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When we go outside to climb, we can make informed decisions based on how much our actions impact the environment. Thanks to guidebooks, local beta, and other resources for best practices, we can choose to camp in designated areas, bring our pup (or not), stay on trails, and decide how best to dispose of our poo.
It’s easy to assume that gear manufacturers have equivalent resources to help guide positive choices around their own impact, in order to advance environmental, labor, and social sustainability. Despite a global movement for eco-friendly practices, this isn’t always the case. Many brands are taking a deeper look into their entire supply chain, but they are struggling to fix the harmful practices that used to be status quo.
The process to become more sustainable has been a gradual one. The Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) states: “Sustainable business is about asking, ‘How can we do this better?’ It’s about working together on shared challenges and asking the questions that drive innovation, environmental responsibility, and positive contributions to the communities from which we source, in which we manufacture, and to which we sell.”
Right now, sustainability is about incrementally improving supply-chain practices, and consumers are looking for companies with a commitment to the environment. In 2016, Nielsen, the largest global marketing research firm, put out a Global Corporate Sustainability Report. “Consumer brands that demonstrate commitment to sustainability outperform those that don’t,” it read. “Consumer brands that haven’t embraced sustainability are at risk on many fronts.” These claims are backed by a survey of 30,000 consumers in 60 countries along with retail-sales data. In 2015, sales of consumer goods from brands with a demonstrated commitment to sustainability have grown more than 4 percent globally, while those without grew less than 1 percent. And 66 percent of consumers say they are willing to pay more for sustainable brands—up from 55 percent in 2014 and 50 percent in 2013.
Despite significant challenges in distilling sustainability initiatives to a simple website heading or product tag, that is exactly where consumers are looking for information. In 2014, 51 percent of Millennials reported checking the product packaging for sustainability claims before making a purchase. To make truly informed decisions, we need more information about the product through its entire lifecycle.
Where it’s made often has less impact than how it’s made. Even when products are made in the United States, that doesn’t tell us the full story of their country of origin. Or the working conditions in the mill. Supply chains are long and varied and include many interwoven parts: raw-materials extraction, manufacturing, construction, shipping, retail, use, and disposal. And when it comes to the chemicals involved throughout the entire supply chain, it’s often an unknown, even to the brands themselves.
When sustainability is not a main focus, often 80 to 90 percent of the chemicals used to make a product are not detectable in the final product. Even the most minute amount of toxic materials in an end product could mean many more were used earlier in the manufacturing process. In 2010, The North Face did a life-cycle assessment of three products in their outerwear, equipment, and footwear categories. They concluded that 65 to 85 percent of the environmental impact of a product happens at the materials stage. Since then, the company has focused on improving resource efficiency and material selection.
Most of the time, we don’t think about the chemistry required to create products. Metal, plastic, rubber, and textiles all require large amounts of chemical inputs to become the technical products we love. For example, foam for crashpads is often made of polyurethane (PU), which is a Schedule 3 Controlled Substance. In accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, PU factories have to register as chemical-weapons producers because the base monomers are so toxic that improper exposure can cause cancer and severe respiratory issues.
The future might be in third-party certification. Bluesign technologies is a private company that documents and tracks the complex supply chain from raw-materials extraction to the chemical supplier, material manufacturer, assembler, all the way to consumer sales. They work with brands to evaluate and reduce the consumption of materials and energy, the production of wastewater and air emissions, and the handling of hazardous materials, proving that when a process uses better chemistry, it uses less water and energy. During investigations, Bluesign also scrutinizes manufacturing byproducts and impurities, and every process is checked against a list of more than 900 restricted (toxic) chemicals found in the textile industry.
Bluesign technologies has three main certifications: materials, products, and companies. A Bluesign material is one that uses nontoxic chemicals and processes in its creation. Meanwhile, a certified Bluesign product contains at least 90 percent Bluesign-certified materials. Patagonia, the first brand to officially join the network of Bluesign system partners, describes company partnerships: “Textile manufacturers that become Bluesign system partners agree at the outset to establish management systems for improving environmental performance … [and] regularly report their progress in energy, water, and chemical usage and are subject to onsite audits.” Starting this year, Bluesign technologies is offering Outdoor Industry Association members a 15 percent discount on an annual system partnership.
Edelrid became a Bluesign system partner in 2009, and 100 percent of their dynamic ropes are Bluesign products. While working with Bluesign technologies on their processes, Edelrid gained the following efficiencies for dyeing sheath yarns:
- 62% CO reduction
- 89% decrease in water consumption
- 63% decrease in energy usage
- 63% reduction in chemical usage
To achieve this, they now use a reduced range of colors that have environmentally friendly dye processes. Retailers REI and MEC have ambitious goals to ensure 100 percent of the materials for their branded products are Bluesign approved by 2018 and 2017, respectively. Other climbing companies that qualify as Bluesign (for material, product, or company certifications) are Mammut, Petzl, Arc’teryx, Black Diamond, and La Sportiva. The challenge to getting more climbing-specific manufacturers on board is that hardware products using metals and plastics are not presently mapped out for Bluesign certification. Priorities are currently in the apparel and (coming soon) footwear industries because of their larger size and greater impact. The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world, second only to oil.
The scale of the textile industry allows progressive companies like Patagonia, The North Face, REI, and MEC to demand mills and suppliers become Bluesign certified. The impact has a trickle-down effect. Since the certification is done at an organizational level, even if one of these companies is just 5 percent of a mill’s business, when the mill complies, the other 95 percent of businesses using that mill will gain the benefit.
This interlacing web is actually why Bluesign technologies doesn’t like using the term “supply chain,” and instead prefers “supply network.” Supply chains are constantly overlapping, whether at the chemical level or later in the process. It’s easy to see that the more integrity within the entire network, the more everyone benefits.
A new tool is the Higg Index, which is a self-assessment protocol that asks brands to probe their own standard practices through in-depth questions around material selection, value-chain management, chemicals-impact reduction, manufacturing processes, and end-of-use programs. This tracking system measures the broader scope of a business’s footprint and spans environmental factors, labor standards, and social sustainability.
The Higg Index is the result of a 10-year effort by OIA’s Sustainability Working Group (SWG), in collaboration with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). This index is a way to encourage environmental and social best practices in the outdoor industry’s supply network. The SWG is comprised of 300 outdoor brands, retailers, suppliers, and other stakeholder organizations. Amy Roberts, executive director of OIA, emphasizes that the Higg Index will provide “more secure supply chains and confidence in the supply chain.” So far there are more than 100 early adopters who have started actively using the Higg Index to assess their environmental and social impact.
“We’re in learning mode,” says Nikki Hodgson, OIA’s corporate responsibility manager and facilitator of the SWG. Progress makes good business sense, and benchmarking is the first step, with the first round of outdoor-industry results coming at the end of 2017. The OIA has plans to create resources for problematic areas and compile case studies from industry successes. A consumer-facing label that would show a company’s Higg Index score is also in the works.
To encourage industry participation, OIA is making the Higg Index tool free for OIA members until May 2017. Afterward, the yearly fee will help expand the tool to cater to the specific challenges of the outdoor industry, especially with hardware brands, and to offer more guidance in the self-assessment process.
In conjunction with the Higg Index, REI sent out a sustainability questionnaire to the 1,400 brands they sell. Simply receiving the survey has already spurred companies like Nemo Equipment to start an internal sustainability group. REI has explicitly stated that the results of these surveys and sharing of Higg scores will not be used to penalize their partner brands.
While developing the Higg Index, it became apparent that the biggest improvement could be made at the end of a product’s life. With no systems in place for the repair, recycling, or re-integration of products and materials back into the system, Americans send 12.7 million tons of textiles to the landfill each year.
Sometimes a product’s “end of life” will occur even before it gets to a consumer. A broken zipper, ripped seam, or missing button during assembly often means a product is never shown to a consumer and instead is sent to a landfill. Seeing an opportunity, Nicole Bassett and Jeff Denby just launched The Renewal Workshop (therenewalworkshop.com), which takes unsellable and returned inventory and transforms it into “Renewed Apparel” by adding Bluesign-approved trims, labels, and zippers, or using the materials to create other products.
Currently, climbing companies are recycling, composting, and building LEED-certified campuses that are green both in building strategies and practices. Other companies are going even further, powering their headquarters with solar or investing in solar funds.
Six years ago, Grivel added rooftop solar panels covering 75,347 square feet, the equivalent of one and a third football fields, to their Italian factory. At max capacity, they generate half a megawatt of power per day—enough to power a small single-family home for a month. On the darkest winter days, Grivel does buy some power, but in the summer they have an abundance and sell energy back to the grid. Spread across the entire year, Grivel produces 10 to 15 percent more energy than they use at the plant. Overall, their use of solar prevents the release of 1,777 pounds of CO per day, and it saves 1,173 barrels of oil every year.
Since 2004, Organic Climbing has been nearly zero waste in their sewing shop as they recycle their cutting scraps to build chalkbags, backpacks, and add accent colors to their products. Ballistics nylon ensures longevity, and their open-cell foam is made with a soy polymer that requires less oil than PU.
Kush Climbing makes bouldering pads from eco-friendly hemp and a nylon called Regen that is made from recycled deep-sea fishing nets. Kush says that Regen has “the same quality and performance as virgin nylon, but for every 2,200 pounds of Regen nylon, you reduce atmospheric CO emissions by 4,600 pounds.” Sterling Rope has a unique recycling program through which you can send in any old dynamic rope and Sterling will upcycle or recycle it.
Edelrid knows the most sustainable product is the product that was never produced, so they started a “Built to Last” program in which they incorporate lifespan goals into the design of their products. By putting steel in belay devices and carabiners, these products are designed to be safer and will remain functional longer than their aluminum counterparts.
As a whole, climbing-hardware manufacturers are slow in changing manufacturing processes to be more sustainable because there are no alternative materials to replace aluminum and steel. The changes need to happen later in the process. Some options include:
- upgrading machinery that reduces water use
- adding [more] regulators for controlled air and water usage
- reducing energy consumption in the factories and headquarters
- using less toxic methods of anodizing
- investing in greener transportation methods
- reducing the amount of packing materials and/or switching to greener packaging
- creating sustainable processes for disposing of retired climbing gear
Going forward, there are obstacles for getting more environmentally friendly products on shelves. Retailers aren’t yet convinced their customers will spend more money for sustainable gear. Until the retailers accept and encourage it, the manufacturers are less incentivized to create it. Some brands are afraid to reveal supply-chain details because public criticism can be harsh. By supporting all levels of progress, we can encourage more brands to take action.
To find the best brands, look for companies that talk honestly about the challenges they face with their supply chain, along with their future goals. Look for sustainability reports and third-party certifications. Find brands that share your values, and talk openly about their practices. Align yourself with organizations that are learning and improving along the way. Show the brands, retailers, and manufacturers that we care about where our gear comes from and how it’s made. They will listen.
Alison Dennis runs WeighMyRack, and she’s always interested in conversations about sustainability. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.