Living in the damp Pacific Northwest, 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, even in the winter months up here. 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 Repellant is the substance applied to everything from rainflies 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 perflourinated carbons, or PFCs. Without going too much into the chemistry of it, the carbon-flourine 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 was 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 are working to find PFC-free waterproofing solutions. Columbia will be releasing their first PFC-free waterproof shell spring 2017, and early reviews are promising.
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 eight hours of sleeping in a tent could cause sleepers to inhale 400 nanograms of these chemicals per kilogram bodyweight. While 400 nanograms is well below the 5 micrograms set 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 rainfly altogether can drastically improve ventilation as well. And, while it may not always be practically feasible, limiting the use of heat sources inside your tent can help, including camp stoves and lanterns. Moonlight Tents offers a solid FR-free option.
We all love to go 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 rebond the chemicals to the gear and extend their usefulness. REI has useful tips for caring for your DWR products.
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 go 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 infamous 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?
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 seeking to 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 latest season jacket or trendiest wicking socks. Perhaps the biggest impact we can make is in choosing what not to buy. 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. The booming sharing economy offers opportunities (and more opportunities) as well. 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 your local ski swaps.
In the end, it's not so much what we seek to improve, it's the act of doing. 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 piece was written by Vanessa Davids in collaboration with Eddie Rosenberg.
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