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Ultralight Backpacking

Ultralight or Eco-Friendly? Now, You Don’t Have to Choose.

These two companies are going green in their quest to shave weight.

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The outdoor gear industry’s pivot to prioritizing sustainable products and eco-friendly practices over the past decade is no secret. One category that hasn’t garnered as much attention, though, is ultralight gear. Ultralight’s insistence on minimalism over everything else has put efforts to get with the green program in the shadows. But companies within the space are designing products that are good for the earth and hikers’ pack weights.  

Big Agnes and NEMO—two of the larger companies in the ultralight arena—are founding members of the Outdoor Industry Association’s Climate Action Corps, which launched in 2020. Companies that join the Climate Action Corps take clear-cut measures to quantify the sustainability of their production process—from the factories that make the materials to the finished gear itself. They also focus on the longevity of their products and work to reduce greenhouse gases and pollution. One way to do this is joining bluesign, a Swiss organization that provides third-party accountability. 

“Being ‘sustainable’ is never easy. Anyone who tells you that it is as simple as spec’ing an organic or recycled material is kidding you, or themselves,” says Kevin Myette, bluesign’s Director of Global Brand Services. Achieving bluesign status requires more than just a certification based on spot-checks or a company claiming it’s helping the planet.

“We ensure integrity across the entire supply chain, from finished product to the materials which make the product to the molecules that are used to make the materials,” Myette explains. “The brand must be willing to invest the effort to become knowledgeable on where their biggest risks and opportunities lie. Then, what are the specific actions that they, the brand, should take which reduce or eliminate these risks?” 

In addition to working with bluesign, NEMO also uses the Higg Index, a green-practices tool developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. In addition, explains Theresa Conn, Global Distribution and Sustainability Manager at NEMO, the company uses a software tool called the Higg Facilities Environmental Module, which allows factories to upload environmental data, leeting multiple brands see how sustainable a supplier is without redundant audits. 

“Along with our bluesign work, we are targeting our supply chain energy usage to reduce our greenhouse gas footprint. We’ve nominated two of our key mills to participate in Clean by Design, a 12- to 18-month program that improves energy, water, and chemicals efficiency in textile mills,” Conn says. “NEMO will be financially supporting these mills over the course of the program.” Participants in the last Clean by Design program included more than 50 mills and according to Conn, their participation has saved 90,000 tons of coal annually. 

All those certifications wouldn’t count for much if companies didn’t make gear that performed well on the trail. That’s still the driving force behind Big Agnes and NEMO’s designs.

This year, Big Agnes introduced solution-dyed fabrics for nine of its most popular ultralight tents, including the Tiger Wall UL1 and its siblings. Rather than dyeing its tent fabrics after the fabric is woven, as most companies do, it now uses threads that are imbued with dye when they’re created. The company claims that the process reduces the amount of chemicals used to dye fabric by 80 percent. The fabric also takes 80% less energy and half as much water to produce—Big Agnes now uses nearly 5 gallons less water to produce some of its tents, saving thousands of gallons per year.

One of NEMO’s recent successes is the Moonlite Reclining Chair, a 2021 Backpacker Editors’ Choice Award winner. It’s mesh seat is 100 percent post-consumer recycled (PCR) and bluesign-certified, and the other polyester and nylon materials in the chair are 100 percent PCR as well.

Eco-friendly also doesn’t mean less durable. After all, the greenest product you can own is the one you don’t replace for years. Big Agnes CEO and co-founder Bill Gamber points to the use of solution dyeing in Big Agnes’ tent fabrics as an example. Since the solution-dyed threads themselves are impregnated with dye as they’re made, rather than dyed afterwards, they’re more UV-resistant and the material will last longer when exposed to direct sunlight.  

“Different colors tend to handle UV differently and some degrade quicker than others,” Gamber says. “With solution dyeing it doesn’t really matter what color [the fabric] is, so it extends the life of the tent substantially.”

In order to make it last longer, NEMO’s new Chogori tent—a burly, four-season shelter—is treated with silicone, doesn’t require seam tape, and is produced without using flame-retardant chemicals. 

“The coating spec itself has a big impact on the tear strength of the finished fabric,” explains Gabi Rosenbrien, NEMO product development manager. “So the Chogori’s silicone coating makes the fabric significantly stronger than the same textile with a more conventional tent coating, [which is] PU on the back and either DWR or silicone on the face. We’ve found sil/sil coatings to increase tear strength of the [naked fabric] by five times.” 

How companies package gear can have a big effect on the waste they produce as well. NEMO launched its 100K Polybag Elimination Project in 2019, and has since eliminated plastic bags from its tents. This year it’s replacing the polybags that protect its tent poles during shipping with a fabric bag made of recycled water bottles, a pilot program with pole supplier DAC. Big Agnes removed the poly bags on its camp furniture frames and is removing more of them on straight tent pole sets in 2021.

“Between tents and furniture it’ll be well over 100,000 plastic bags that we are eliminating,” Gamber says. It might sound like a small change, but every step in the right direction counts.