The True State of Sustainability in the Outdoor Gear And Apparel Supply Chain
As an industry, we’re doing a lot, but are we doing enough? Is perfect realistic? If not, what about more perfect?
This we know: The process of creating products has an inherent environmental toll. To mitigate the impacts of their businesses, brands are conducting product life-cycle assessments, joining sustainability groups, and ensuring their products meet as many environmental standards as possible. But many companies wonder how their efforts stack up in the grand scheme of sustainable manufacturing across the outdoor industry and whether they’re putting their programs and resources in the right places in order to have maximum impact. What’s more, they’re trying to figure out how best to market their sustainability to consumers.
Beth Jensen, senior director of sustainable business innovation for Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), cautions brands from viewing sustainability as something they can encapsulate in a single ‘green product line’ or convey to consumers via product marketing. “No company’s ever going to be able to say ‘okay, we’re done, we’re 100-percent completed, with nothing else to work on in this area.’” Rather, she encourages the industry to embrace sustainability as an ethos, view it as a vital part of doing business in the 21st century, and to invite consumers along on the journey.
“Sustainability” can take a lot of shapes. It can manifest in a company’s internal and operational efforts, such as installing solar panels, using renewable energy, and diverting waste streams from offices. Or sustainability can happen within the supply chain: analyzing the production processes at factories, sourcing the most sustainable materials, using responsible shipping methods, and planning for each product’s end of life.
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Manufacturing and the Circular Business Model
Breaking the mold of the traditional “take, make, use, waste” approach to production, brands are increasingly moving toward circular models that consider every stage of the product’s life, prioritizing longevity and developing turnkey end-of-life solutions, such as recycling and upcycling .
“It requires resources to make stuff, and we only have a finite amount of resources on this planet,” says Guru Larson, global environmental lead at Columbia Sportswear. “So it’s super important that we figure out how to use the resources we have in the smartest way possible.”
A focus on quality and durability separate outdoor industry brands from fast fashion apparel brands, says Jensen. Director of Sustainability for The North Face, James Rogers, agrees: “We feel that we can create a business case for longevity of our products but also appeal to our consumers because they want to know that they’re buying a good quality product.”
The North Face and other VF brands have embraced a circular business model and are stepping away from fast fashion. VF is focusing on repair and even rental options, as well as recycling and upcycling. The North Face also offers a lifetime warranty and repairs decades-old products for customers.
In order to make long-lasting, sustainable products, companies must analyze their supply chain inputs and processes. A variety of tools and groups are available to help companies self-audit, including Bluesign, the Higg Index, Sustainable Textile Standards, Material Sustainability Index, ChemIQ, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and OIA’s own Sustainability Working Group.
Various sets of standards address everything from chemical use (waterproofing agents and flame retardants) to water processing procedures; from working conditions to animal welfare—an important consideration to companies that source raw materials such as wool, leather, and down.
Cara Chacon, vice president of social and environmental responsibility at Patagonia, notes that her company uses Bluesign, among other programs to manage its efforts, especially its chemical use. “A lot of products are being made,” says Chacon of the $887 billion outdoor industry’s manufacturing footprint, noting the scale of impact that comes with it. “It’s a dirty business—you have to have a program in your supply chain to deal with those [impacts].”
Burton has a three-pronged strategy that focuses on product, people, and planet. The brand has ambitious sustainability goals for 2020, including having all soft goods conform with Bluesign standards, as well as sourcing 100-percent sustainable cotton and 50-percent sustainable polyester. Burton aims to eliminate PFCs from its water-repellant products and to have all factories comply with Fair Labor Association standards. In addition, Burton’s goal is to divert three-quarters of its global headquarter’s waste from landfills.
Validating their circular production model is crucial for brands, their retailers and their customers. To that end, Columbia Sportswear includes maps on its website’s Corporate Responsibility page that show important information about and the locations of all 251 factories that it uses to create its products. For example, one Cambodian factory has 4,144 employees with a 1:11.6 male-to-female ratio. (The male-to-female ratio is an important indicator of economic opportunity and strongly correlates to social equality.)
“We do super thorough due diligence before bringing any factories on board,” says Columbia’s Larson, who has spent time in factories around the globe—from El Salvador to Vietnam, conducting audits, reviewing documents and interviewing workers to ensure the facilities meet high environmental and labor standards.
Packaging and shipping have significant impacts on sustainability. Columbia uses single-wall cartons for shipping to reduce material usage. It has also changed its polybag sizes to use less plastic, and it uses recycled materials in hang-tags and retail bags. Container optimization realizes shipping efficiency, and the company requires transportation providers to meet certain environmental standards.
Product End of Life
As part of its sustainability program, Patagonia, works to create longer-lasting products and make a plan for their products’ end of life. “We look at our product life cycle from design all the way to end of life and are ramping up our programs to design clothing that [consumers can turn back in at the end of its useful life]. We’ll repair, replace, or upcycle and make a new product out of it,” Chacon says.
Columbia’s ReThreads program provides bins for consumers to drop off used items in stores. These items are then sent to a third-party company which sorts them, reusing some, upcycling others, and recycling the most heavily used ones into products like carpet padding.
“Right now 85 percent of clothes end up in landfills,” Larson says. “The ReThreads program was the first step toward offering our consumers…an option to bring their clothes and shoes back to our stores. We work with a third-party partner that recycles them.”
When an item is damaged, such as a jacket with a broken zipper, or a tent with a tear in it, many consumers simply toss the item rather than repair it. Some lack the technical know-how to sew and repair the gear, while others don’t even know repair is an option or think the hassle of sending it back is too high and opt, instead, to buy a replacement.
Patagonia provides guidance and options for consumers who want to keep their damaged gear in circulation. The brand offers online tutorials explaining everything from repairing a down jacket’s baffle to fixing a hole in a pair of fishing waders.
People can also exchange items in good condition for credit through Patagonia’s Worn Wear Program. The credits are good for other second-hand items. The program aims to collect dust-gathering items from garages and closets and get them back into the outdoors.
Similarly, REI’s “garage sales” allow customers to buy and sell used products. The retailer offers an online Used Gear Beta where people can purchase used gear online. Additionally, the “Give Back Box” program allows customers to pack boxes with used items and ship them to a donation processor with free prepaid shipping labels.
“We have a lifetime warranty on all of our apparel,” Rogers says. “[The] more durable the product, the more sustainable it is because it can be in use longer.” The North Face accepts clothing and footwear from any brand for recycling in its branded retail stores.
While companies are looking to improve the sustainability of their products, Bolt Threads is redefining the rules altogether. The cutting-edge textile company is designing a fiber based on the attributes of spider silk that is made from yeast, sugar and water—all renewable resources.
Jamie Bainbridge, vice president of product development for the Emeryville, California-based company, says the company can engineer functional characteristics directly into the fiber itself, eliminating the need for topical antimicrobial or hydrophobic chemicals. Plus, because the fiber is an organic protein (like wool and other animal fibers), so at the end of its usable life, it is biodegradable. The fiber isn’t in production yet, but Bolt already has plans to work with large outdoor brands to create outdoor gear.
What About The Retailers? What’s Their Role?
Consumers don’t necessarily want to invest a lot of time into assessing each product or brand’s impact. “The majority of shoppers just want to walk into a store or go on a website and know the products have already been vetted for them,” Jensen says. “They want to be able to trust the product they’re buying and the retailer they’re buying it from.” Think: Whole Foods.
In April, REI rolled out new product sustainability standards for all of the brands sold in its stores and online. These standards include brand expectations in environmental, social, and animal welfare categories, as well as additional “preferred attributes” the retailer hopes to see from brands, including material preferences and certifications.
The new standards make it easy for online shoppers to search for organic materials or fair trade products and learn more about what they’re buying. While some standards have already been put into practice, others are a couple years down the line. For example, oxybenzone sunscreens will be banned in the store by 2020 since the product contributes to coral reef damage.
“We have an opportunity to educate customers,” says Greg Gausewitz, REI’s product sustainability manager. “That’s part of why we’re rolling out the product sustainability standards—to make it easy for customers to find products and promote environmental and social responsibility, animal welfare and the topic of sustainability at large.”
The standards also serve as a tool to help smaller brands learn what they need to do to be sustainable. Additionally, REI partnered with OIA on a series of webinars as an additional resource for the industry.
The State of Sustainability
The state of sustainability is always in flux, and there’s not a clear and definitive destination. Our goal is to move forward and do less harm. “At a really high level, I think it’s incredibly important for any company to focus on sustainability and making sure they’re having a positive impact on the environment and society at large,” Gausewitz says. “If we’re not doing everything we can to protect and promote the outdoors, we’re not doing our job. Our customers care a lot about the environment and so do we.”
It all comes down to being able to enjoy the outdoors without harming them. “The bigger picture of our goal is to enable a life of exploration,” Rogers says. “We want to do that without compromise to the people or the planet.”