As backpackers, we all love socks: wool, Coolmax, polypro, even Primaloft. I personally wear a lot of wool socks. They keep me warm, I like how they feel and wool has a pretty good environmental story. It's naturally regenerated by the sheep. They get sheared, then they get shaggy again, then sheared... you get the picture. What's more of a gray area when talking about the greenness of wool is its processing. Lots of wool is processed using chlorine and water. Wool fiber has scales, and in order to remove those scales and make wool either less itchy or itch free on the skin, it gets dunked in a chemical bath and boiled. That chlorinated water then has to be dealt with--cleaned, dumped or reused.
At last week's Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, I met the folks from Richter International which make wool that doesn't require any water in its processing. The company, Richter International, zaps their wool with an electric charge instead of dunking it in a chemical bath to get rid of the itchy scales. They do still use water to dye their wool, but it's such a clean process that when the dye process is complete you can actually drink the water. In fact, at their headquarters in Toronto, their wastewater goes into a giant fish tank, where the company's coyfish (giant goldfish) live to illustrate the point.
The water from the dying process is reused multiple times. Their new process uses about one-tenth the water of a normal wool treatment process. We thought this was interesting because when you walk into your favorite outdoor store, it can be impossible to even imagine what the new sleeping bag, jacket, or socks that you're bringing to the register went through between the time that it was raw materials and the time that it's on the shelf at REI. There are many companies that make outdoor products that are working hard to figure out how to reduce the impact of what they make on the environment.
This innovation is one great example. We'll bring you more as more and more companies get creative for the good of the planet. —Berne Broudy