How to Choose Eco-Friendly Gear
A Guide to Gearing up Sustainably
by Rachel Jorgensen
I first realized our interactions with the natural world can leave a less than positive impact while living on a tiny, dive-destination island in the Gulf of Thailand. There, the consequences of our actions were almost immediate due to the size of the island and how many visitors left and arrived each day.
But you don’t have to be on a small island to see the environmental impacts outdoor recreation can have. Pretty much any time you go backpacking, surfing at your local break, or just running in your favorite park, you can see trash on the trail and plastic on the shore. Many of us feel compelled to protect these beautiful places where we play, so that we—and future generations—can keep enjoying them for years to come.
While there are many ways to take action to conserve nature, finding sustainable gear is one simple way to start. As the world becomes more and more aware of the negative environmental impacts of the products we use, many brands in the outdoor industry are stepping up to the plate to minimize these negative impacts. By finding eco-friendly gear, we as recreationalists are more able to find a balance in conservation and adventure.
If tracking down the most sustainable gear seems like a daunting task, here’s a guide for the materials, certifications, and type of brands to look for in your search.
Planet-Friendly Construction & Materials
Choose Natural Fibers & Organic Materials
When you’re selecting outdoor equipment made from textiles—be it shorts, jackets, or baselayers—check the fabric content. Choose organic materials and natural fibers like Merino wool, organic cotton, and hemp as often as possible.
You’ve probably heard the statistic that every time you wash a load of polyester performance tees and shorts, hundreds of thousands of tiny plastic particles escape into waterways. With natural fibers, this isn’t the case. Instead, loose particles that get washed off your clothing simply rejoin nature and eventually break down.And when thrown out at the end of a long, well-loved, and well-worn lifecycle, clothes made from natural fibers will quickly biodegrade, whereas clothing made from polyester will not.
And if you need one more reason to go natural, clothing made from odor-resistant Merino wool not only keeps you fresh as you ski, hike, and explore, but it also doesn’t need to be washed as frequently as synthetic materials. Less washing saves water and detergent, and extends the life of your socks, baselayers, tees, or tights.
Opt for Recycled Materials
Products that use recycled materials are also eco-friendly. By recycling, waste is kept out of landfills and oceans, and fewer new materials are manufactured to produce the product. A whole range of outdoor equipment from clothing to sleeping bags to shoes are made with recycled materials. For example, the Backcountry Rockport Seawool Flannel Shirt is made from recycled oyster shells, while The North Face ThermoBall Eco Traction Bootie is built with 100% recycled PET ripstop.
Many companies, such as Marmot, are designing performance sleeping bags with recycled content from plastics both in the face fabric and in the stuffing. And more and more running companies, like HOKA ONE ONE, are starting to use biodegradable or recycled content in the soles, cushioning, and uppers of their shoes. When you’re shopping for this kind of outdoor equipment, be sure to read the tech specs at the bottom of each product page to see what types of materials are used and what the recycled content is.
Select RDS and RWS-Certified
Down is warm, light, packable, and ideal in dry, cold conditions. For certain outdoor trips and lifestyles, down can be preferred over synthetics. When you double down on down, be sure to choose RDS (Responsible Down Standard) Certified.
This global and independent standard exists to ensure that the animals are treated with respect from hatchling to final product. Each step of the supply chain must pass rigorous standards in order to be certified. Force-feeding and live-plucking are prohibited under the RDS standards.
Similarly, if you’re purchasing wool products, look for RWS (Responsible Wool Standard) Certified. This independent, voluntary standard ensures that sheep are treated with respect and protects their “Five Freedoms”: 1) freedom from hunger and thirst, 2) freedom from discomfort, 3) freedom from pain, disease, and injury, 4) freedom to act like normal sheep, and 5) freedom from distress. The standard also evaluates land management and protection.
Look for bluesign® Approved
Whenever you purchase outdoor equipment, check the product to see if it is bluesign approved. Bluesign technologies, based in Switzerland, is an independent verifier in the supply chain. They provide guidelines for each step of the process—from the factory floor to the finished product—to approve chemicals, dyes, materials, and processes. Products that are bluesign approved are safe for the environment, the workers who made them, and for you, the end consumer. Anything from a backpack to a sweatshirt can be bluesign approved, because the bluesign system covers both fabrics and trims such as buttons and buckles.
Choose Durable, Long-lasting Products
By having a few, high-quality products for your outdoor pursuits, you can minimize waste. Taking good care of each piece of equipment will also help ensure it lives its longest life possible. Follow washing instructions and repair when damaged rather than replace. Not only will this save you more money in the long run, but you will also shrink your contribution to the already overflowing landfills around the planet.
Finding eco-friendly equipment, such as skis, helmets, and trekking poles, isn’t as straightforward as finding eco-friendly outdoor clothing and outerwear. There’s no such thing as an organic quickdraw. This is where brand comes into play. Who you buy from is just as important as what you buy. You can still find eco-friendly gear if the company you’re purchasing from does their part to do good.
Look for Certified B-Corps
Businesses that blend purpose and profit are Certified B-Corps. These brands are legally required to meet the highest standards of social and environmental performance and transparency. The goal of all Certified B-Corp businesses is to use business as a force for good in communities, for their employees, and for the planet. When you purchase any outdoor equipment, your money supports your chosen brand. If this brand seeks to be a force for good, their products will reflect this ethos.
Support Companies That Give Back
Seek out companies that give back, partner with conservation efforts, and try to make the world a better place. For example, Tentree will plant 10 trees for each product you purchase, while United by Blue removes one pound of trash from the oceans for each purchase. Seek out companies that are part of the 1% For the Planet program. Members of this international organization give 1% of their profits to environmental causes.
By doing our best to choose eco-friendly gear, we can get out and explore knowing we’re contributing to our destinations. By simply looking at the materials of a product and the brand that makes it, you can find the most sustainable gear for your adventures, while finding balance in conservation and recreation.
Ready to gear up green? Shop responsible products at Backcountry.
Rachel Jorgensen is currently based in Salt Lake City though she doesn’t stay in one place for long. She has lived in three countries, multiple states, and is always seeking the next adventure. When she’s settled, you can find her climbing, skiing, or trail running with Scuba, her Thai rescue dog in tow. Follow along @rjorgie