By Sash Nukada (NZOIA Assessor and Programme Leader of Sustainability and Outdoor Education – Ara – Timaru)
Ok I admit it, I will be the first to put my hand up and say I’m guilty. Guilty of pointing the finger at dirty factories in developing countries, billowing smoke into the atmosphere and spilling untreated waste into the nearest waterway. Pointing my finger at the over-consumption in developed countries, with their multiple big cars for every giant five bedroom house. Then I will happily turn around, wipe my hands clean, and woohoo, let’s go and buy some new outdoor toys!! What new tent, softshell, rope or kayak should I get?!?… with almost no regard to its environmental and social impacts. I am a hypocrite!
The manufacture of outdoor gear and clothing has a huge impact on the environment, not to mention on the quality of lives of millions of workers who make it. If you actually think about it, almost all of our outdoor clothing and gear is made of three fundamental components;
- Petroleum (which makes nylons and plastics). So pretty much most of my outdoor clothing, (thermals, fleece, softshells, waterproofs), pack, tent, climbing harness, ropes, slings, kayak, paddle, PFD, ski and snow board boots, surfboards, wetsuits, surf/ski wax, MTB tyres, numerous helmets for climbing, kayaking, skiing, biking, etc.
- Aluminium, steel and other mined materials. So that’s my carabiners, belay devices, knives, stoves, pots, skis and snowboards, ski and snowboard bindings, mountain bikes and all its componentry etc.
- Merino wool and other materials. I have three merino wool tops, a puffer with down insulation, leather on my tramping and mountain boots, and try and use surf and ski wax made from beeswax (and not petroleum). Point is this is the smallest category; could also include organic cotton, neoprene made from natural rubber (e.g. wetsuits from Patagonia).
So how can I be so critical of oil and mining companies when so many of my favourite toys (and tools of the trade) are made from oil and aluminium/steel? Also there was a big uproar about micro-plastics in toiletries. For those of us that paddle in rivers, our boats get scratched up and eventually need plastic welding. Ever stop to think about where all that plastic that was on the bottom of our boats has gone? In very small bits down the very rivers and into the oceans we love.
Yikes. We have got to stop pointing the finger elsewhere and look at our own practices.
So the questions I have been asking myself and promoting among students, when we’re thinking of buying some outdoor gear or clothing, are;
- Do I really need this?
- Can I fix/repair my old one?
So let’s not consume new gear in the first place. These questions are more relevant for someone like myself who has been at this for a while, and already has gear that is suitable or can be repaired. However, for many of my students who are at the beginning of their outdoor careers this may not be an option. So if we can’t fix it or don’t have one and really must buy, then the points we must consider are;
- Can I buy a second hand one?
- Buy the best quality I can (so it will last a longer time).
- Buy from companies who are committed to minimising the impact on the environment and treat people fairly, right through the production/supply chain from fabric source through to retail store.
Remember every dollar we spend is a vote that supports that company, it’s supply chain (i.e. the companies it buys its fabrics/raw materials from), it’s philosophies and it’s environmental/social practices. Every time we spend our money it is an election, and so we need to vote wisely!
We can start by checking out outdoor company websites. I have had a good look around, and it varies widely from having very thorough environmental and social responsibility goals and strategies, to saying nothing. Many companies are now starting to get external certifications and awards, which we need to be aware of and share with our students/clients.
Bluesign is an independent certification focused on environmental and social sustainability. Companies, products and/or fabrics can be Bluesign certified. It has strict criteria, so many companies are starting by getting just certain products or materials Bluesign certified as opposed to the entire company. Examples of companies getting Bluesign certification include Patagonia, Kathmandu, Edelrid, Dueter, Vaude, La Sportiva, Mammut, Outdoor Research, Arcteryx, Berghaus, Columbia. A full list is available at Bluesign.com or keep an eye out for the Bluesign symbol on various companies websites and products.
B Corporation (www.bcorporation.net)
B Corporation certification is a thorough verification of a company’s commitment to environmental and social responsibility and it’s impacts, in terms of governance, policy and practice. It gives each B Corporation an overall score and scores for various criteria.
As far as I can see, the only outdoor companies available in NZ which have achieved B Corporation certification are Patagonia (https://bcorporation.net/directory/patagonia-inc) and Kathmandu (https://bcorporation.net/directory/kathmandu).
Australian Ethical Fashion Report
The Ethical Fashion Report is released annually by the Baptist World Aid Australia and focuses mainly on social responsibility. It investigates and rates major clothing brands and companies available in Australia and New Zealand. It makes for pretty interesting reading, and it also reveals which parent companies own which brands (this shocked me; some companies own a lot of brands which I thought were all independent). It’s disappointing to see most companies rate A for policy, but rate much lower for what they actually do. For the 2019 Ethical Fashion Report just Google it, or its available at https://www.tearfund.org.nz/getmedia/a3d9fc5f-54a1-46c1-b85f-c004da975620/FashionReport_2019_10-April-19_NZ.pdf.aspx.
Top performing clothing companies of note in the report are Icebreaker (A+), Patagonia (A), Kathmandu (A), Adidas/Reebok (A), Lululemon (A-) and Rip Curl (B+). Most other popular outdoor/athletic/surf wear companies rated average or alarmingly low.
So it’s clear there are some stand out companies. Patagonia has long been setting the standard for environmental and social responsibility. And now Kathmandu have really stepped up their game in both areas. Vaude appears to be the German Patagonia. And Vaude also owns Edelrid, who I think are clearly in the fore-front of environmentally friendly climbing gear. Check out their Eco range of ropes (made from recycled yarn), their PFC-free dry treated ropes, and their ‘Bulletproof’ range of carabiners (they have a small stainless steel insert where the rope runs through the biner – genius!)
You might have noted that the companies above are mainly outdoor clothing or climbing gear manufacturers. Kayak, MTB and ski/snowboard companies are unfortunately way behind on the environmental and social responsibility fronts; many of their websites have zero or minimal reference to this. Hopefully we will see some progress soon. In the meantime, you can get in touch with your favourite kayak, MTB and ski/snowboard companies asking why they aren’t making more of a commitment and taking action/responsibility for the environment and society.
‘Made in NZ’ Outdoor Clothing and Gear
Most of these companies (unfortunately) do not have strong environmental statements, nor disclose their supply chains (i.e. how and where their materials and fabrics come from). Most NZ manufacturers production runs are too small to have external certifications, which can be very expensive to achieve. However, the fact that they are made in NZ helps in a couple of important ways;
- NZ outdoor companies generally make quite durable gear, meaning it lasts longer and stays out of the landfill.
- It helps support NZ workers and keeps the money in NZ. This is absolutely key in the current climate, coming out of the Covid-19 lockdown. Buying NZ made and adventuring in NZ will help support NZ businesses, keeps money in NZ, and keeps the supply chain as short as possible.
Below is a (probably incomplete) list of NZ based outdoor manufacturers:
Twin Needle – These folks repair just about anything. They will fix/revive your pack, sleeping bag, tent (including floor replacement and poles), waterproofs, dry-tops and spray decks. Make your gear last way longer and keep it out of the landfill! Based in Christchurch.
Cactus Outdoors – Bullet-proof outdoor clothing (their legendary Supertrou are the default uniform for NZ outdoor instructors), packs, bags, gaiters, etc. They even make reusable bags from recycled billboards! Also based in Chch.
Earth Sea Sky – Full range of technical and casual outdoor clothing. Another Chch based company.
Aspiring Safety Products – Climbing harnesses, slings, rope and canyon bags, gaiters, snow stakes, etc. Yet another Chch based company.
Wear On Earth – Down jackets and sleeping bags, where else but in Chch.
Ground Effects – Full range of mountain and road bike clothing, based in Chch.
Swazi – Full range of clothing for hunting and tramping, made in Levin.
Organic Dynamic – Surfboards made from recycled foam, bio-resin and NZ grown paulownia wood, made in Wellington.
Kingswood – Premium skis made in Chch.
Bliss Stick – WW kayaks made in Taihape.
Zerode – Premium MTBs made in Rotorua.
A word on cost
Yes all this environmentally and socially responsible gear and clothing is expensive! So don’t be shocked. But that’s because it costs way more for a company to look after its workers, pay them a decent wage, give them health care, etc. It also costs more for companies to ensure their waste is recycled, to grow cotton that doesn’t stuff the soil, to source fabrics that are sustainable, to treat their water from their factories before they pump it back into the rivers and seas. Being a good global citizen costs money (for now). The cheap stuff is cheap because you’re not paying for the true cost of the product; the workers that are getting paid crap and treated badly pay for it, and the environment also ends up paying for it big time.
Final word and disclaimer
This article does not reflect the views of NZOIA nor the TSC. It’s just my opinion, and although I have researched it to the best of my ability given the confines of the lockdown, it is not an exhaustive study nor are the list of companies doing good stuff a complete list. I do not have vested interests in any outdoor clothing or gear manufacturer here in NZ nor overseas. To summarise please;
- Fix your gear! If it can’t be fixed then consider buying second hand.
- If you must buy new, do your own research about outdoor gear companies before you vote with your hard-earned money. Look out for Bluesign and B Corporation brands and product https://www.flickr.com/photos/dionhinchcliffe/47729393992/s.
- Promote discussion and critical thinking among your outdoor friends, colleagues and students/clients about where our outdoor gear comes from and the impacts it has, environmentally, socially and economically.