Top Down, Bottom Up

Clothing and gear makers reduce, reuse, recycle, and rethink their businesses.
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Clothing and gear makers reduce, reuse, recycle, and rethink their businesses.

Two weeks ago, Britain’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) introduced its Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) at London Fashion Week. As models strutted their stuff on the runway, DEFRA announced that they had pledges from 300 UK fashion industry companies, including Marks and Spencer, Tesco and Sainsbury, to up the sustainability factor of their clothing. The companies agreed to rethink their businesses to make them more sustainable. They agreed to take back clothing that their customers are done with, reduce packaging, and use recycled content where they can. In fact, when they signed on to SCAP they promised to make fashion more sustainable throughout its lifecycle, from design, to manufacture, to retail and disposal. According to UK-based Recycling and Waste Management News and Information, the Plan not only targeted companies, but consumers, asking them to recycle and reuse their clothes. Currently two million tons of clothing ends up in the landfill in the UK each year.

SCAP is already being criticized for not going far enough. But Plan authors said they had to start somewhere, and that SCAP is a living document, already set for its first revision in 2010.

On this side of the pond, there is a complementary initiative, and it's being driven not by fashion but by the companies that make all the gear and technical apparel you use when you go adventuring in the outdoors.

Almost 100 companies, ranging from giants like The North Face, REI and even Levis (the original outdoor clothing) to smaller companies like Chaco, GoLite and yes, Backpacker Magazine, have been working for the past two years to develop tools and strategies to help companies understand what's in their product and how they can improve it. The members of this team (including your truly) have spent the past two years determining what it is we don't know--like where the raw materials in our backpacks, boots and waterproof breathable jackets come from, or how the various components of each are shipped to the factory where they're finally being assembled into the product that you buy at your local mountain shop, and if there is a better way.

Once we came up with a draft documenting what we don't know about what we make, then we developed a tool to figure out how we need to evaluate each piece across categories. We call those categories lenses, and they include climate, water, chemicals, land use, green house gas and waste. Then we set up a matrix that each company and it's suppliers and it's suppliers down the chain can use to evaluate its raw materials, processing, manufacturing, packaging, transportation, and what happens to each shirt, tent, backpack and boot when you're done with it. It was a daunting task in the beginning, but we're making progress, creating tools, and working together to lay the groundwork for making real change.

This may all seem like mumbo jumbo. Most of us don't think about what's happening in some Chinese factory when we go to buy a sleeping bag, but we should. What's happening behind the scenes is relevant to you because not only will being informed help you avoid greenwashing, but it's going to insure that if you want to reduce your own impact on the environment, there will be choices you can make that go beyond the vegetable aisle at your local natural foods store, and into all departments of your local outdoor store.

There is a lot of talk at the national and world level about climate change, and the responsibility of manufacturers to clean up and stop contributing. And there is a lot of talk about chemicals. Last year, most of us swapped the BPA-containing waterbottles we've been using for years for waterbottles that don't contain harmful chemicals. Recently, the EPA asked all the companies that make waterproof breathable membranes and waterproof coatings and even non-stick pans to change their manufacturing process to eliminate toxic bioaccumulating byproducts that end up in the environment and in our bodies every time they put a jacket on the rack at your favorite outfitter.

As a consumer you can make choices--about what you buy, where you buy, and how you use and dispose of what you've got. So do what you can in your own life, ask your favorite brands to get involved, and stay tuned for more information about what choices you have, and what ones are coming.

Eco Working Group