Greening Your Outdoor Gear


You’re stoking on that new ultralight waterproof jacket you found on Steep and Cheap for some unbelievably great deal. All you can think about is how it packs down to the size of a Clif Bar yet it still keeps you dry during a freak desert downpour. You’re probably not thinking about all that highly toxic waste that was a product of manufacturing your stellar find and how you can offset the damage by container gardening or installing a solar panel on your roof.  That would totally ruin your gear high.

We value the environment so that we can use it for our skiing, mountain biking, and trail running pleasure. We fight to keep development from encroaching on the backcountry, we sign petitions to keep open space open, and we slap Save Our Canyons stickers on our Subarus.  Yet when we choose to purchase a new outdoor product, how often do we consider the environmental impact of such a purchase?

Before the outdoor gear explosion of the 80’s and 90’s, all we needed to be happy and comfy in the woods was a good pair of hiking boots, a canvas tent, and some GORP. Nowadays are packs are bursting with the latest and lightest waterproof items available, gear that makes our forays into the outdoors easier and more comfortable, but sadly impacts our environment with toxic byproducts and carbon dioxide emissions.

The truth is the outdoor industry is wholly dependent on oil-based chemicals to produce everything from sleeping bags to waterproof jackets. A large amount of crude oil is needed to make polyester and other synthetic materials resulting in the release of acid gases and highly polluting toxic waste.

And it’s not just the synthetics that are culprit; conventionally grown cotton uses almost a quarter of the world’s pesticides, according to the Pesticide Action Network, which pollutes waterways, contaminates local food supplies, and threatens the health of both humans and animals. And this is all before taking into account the impact of manufacturing, packaging, and transporting goods.

But luckily there are plenty of things we can do to reduce our environmental impact. How we choose gear and what we do with our used outdoor gear can really make a difference. We can choose clothing and gear with the least environmental impact, we can donate our used gear to non-profits that will get into the hands of individuals that can really benefit from it thus keeping it out of the landfill, and we can even recycle our gear through product take back programs and reduce the raw materials needed to produce future gear.

The Greening of the Outdoor Industry

For years the Outdoor Industry has been active in environmental issues and been major supporters of outdoors and wilderness non-profit organizations.  The Outdoor Industry has been ahead of the rest of the world in their corporate social responsibility standards, use of alternative energies, and responsible recycling practices. Local mountaineering manufacturer, Petzl, is solar powered, offers UTA bus passes to all employees, and is a major supporter of such groups as the The Access Fund, The Conservation Alliance, and HERA.

All this is great, but the Outdoor Industry as a whole recognizes the need to step up their environmental consciousness even further. The industry has formulated a special working group to explore the issues of environmental sustainability throughout the manufacturing process. Over 100 outdoor companies, including Petzl, Nau, and GoLite to giants like Keen, and Columbia, have partnered together to work on advancing the industry’s sustainability practices.

“The industry recognizes that the health of outdoor brands are strongly linked to the health of the environment,” says Outdoor Industry Association’s Corporate Responsibility Manager, Beth Jensen and that is why competitors have partnered together to develop industry wide standards.

In the works since 2007, the Eco Working Group has recently released an Eco Index, “a ground-breaking environmental assessment tool designed to advance sustainability practices within the outdoor industry.” The Eco-Index, at this point, isn’t a consumer-facing label, but rather an internal tool for outdoor manufacturers to gauge the environmental footprint of their products. The first step is really about getting brands to measure the environmental impact of their products so they can identify areas for improvement.

“Eventually this will mean communicating the sustainability attributes of products to our consumers in a way that is consistent across brands and that they can understand, similar to the way that we all understand food labeling (calories, protein, fat, etc),” explains Kim Coupounas, Chief Sustainability Officer of GoLite.

Tracing the environmental impact of products isn’t an entirely new idea and some companies like Timberland and GoLite have already created their own internal indexes. Timberland’s Green Index is a consumer-facing label that measures the environmental impact of about 14 percent of the company’s footwear line. Inspired by the work of the Eco-Index, Timberland is aiming to have their Green Index applied to every product in their line by the end of 2012 so consumers will know the climate impact, presence of hazardous chemicals, and the amount of resources consumed for each of their products.

Companies like Timberland will hopefully be the standard in the outdoor industry some day. The company acknowledges their weaknesses and has outlined their plan for improvement. They are being transparent about the chemicals used in their products, the greenhouse gasses emitted through their manufacturing process, and the percent of recycled or organic materials used in their products so that consumers can make well informed decisions about their products.

But until then how do we know if the products we purchase are eco-friendly or if we are just being greenwashed, because sadly some company’s products aren’t as green as they may claim to be?


Choosing Environmental Friendly Products

Jensen explains that, “The best advice for this is to do your research and be aware of what a company stands for.” Some day there might be more regulation on claims, but for now, “It is up to the consumer to be educated and informed about claims made my manufactures.”

The biggest impact we can make right now is choosing to support companies that are being transparent about the environmental impact of their products and their plans for improvement. Essentially no companies are perfect at this point, but those participating in the Eco-Index and actively assessing their environmental footprint are on the road to improvement.

When thinking about environmentally friendly products, Patagonia undoubtedly comes to mind.  Patagonia has pioneered the way for sustainability in outdoor clothing by incorporating post consumer recycled plastic bottles into their clothing and by choosing to exclusively use 100% organic cotton.

Patagonia was also the first major apparel company to track and share the social and environmental impacts of their products through The Footprint Chronicles, an interactive website that displays the distance traveled, energy consumed, carbon dioxide emitted, waste generated, and water consumed of many of their products.  Patagonia hopes that by sharing this information it will help them identify areas of needed improvement, which will lead to the reduction or elimination of the harmful effects of their products, and that other companies will follow suit.

What to Do With Old Gear

What it comes down to is that increased demand from consumers will lead to more eco-friendly products, but for now our choices are somewhat limited and not everyone has the luxury of paying the higher prices associated with more eco-friendly gear. So what can we do?

Way too much of what gets made ends up in the trash.  We can change all that by making sure our used gear gets in the hands of someone who can use it, either by donating it or recycling it into new gear.

Recycling Gear

In 2005, Patagonia launched the Common Threads Program, the world’s first recycling program for clothing. Through the Common Threads Recycling Program, customers can return old and worn out Patagonia Capilene baselayers, fleece, cotton T-shirts, and several other polyester and nylon products to be recycled into new clothing.

In addition to keeping your old clothes out of the landfill, recycling clothes through the Common Threads Program reduces the amount of raw materials needed to make new clothes. Polyester and nylon materials are melted down and spun into new fibers that are used to make new polyester fabrics of the same quality. This process reduces the amount of virgin polyester needed resulting in less oil consumed. Unlike synthetics, organic cotton and wool are spun into a fiber of lesser quality, which are then used in making sweatshirts and other products.

GoLite is another company that is taking responsibility for what they make. Through GoLite’s Take-Back Program, they will take any unwanted GoLite products and repair, repurpose, donate, or recycle the products. If they don’t have the technology to recycle the products, they vow to hang on to the product until they do. GoLite even goes as far as to provide a 20% off coupon for recycling your old gear through their Take-Back Program or for providing them with written proof that you donated your old gear locally.

“We hope people will participate in our program because it empowers them to give new life to old products (thus avoiding use of new, scarce resources like petroleum) while reducing products sent to landfill – both good things for the environment and for their conscience,” says GoLite’s Coupounas.

Clothes aren’t the only gear items that can be recycled.  For years Sterling Ropes has recycled their nylon waste left over from the manufacturing process and now they are recycling used ropes too.  Sterling takes old dynamic climbing ropes from any manufacturer and sends them to a recycling center to be grinded up, melted down, and repelletized so they can be re-made into common household items like carpet fiber and coat hangers.


On a similar note, Nike collects worn-out athletic shoes from all brands and then grinds them up into a material they call Nike Grind. Nike then partners with sports surfacing companies to include Nike Grind into surfacing products like tennis courts, running tracks, and playground safety surfaces. You can drop off shoes at the Nike Outlet in Park City or mail them directly to the recycling plant.

Donating Gear

Just because you’ve gotten sick of your jacket color or ran the maximum 300-400 miles in your running shoes doesn’t mean that just your gear can’t be useful to someone else.  Besides trying to sell your gear at garage sales, on Craigslist, or at IME’s consignment shop, there are plenty of organizations that would love take your used gear and clothing and get it into the hands of someone in need.

You can always donate your old gear local to organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, Salt Lake City Bicycle Collective, local youth groups, or Boy Scout troops. Many local organizations, like the Park City Ski Team and Rowmark Ski Academy, put on annual ski swaps to raise money for their organizations. Ski swaps are a great way to help out a local charity, get a little extra cash, and clear out your garage.

If no one will take your old skis, consider getting creative with them and I don’t mean burning them to appease the snow Gods. Turning your skis into benches, tables, Adirondack chairs, or sleds is a great way to both immortalize your old skis and keep them out of the landfill. There are plenty of do it yourself designs available on the Internet and there are also some businesses, like Green Mountain Ski Furniture, that will do the work for you and custom build pretty much anything you want out of your old skis.

There are also plenty of places you can donate your old running shoes.  Soles4Souls takes both new and gently used shoes and to date has donated well over 11 million shoes in over 125 countries. The organization sponsors collection events at shoe stores and department stores around the US.

The Salt Lake Running Company accepts shoe donations at all of their locations and sends the shoes to a small town in central Mexico called Casas Grandes. The shoes are used to support a school and medical clinic for disabled children. Donations by Salt Lake runners ensures that everyone attending the school has good shoes and the rest are sold at a reasonable price to fund supplies and operating costs of the both the school and clinic.


If you can’t donate or recycle your old gear you just need to get a little creative. Climbing ropes make great rugs or rope swings, skis make great glass racks in basement bars, worn out yoga pants make good rags, and old tents make fun kites or totes to carry your other camping gear.  Throwing your old gear into the trash would be a depressing ending to a very happy life.

So find a way for your old gear to live on, whether through recycling or donation, and choose sustainable savvy gear when you can, and we will all be on our way to a greener, happier Earth.

One Response to “Greening Your Outdoor Gear”

  1. Hi,
    I’m helping as part of the program staff team for a small non-profit boarding school for troubled teenage boys. Do you have any recommendations for getting our name on a list for gear donations? We’re located in Marysvale, UT, and love to use the outdoors to help the young men address the challenges in their lives. Gear donations would help us as we try to expand the opportunities we present our students, while keeping our school as affordable as possible for the families that need us most. Just this week we did some paddleboarding on old windsurfers a guy gave us, using a long rafting paddle we found somewhere. The boys loved it! More outdoors gear would be awesome, and any recommendations you have would be appreciated!

    Dan Zakes
    PO Box 91
    Marysvale, UT 84750

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