Dressed To Kill The Environment


Dressed to Kill .......the environment? 

A few weekends ago I was running a ‘learn to lead’ course.  Saturday had been sunny but on Sunday we awoke to driving rain and unseasonably cold temperatures.  For everyone else at the hut this meant a tour of the gear shops and a leisurely café lunch.  For the people on the course and I it meant business as usual.  So I layered for battle in a synthetic base layer, 2 fleeces, Goretex XCR jacket, supplex nylon trousers and Goretex paclite overtrousers.  Throw in my synthetic underwear, boots, climbing gear and rucksack and I had turned into a petro-chemists dream pay check!

 The rain didn’t let up all day but, apart from wet feet, this chemical armour kept me warm and dry for 9 drenching hours.  However, I did get to thinking of the irony of heading into this pristine countryside dressed entirely in clothing whose manufacture had been so environmentally destructive, and on the drive home I resolved to look into how damaging this gear is and whether there are any alternatives.  Now please don’t get me wrong.  I am certainly not claiming to be an environmental saint and my annual travel alone must burn enough petroleum to heat a small city.  But I have always worked on the basis that every little helps and if sharing this information means even one person makes a more environmentally aware gear choice that will be a success in my book.

As my clothing on that day showed, for modern outdoor clothing synthetics rule.  No surprises there - outdoor people know they are incredibly good at what they do.  Unfortunately, synthetic fabrics are manufactured form petro-chemicals which are by-products of oil production.  Consequently, they are damaging to produce, come from a non-renewable resource and don’t biodegrade.  This goes for fleece and all the other nylon materials used for shells, tents, sleeping bag and rucksacks.  The environmental damage caused by nylon production is far ranging but, just as one example, a by product of the process is nitrous oxide gas – a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide.   In addition shells often have a PTFE membrane which is a plastic flouropolymer – essentially another petro-chemical.

Modern footwear also uses a lot of synthetic materials and even the leather is treated with very harmful chemicals such as chrome based products and metal salts.  To top it off, the rubber soles are more likely to be made from synthetic sources rather than the rubber that comes from trees.

I’m sure you’re getting the idea.  Tent poles – alloy metal or carbon fibre, compass – plastic, fuel – gas (or some other non renewable) ….the list goes on and on.  It all starts to sound a bit depressing but the real question is whether there is anything we can actually do to make more environmentally friendly choices?  Luckily there is quite a bit we can do and while it’s not going to solve all the problems we cause, it’s better than doing nothing.

Some natural fabrics are making a comeback. I’ve always found wool very itchy but I was recently persuaded to try a merino wool baselayer and it’s great.  Its super fine fibres make it very comfortable and it performs well either on its own or combined with synthetic fibres as some companies are producing.  Wool isn’t completely environmentally friendly because sheep produce a lot of the greenhouse gas methane and there are often polluting chemicals used in its processing.  But, at the end of the day, it’s still more natural than petro-chemicals!  Merino wool products are available from several companies including Smartwool, Odlo, Howies and Macpac.

Cotton, whilst clearly a natural product, is very damaging to the environment due to the toxic chemicals used both during the growing and processing phases. Last year $2 billion dollars worth of chemicals were sprayed on the world’s cotton crops and many of these are classed as ‘extremely’ or ‘highly’ hazardous by the World Health Organisation.  As an example one million kilos of a pesticide named Aldicarb was sprayed on US cotton crops in 2003 and one drop of this chemical is sufficient to kill an adult male. Fortunately several outdoor companies are now using organic cotton which avoids many of these problems although presently it still only accounts for about 0.15% of worldwide cotton production.  Check out the products from Prana, Patagonia and Howies.

There is also a growing use of hemp.  Hemp is a tough natural material well suited to cragging and casual use but, like cotton, it has limitations as a technical fabric.  Hemp can be grown on most of the world’s farmland and has a very strong natural resistance to pests.  Even better, once harvested it has a high yield of cellulose, edible proteins, oils and fibres with over 50,000 different product applications.  Check out the hemp clothing by Prana and Patagonia. 

Ventile is another interesting cotton fabric with a super tight weave that makes it very windproof.  It was favoured by artic explorers of old and works really well in dry environments but tends to soak up moisture almost as readily as normal cotton in wet conditions.  Howies use it in some of their clothing.

If you’ve read some of our other articles you will know we are big fans of Patagonia.  Patagonia is an outdoor clothing company with strong environmental awareness and a history of ‘walking the walk’ rather than just ‘talking the talk’.  For many years Patagonia have produced PCR (post consumer recycled) fleece made from plastic drink bottles.  Luckily it’s amongst the best performing fleece on the market so it’s a great green option.  Patagonia are now also making some of their shell and base layers from PCR fabrics helping outdoor activists go green on a few major elements of their clothing system.

Another company that has an impressive attitude to environmental issues is Vaude.  Since 2002 they have been producing all their technical underwear in compliance with the ‘bluesign’ standard.  This guarantees environmentally sustainable, toxin free production processes and Vaude, like Patagonia, also offers a garment recycling programme.

Unfortunately, from that point on the environment conscious consumer has to start thinking outside the box because we are still left with no easy green solutions for many of the items we need.

In reality, Patagonia’s adage ‘consume less, consume better’ is the best option.  You really do normally get what you pay for and buying better quality gear will pay off in the long run.  Manufacturers need to keep selling us gear to stay in business so they keep tweaking their products and it’s tempting to follow every fad.  When I get tempted (and I frequently do!) I try to imagine the gear those early pioneers had and it helps me to get it in perspective.  If Mallory and Irvine could do their stuff on Everest in tweed and cotton than maybe I can survive with a choice of only 10 fleeces!

The same goes for the recent trend in lightweight products.  It’s important to think what you need the items for and try to find the best fit for your activity.  We all want to keep our pack weight down but that ultra light paclite won’t ever be as durable as Gore-Tex XCR and that featherweight mountain marathon tent really isn’t the most durable option when you are camping out of your car in Langdale!  If is doesn’t last as long there is an environmental cost in replacing it more often (and throwing the old one away).

Maintaining your gear carefully is also going to extend its life.  Water based DWR treatments obviously contain their fair share of chemicals but they will keep your waterproofs functioning for longer (wash in rather than aerosol if possible).  Using a simple groundsheet protector will help your tent keep the Welsh rain at bay.  Even storing your sleeping bag is crucial for its longevity.  Most manufacturers give excellent advice either on the product swing tags or their websites.  If you can spare the time to read it rather than tear it off in the excitement of getting another new toy (like I do!) it will be time well spent.

After that it’s all the little things and we could fill pages with ideas but they are mostly common sense.  We’ve tried to get into the habit of thinking about everything we use to see if there is a better choice.  We were using a lot of those foil wrapped ready meals on expeditions and have now opted for mixing up our own food (super noodles rule!) in zip lock bags that can then be reused.  We hate throwing away those self sealing gas bottles so we are trying to use more petrol and meths instead (not at the same time!) for most of our camp cooking.  We have taken to passing on retired climbing ropes to local scout groups for their pioneering projects.  The list goes on and it’s very much a work in progress.  Having said that, every change, no matter how insignificant it seems, is a change for the better.  Even better, every change makes you feel that little more in tune with the natural environment in which we all love to play.