greatly depending on the environmental sophistication of the tannery.

The Leather Working Group tannery rating system is a great tool to ensure that best practices are being followed. Clearly you want boots made from leather which have been tanned in facilities of Bronze status or better (http://www.leatherworkinggroup.com/)

Jill: There has been discussion now about referring to leather only as a byproduct from an environmental point of view. A more accepted way to look at it today is by allocated impact. So if you have a cow and x% goes to meat and x% goes to leather, that allocation of impacts would be assigned at the same percentages. This is a more fair comparison because if leather wasn’t available, there would be a different material taking its place, like nylon.

The point of view that I take on this type of a question is to look at the product and determine what is best for the performance and durability first. If someone buys a product with an ‘evironmentally preferred material’ on its green merits but doesn’t like it and use it, it isn’t a good green product.

So if we start with the performance and durability and then make the appropriate raw material the greenest they can be, we are going to produce better products and lessen our impacts. This also helps to show others that will continue using different raw materials that there is a better way to produce almost every raw material.



10. Are there steps that an end user can take to reduce the environmental impact of his/her gear?

Kevin: Certainly… first and foremost, buy carefully! Make sure you need what that product has to offer you and that it is best suited to the task. The product with the lowest impact is; no product at all.

Secondly, buy products that won’t wear out prematurely—and just as importantly—you won’t get bored of its aesthetic. Arguably more outdoor products are “mothballed” (hopefully not landfilled) due to the fact that the user gets bored with it or its look rather than it reaching its natural end of life.

Thirdly, learn how to and do take care of it. You can extend the life of products by appropriately cleaning and maintaining them. Seek the advice of a mentor and/or your reliable outdoor store employee as they can be invaluable for learning how to extend the life of your gear.

Lastly, when it is truly time for you and your gear to part ways, make sure it goes into a reliable re-use stream—unless it is completely trashed, then if at all possible recycle and/or disassemble it into recyclable components.

Bill: Buy durable gear and care for it. Research the brand and see if their environmental impact is clearly a company-wide focus. Where does their power come from (wind, solar...?) and what organizations do they support.

Dawson: Yes, first ask yourself if you really need it or simply want the newest color, newest ‘bell or whistle’ that comes with it.

With that said, consumers/end users can improve their knowledge on the care, responsible use and disposal of the gear they use. All of these aspects come into play – and often have a more significant impact on the environment - than the production of the product. Responsible use of not only the product, but the manner in which it’s used is critical to conserve and protect the land, streams and mountains in and on which we ‘play’.

Simple things can and are being done to educate folks on proper and environmentally smart care and use of products – airing out sleeping bags or using liners so only the liner needs to be cleaned; cold water washing and air drying;, care of coatings and gear to increase the useful life of the product. Each step is one step closer.

Jill: Buy stuff that will last a long time so they buy less stuff overall. The resources that go into making a new product and the waste generated is immense so the less everyone buys the better. Also, when you buy less stuff, you can buy better quality stuff because you won’t be replacing it in two years so in the long run money is probably saved. And time is definitely saved! Less time on-line and in stores!

11. As a consumer, I want to make the most responsible purchases. But I’m busy and can’t invest hours of research. What’s a quick and effective way to educate myself and be sure that I’m buying products that make environmental sense?

Kevin: Unfortunately, there is no really good answer to this question at the present time. Sustainability is complicated and if it matters to you, and you want to purchase specific items responsibly, then you must invest the time to become a more informed consumer.

At a minimum, you must be able to ask a few important qualifying questions so that your purchases may be as considered as they can be… like: “recycled fiber, great! What percent of the material, and of that, what percent is post consumer?”

Although created for industry to better understand its own environmental impact of products and their supply chains (not just another consumer “eco label”), visit www.ecoindexbeta.org to find a wealth of information on what questions to ask!

That said, there are some other things you can do that increase the chances that your choices are good. First, focus on the brand rather than the product. If a brand is showing that this is really important to them and show very clear actions and transparency around those actions (both good and bad), then reward them with your business. Check out their website and see how clear, substantive and transparent they are on their product and other sustainability behaviors.

Lastly, find out if that brand is a voting member of the work group which created the emerging Eco Index. If they are not, then ask them why not? If they don’t have a good answer, then find a brand that is.

Kevin (His second answer to same question): Unfortunately, there is no really good answer to this question at the present time. Sustainability is complicated and if it matters to you, and you want to purchase specific items responsibly, then you must invest the time to become a more informed consumer.

At a minimum, you must be able to ask a few important qualifying questions so that your purchases may be as considered as they can be... like: “recycled fiber, great! What percent of the material, and of that, what percent is post consumer?”

Although created for industry to better understand its own environmental impact of products and their supply chains (not just another consumer “eco label”), visit www.ecoindexbeta.org to find a wealth of information on what questions to ask!

That said, there are some other things you can do that increase the chances that your choices are good. First, focus on the brand rather than the product. If a brand is showing that this is really important to them and show very clear actions and transparency around those actions (both good and bad), then reward them with your business. Check out their website and see how clear, substantive and transparent they are on their product and other sustainability behaviors.

Lastly, find out if that brand is a voting member of the work group which created the emerging Eco Index. If they are not, then ask them why not? If they don’t have a good answer, then find a brand that is.

Bill: Kevin’s response on this is pretty thorough and we’d agree.

Kim: GoLite Response: Unfortunately, I agree with Kevin Myette at REI that there is no good answer to this question at the moment. Sustainability is complicated, and if it matters to you, then you have to invest some time to become an informed consumer. There’s a lot of “green noise” and “greenwashing” in the marketplace now, and it takes a savvy consumer to sort through it all.

The first place I’d recommend a consumer start is with a brand’s website. What does that company say about its commitment to sustainability, both on the environmental and social front? Are they making a concerted, sincere effort to reduce their footprint while bringing you quality products?

Are they transparent about what they’re doing, both good and where they need to improve? Is the company involved in efforts to improve the overall footprint of their industry? Have their sustainability efforts been reviewed by outside parties? If a consumer finds nothing compelling at this point, I’d suggest they find another brand. But if their efforts are real, then reward them with your business.

Find out if the company is part of any recognized organizations that evaluate sustainability efforts. One such standard is the B Corporation label.

B Corporations are a new type of corporation that uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. They are unlike traditional responsible businesses because they also meet comprehensive and transparent social and environmental performance standards and institutionalize stakeholder interests in the company’s foundational documents. Becoming a B Corporation is a multi-step, multi-month process. GoLite is proud to be certified as a B Corporation (www.bcorporation.net).

Beyond that, I suggest consumers actually read the label! Just like we read food labels to figure out whether a food is good or bad for us, so should consumers read the hang tags on consumer goods. Does the company make any statement about their commitment to sustainability? Is the product made in a more environmentally responsible way and/or with less harmful materials? Eventually, environmental and social indices will make it easier for consumers to buy products from more responsible companies.

Lastly, I suggest consumers pay attention to media articles that review companies’ sustainability efforts. Backpacker Magazine has done numerous excellent such reviews. While each specific article is not always 100% accurate in terms of portraying whether a company is truly on the path to sustainability or not, over time these reviews can give a consumer a good idea about which companies are walking their talk and which are not.



Extra Question directed at Kim: What should a consumer look for on the label?

Kim: Unfortunately there is no common standard for textiles to enable a consumer to determine the true sustainability (or lack thereof) of a product in the way that there are standards around food labeling for example – at least not yet. There is great work happening to devise standards and common language, such as the work of the OIA Eco-Index and the Eco-Working Group, but there is not yet a finished consumer-facing standard.

There’s also so much conflicting information and facts about what fibers, chemicals, fill materials, etc are best when it comes to sustainability. For example, sometimes a “recycled” fabric or material can require more energy to produce than its “virgin” equivalent, so it’s difficult to rely on material descriptions to help a consumer decide what to purchase. The other problem is that many companies are still “green-washing” (making exaggerated claims about the “green-ness” of their products.

Therefore when looking at labels and hangtags on textiles, consumers should look for other things that give them an indication that the product is being made responsibly, with the smallest footprint possible both environmentally and socially. One of the best things to look for is an independent sustainability standard or mark such as the B Corporation certification (bcorporation.net) and the bluesign® standard.

Consumers should also look for general statements by the company that resonate with them and help them know the philosophy behind what the company makes and how they make it. The other thing to do is to do some advance research via websites about which companies are most responsible and then to select products in the store and online based on brand first.

Dawson: Know your values and what’s important to you as a consumer – what are your goals. Ask a series of questions: Do you absolutely need the product or do you just want it? How, where and how often will the product be used? How long do you intend to use the product? How will you dispose of the product? What are alternatives (rent, borrow, etc.)?

The first step is to be sure the purchase makes sense, then have it make environmental sense. It’s also based on a persons values and the steps they are trying to take – reducing consumption, reducing products for landfill, reducing dependency on oil, reducing carbon footprint, or energy consumption, etc – what’s important to us.

As consumers, we need to educate ourselves and others and understand available options so when we do make the decision to buy, it is an educated and purposeful decision.

Jill: There isn’t a simple answer here but I would say to prioritize your environmental and social values. What is most important to you? Water, carbon, human rights, pollution.... and then research based on this list. If it is a passion of yours, it won’t be as overwhelming to learn about it. Contact the companies that you like to buy from and ask them your questions. The more companies hear from consumers, the more readily the information will be.

Extra question directed at Kevin, Bill and Kim: Sustainable products have been commonly touted as green, eco-friendly, and low-impact—terms widely used to hawk everything from gas grills to shovels. Is the message being diluted? Does the movement need rebranding?

Kevin: Interesting question as I’ve never thought of it as something that requires a brand. I think that a big issue with the “movement” is that semantics and marketing have often gotten in the way of—rather than support—the message. For example… there is no such thing as a sustainable or eco-friendly product in the range of things that we offer. The most environmentally considered product is no product at all. So if everyone/thing starts from a negative, the goal is to work very hard to bring it back to zero (or lesser) impact. The term sustainable actually is a continuum reflecting degrees of compliance rather than an on/off attribute.

The challenge is that sustainability is immensely complex and in order to speak of impact one must understand impact. That is what the Eco Working Group (your question below) is working so very hard at doing. We have resisted—at every turn—to taking this work towards consumers at this time. Not because we don’t want to share the information and be transparent about our process, but because in a marketplace where there is money to be gained or lost, when you make the information specific to a product or brand the incentive to look good radically alters the process of purely learning about impact. Learning and understanding throughout the supply chain is what matters the most at this critical time.

How can/should the consumer be part of this process? I am not sure—but it is a huge undertaking. A big obstacle to having a frank conversation with consumers is that the message was co-opted early by those with not a lot of understanding on the issues. This is not always because they were trying to be deceptive—it is because the understanding on environmental impact is/was not universal. So, I think what the consumer needs the most right now is transparency. The Federal Trade Commission has issued—just two weeks ago—updates and new rulings to their Green Guides and I think this is actually a very good thing. Essentially what they say is that no unsubstantiated claims of “green”. This could be one of the most significant turn of events that underscores the importance and value of the work of the Eco Working Group. The EWG is working directly on tools of understanding and substantiation.

Bill: “Green” may be over used, but I think in general it’s good. I think the issue is that the mass consumer truly doesn’t care, so businesses themselves need to go green. It’s OK if “eco-friendly”, “green”, “low-impact”, and “sustainability” are all becoming “marketing” terms. The USDA’s “organic” certification is more popular than ever. Have people taken advantage of it? Yes. But has the “organic” label helped to clean up some farming practices? Yes.

Does the movement need rebranding? If we re-brand it I think it will become another micro-group with an elitist feel. The Outdoor Industry has remained true to the cause.

Kim: What you’re getting at is a much larger issue that is plaguing all industries, not just the outdoor industry, and that is a lack of common language and standards around what constitutes a “green” or sustainable product, and yes, as a result the message is being diluted. As a result, we are all as brands struggling to say things about our products that are meaningful, true, and that consumers can understand. The movement doesn’t need rebranding so much as it needs commonly agreed-on and commonly-understood terms and statistics, in the same way that we all now understand food labels such as calories, protein, and fat.

That’s why the work of the OIA Eco-Working Group is so vital to the future of our industry: it is using open source collaboration between brands to devise language and standards that we can all agree on and that will eventually filter their way out to consumers in ways that consumers can understand. Governments will also eventually also step in with more specific guidelines on how to describe the green-ness of products.

We already have some specific guidelines from the FTC called the “Green Guides” around how to best and most accurately describe green claims to consumers. Every month that passes, these standards are getting clearer and more broadly understood by manufacturers. Without such standards and language, we’re all just making claims that can’t be easily verified or understood by consumers. What does “eco-friendly” mean anyway? We’re unfortunately a few years away from having such standards and language out there for consumers.