There’s no doubt that a new pair of shoes, rope, or set of snappy quickdraws brings us climbers joy. In fact, Climbing just released its 2020 Gear Guide celebrating all things new and innovative in the gear world. But our gear addiction comes at a cost, with the industry relying heavily on raw materials, fossil fuels, water, and—sometimes—harmful chemicals to manufacture our favorite products.
Of course, few sports or activities are free of guilt, as our society is married to fossil-fuel consumption and relentless use of resources. And the actions of a relatively small number of companies mining coal, oil, and natural gas far outweigh our individual choices. Still, we can do our part to lessen the impacts of our climbing gear, perhaps helping influence a larger shift in the outdoor industry.
Pro climber Tommy Caldwell has started to turn down fresh gear, even though he could easily tap his sponsors at Edelrid, Patagonia, and La Sportiva for new apparel or hardware. Instead, he says he takes pride in wearing down his gear until it's unusable. “Embrace the dirtbag spirit when you can,” Caldwell says—to ease your environmental impact.
Here’s how to make the most sustainable choices when it comes to gear, from making it last to buying the items that are gentlest on the planet.
Reduce and reuse
“First of all, you should just limit what you have,” says Caldwell. In most cases, buying new gear—even if that new product is made relatively sustainably—has the biggest impact on the environment, compared to prolonging the life of what you already own or buying secondhand. To cut back on your gear footprint, first think about what you actually need.
“The materials that go into our products are the lion’s share of our carbon footprint,” says Paul Hendricks, senior manager of environmental responsibility at Patagonia. Patagonia has done numerous environmental assessments of its products and company as a whole, tracking factors like the energy used, waste produced, and emissions generated at every step in the supply chain. In their analysis, Hendricks says, it’s become clear that the raw-materials stage—producing the cotton, nylon, and other materials that are later assembled into various products—is the most carbon-intensive. Natural materials like cotton require fertilizers, pesticides, and water to produce, and synthetics derive from oil. In factories, energy-intensive equipment is used in boiling, dying, finishing, and laminating to produce fibers that are ultimately constructed into various products.
Key to reducing the need to buy new things is extending the life of what you have. That means going to the basics of equipment storage: keeping items clean, and storing them in a cool and dry place—i.e., not the trunk of your car! Follow the care and maintenance instructions that come with your stuff. Many outdoor companies create products to last, so with some care, you can get extra years of life out of your favorite jacket, cam, or tent.
Repair and recycle
When items do start to wear down, there are often still options to extend their life. In the case of climbing shoes—along with ropes and harnesses, an item that climbers wear through the quickest—the perhaps obvious answer is resoling. Typically, you can resole your shoes at least three times before it’s time to buy new again, according to Rock and Resole in Boulder, Colorado. Be sure to check your boots regularly for wear; once rubber has worn away from the toebox and into the rand, repairs are more expensive or your shoes may be unsalvageable. Find your closest cobbler. While some places are blessed with local resolers, you can also mail in shoes for repair if you’re farther away.
Many outdoor companies also have generous warranties that cover repair or replacing their items (though they may have discretion over deciding if damage is due to normal wear and tear, and therefore not subject to the warranty). After struggling to find a hole in my leaky Therm-a-rest sleeping pad, for example, I sent it in for repair to the company’s headquarters in Seattle, where it was patched up and mailed back. Although, be warned, such repairs can take a few weeks. Here is one list in Adventure Journal detailing the replacement-and-repair policies of numerous brands.
Some companies, such as Arc’teryx and The North Face, will even repair and send back products with normal wear and tear—although they may charge a small fee. For cams, many companies—including Black Diamond, Metolius, and DMM—allow you to send back their cams for repairing trigger wires and replacing slings. The outdoor industry is also growing a market for secondhand apparel. Patagonia claims it operates the largest clothing-repair facility in North America for its Worn Wear program; you can trade in your old Patagonia items and get credit toward buying other refurbished Patagonia goods. Even if your old R1 hoody is beyond repair, the company is committed to recycling everything customers send in, says Hendricks. The North Face also launched a similar effort, with The North Face Renewed.
There are also options for DIY repair. You can purchase repair kits for some products, such as those to replace trigger wires on cams. For nylon products like puffies, packs, and tents, you can buy durable, long-lasting repair tape for cheap. For a few extra bucks, you can also buy pre-cut patches in fun shapes and designs from Noso Patches. Now, you can be dirtbag chic, rocking an ancient down jacket held together with a patchwork of tape. As Caldwell puts it, “It used to be a point of pride to have a patched-up down jacket.” Let’s bring it back.
And when your gear is truly unusable, there might still be options to skip the landfill. While your old rope might not be safe for falls anymore, it can still be reused for home projects; there are tutorials online for recycled rope rugs, dog leashes, and other ideas—there’s even one for an ottoman. If you can’t reuse, sell, or give your well-loved old gear away, you may be able to find a service that accepts items for recycling. Goodwill and H&M, for example, both accept textiles for recycling. Green Guru Gear accepts old ropes and recycles them into bracelets, and your local climbing gym might accept donations of old shoes.
Choose durable, greener products
When it is time to buy a new rope, harness, or carabiner, there are a few ways you can make a more sustainable choice. Navigating the marketing language and various claims can be challenging, however—any company can claim their product is “green,” but without a third-party standard it doesn’t really mean anything.
In textile manufacturing, the outdoor industry is increasingly working with bluesign, an organization that teams up with companies to reduce the use of harmful chemicals in their supply chain. A bluesign tag means that some or all of the material in a product was produced at factories meeting high standards for pollution and resource use. Patagonia was one of the first outdoor companies to partner with bluesign. Edelrid has also worked extensively with its manufacturers to offer a range of bluesign products, including chalk bags, several harnesses, and a dry-treated rope, the Swift Eco Dry, which is the first dry rope made without PFCs (perfluorinated compounds), a group of chemicals that is hard to break down and has been linked to numerous health concerns.
In general, limiting products with PFCs can reduce the amount of these chemicals that are making their way into the environment. PFCs provide powerful oil and water resistance, and manufacturers often put them in waterproof coatings. It’s perhaps worth considering whether you need a product to be absolutely waterproof, in order to spare the impact of these chemicals, says Caldwell. “For some super-high-end alpinists, having a super-bomber [waterproof] jacket is a matter of life and death,” he says. “[But] if you can get away without that, it’s better.”
Caldwell says that he buys organic cotton when he can, too. Growing cotton conventionally requires heavy inputs of pesticides and fertilizers, which leach off farms and pollute bodies of water. Hendricks at Patagonia notes the environmental benefit that recycled materials can have. In their popular Nano Puff jacket, the company found that switching from virgin to recycled polyester insulation reduced the carbon footprint of the jacket’s insulation by 52 percent.
Choosing longer-lasting items is also important, as replacing gear always comes with a hit to the environment. Edelrid’s Bulletproof line of carabiners, for example, features steel inlays in the aluminum devices where they make contact with rope. This prevents the rapid wear—e.g., the dangerous grooving in overused carabiners that means they must be retired—that normally occurs in hardware made fully of aluminum.
Blair Williams, vice president of Edelrid North America, says the outdoor industry as a whole has dragged its feet when it comes to recognizing and motivating sustainable efforts. “It seems to me like in the outdoor industry, a lot of brands are doing some really amazing things,” he says of sustainability efforts. “But for the most part, we view those products parallel and evenly to other products that are being introduced that are just common products that don't really have any kind of a sustainability or environmental effect.” Changing that system, he says, is a team effort: “Athletes have a responsibility, consumers have a responsibility, business owners have a responsibility, buyers have a responsibility, in terms of how as an industry, we can all come together [on sustainability].”