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Vanessa Ball | 09.30.2019

The Soggy FactsBut We Can Sleep Well, Right? | And That's Not All... | So What's Being Done? | We Can Do A Lot, Actually | Final Thoughts

The Soggy Facts

Come fall, it's a given that most of us are fond of our rain gear. It's an essential part of getting out on the trail and into the backcountry, especially in the Pacific Northwest. Few of us, however, stop to think about just how those tents, jackets, pants, and boots get made. We throw around words like "topo" and "PLB," but the acronym "DWR" is far less well-known. Durable Water Repellent is the substance applied to everything from rain flies and rain jackets to trail running shoes and gloves. Without it, permeable fabrics would allow moisture to soak through, making for a miserable and potentially dangerous outdoor experience.

The typical rain jacket is coated with a layer of perfluorinated carbons, or PFCs. The chemistry is complex; the carbon-fluorine bonds of PFCs are some of the strongest bonds currently known. This strength prevents the chemical from easily breaking down both in the environment and within the human body. Eight-carbon chain PFCs (long chain, C8) have been the industry standard for years. They also bioaccumulate, meaning their concentration increases over time in the blood and organs when you ingest them. In response to building scientific consensus, outdoor gear manufacturers have committed to replacing C8 PFCs with short-chain C6 PFCs, which are thought to be less persistent environmentally.

If only it were that simple. While studies are more limited, there is a slowly growing body of work that shows an alarming presence of C6 in human tissue. C6 may be much more bioaccumulative in humans than experimental animal studies led us to believe. It may not be the solution manufacturers are seeking, and it could be worse in the long term. Fortunately, some gear providers are actively working to find solutions and continuing to innovate. Companies like Columbia Sportswear, Patagonia, and GORE-TEX all now sell PFC-free waterproofing solutions. Columbia released its PFC-free waterproof shell in spring 2017.

But We Can Sleep Well, Right?

Not so fast. Tents are proving to be environmentally tricky, too. In a study that caught a lot of attention, flame-retardant chemicals on tents have been shown to exist in highly elevated levels on those who set them up. The most common flame-retardant compounds were organophosphates, a neurotoxin that is also used as a pesticide. In the study, volunteers had their hands swabbed for chemicals before and after setting up a tent. Flame-retardant chemicals were 29 times higher after the tents were raised. Air quality tests in the same study showed that 8 hours of sleeping in a tent could cause sleepers to inhale 400 nanograms of these chemicals per kilogram of bodyweight. While 400 nanograms is well below the 5-microgram acceptable dose level, it is important to recognize that these chemicals can accumulate, and being aware of all sources of exposure is key. Babies and small children are particularly at risk.

To reduce your exposure to flame-retardant chemicals, you can wash your hands after setting up a tent (or wear gloves). Using all venting systems available on your tent model can help reduce your risks while sleeping. If the weather looks favorable, eliminating the rain fly altogether can drastically improve ventilation as well. While it may not always be practically feasible, limiting the use of heat sources inside your tent can help, too, including camp stoves and lanterns. Moonlight Tents offers a solid FR-free option.

And That's Not All...

We all love to enjoy pristine vistas, soaking up the beauty of the natural places we're so fortunate to have protected. What we don't see is the micro-pollution that is a consequence of our experiences. When we wash our synthetic fleece and polyester clothing, each wash releases microscopic fibers by the thousands that head downstream in the rinse. These particles are too small to be picked out in the wastewater treatment process, and they end up introduced into the water cycle, traveling far and wide. Tiny fibers have now been found in even the globe's most remote waterways and snowpacks. While higher-end products like Patagonia outperform cheap fleece initially, as the clothing wears, they both end up releasing comparable pollution in the wash. Patagonia has been aggressive in addressing concerns related to this issue and has funded studies to investigate potential solutions.

There are some pretty basic steps you can take to improve your wash. Washing on cold with full loads reduces both the energy impact and the number of loads you end up doing. Efficiency is important! Using natural detergents free of chlorine bleach, synthetic fragrance, dyes, and optical brighteners goes a long way toward making a more environmentally friendly washing cycle and reducing the chemical load in your wastewater. Avoiding the dryer can reduce your energy consumption in the wash process as well. The exception to this is for products that use DWR, since these need the heat of a dryer to re-bond the chemicals to the gear and extend their usefulness. REI has useful tips for caring for your DWR products.

So What's Being Done?

Gear manufacturers gathered together under the umbrella of the Outdoor Industry Association in 2006 to better address the environmental characteristics of their products. The OIA Sustainability Working Group was put together to create sustainability and corporate social responsibility mandates that are slowly but surely changing how our outdoor products are being produced. One result of their efforts was the creation and widespread adoption of the Higg Index, a standardized way to translate a product's sustainability-minded characteristics into a measurable performance standard. According to the OIA, the Higg Index is "an apparel and footwear industry self-assessment standard for assessing environmental and social sustainability throughout the supply chain." Using this tool helps companies lessen their impact on the environment and quantify their social impacts as well.

Another industry standard that consumers can look to is the Blue Sign Approved logo on their gear. BSA-approved items have had potentially dangerous substances removed from the very start of the production process. BSA also sets and controls environmentally safe production standards. It's a global initiative so consumers can feel confident in the rigorous review of whatever they choose to purchase with this label. 

Before purchase paralysis sets in hard, take a deep breath. It can feel daunting to see the host of environmental consequences of our outdoor gear. After all, most of us buy gear and apparel so we can get out and be closer to nature. We value and care about our planet! It's hard to swallow that, by loving the wilds, we also can do them harm. But as the Lorax says, "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." So, what can we do?

We Can Do A Lot, Actually

It all starts by educating ourselves. Reading about which brands are working toward sustainability goals is a start. Look for your favorite brand's corporate stance on environmental issues. Brands like Patagonia have dedicated websites for this very issue. Columbia and The North Face, too, have taken a stand. Reaching out to companies through their contact pages to ask questions and make your concerns heard lets them know their customers are interested in these issues.

Rather than overhaul your entire gear closet, try picking just one issue to examine critically (be it DWR, fair labor, or something else entirely) and look at how you can change your habits in just that one sector. Pick your battles. What do you care most about? Research it, then act. Once that's been solved, pick something else. Incremental improvements are better than none at all.

It can be tempting to want the season's latest jacket or trendiest wicking socks. Choosing what not to buy can perhaps make the greatest impact. Every pair of rain pants or new shirt uses resources, regardless of how ethically it's produced. If we all just buy the gear we really truly need (not the gear we want), we reduce our overall impact. Finding ways to borrow or rent gear is increasingly becoming an option. Local outfitters or websites like TripOutside.com are useful options. Buying used gear is a great environmentally friendly choice. Places like geartrade or MEC can be a good place to start looking. REI's yearly garage sales are hugely popular for finding good deals, as are local ski swaps.

Final Thoughts

Being an environmentally conscious consumer takes extra work, but the value is worth it. As more and more people take to the trails and explore our gorgeous national parks and forests, we can all do more to find ways to take care of them. Even at the register.

This article was written by Vanessa Davids in collaboration with Eddie Rosenberg. It was originally published in July 2016.

Comments

10/01/2019
I think it's good to be thinking of these things, but compared to most everything else we do - eating meat, driving to trailheads, ski areas, etc, commuting to work, ..., the effect of this is minimal. The earth is going to be better when our species goes extinct. In the mean time, balance impact with benefit and live accordingly. If I am flying half-way around the world to go hiking, but buying new gear that has less PFC, I'm not really living a life valued on minimizing impact on the earth, I'm appeasing my guilt.
Whoa. Makes me want to don a woolen anorak and waxed canvas overcoat in lieu of these new synthetic materials with a secret hidden cost. Thank you for bringing this to our attention, as this isn't spoken of much.
Makes me curious about history of outdoor clothing and equipment, and the transition from early 20th century wool, silk, and waxed canvas through the invention of synthetics like nylon, polyester, and polypropylene, to process like fleece and waterproofing.

retro camping sounds nice on the surface but when I think about the bulk it's maybe not so fun. :)
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