by Carla Broom
As outdoorsy people who enjoy spending time in the mountains, being environmentally conscious is important to many of us. We’re usually pretty good at cleaning up after ourselves, keeping to trails and avoiding nesting birds – but what about the equipment that we’re using?
By nature, climbing gear is not very environmentally friendly. It goes through a lot of wear and tear and our first concern is obviously safety, which means we have to replace it regularly to make sure its going to hold us and perform as well as we need it to. However, when considering what to buy and how to dispose of our broken things, we don’t always think about the processes needed to make these products. Creating and using materials like rubber, plastic, metal and textiles uses a lot of chemicals that might be harmful, requires a lot of energy, and produces a lot of waste.
Each product has a very complex supply chain behind it, from finding the resources all the way to being stocked in the shop, and these processes are often outsourced to different suppliers, manufacturers and distributors. This means it’s really difficult for companies to improve their sustainability because they have to know exactly what is happening at each stage of the supply chain so they can trust each party they rely on. It’s a gradual, slow process to being green – nobody is perfect, but it’s good to know which companies are trying their best!
As humanity becomes more conscious of our actions, brands that demonstrate their practices are sustainable are turning out to be more successful than those who don’t, which is fantastic. It’s really important that we support those companies who are trying to make a difference, to show them that we care.
To help you out, I’ve done some research and put together this guide for you to decide which brands to buy when replacing your old gear! It’s reassuring to know that a lot of climbing brands are very conscious of the environment and are trying their hardest to make their products as green as possible.
Third Party Accreditation
First, I looked at the companies that are accredited as being environmentally conscious by third-party organisations. These are objective businesses that assess brands and certify those fulfilling their standards.
These accreditations are generally given to large companies, so small local brands might miss out – this doesn’t mean they’re not doing as much, in fact they might be doing more!
1. BLUESIGN Technologies
Bluesign tracks the supply chain all the way through, including extraction of materials (unfortunately not including metals and plastic), chemical suppliers, material manufacturing and product assembly. They make sure companies are using sustainable methods to reduce consumption of materials and energy, reduce waste and emissions, and use non-toxic chemicals and processes.
Every process is checked against a list of toxic chemicals to make sure none are involved, including all by-products of the manufacturing process. A bluesign accredited product must contain at least 90% certified materials, thereby making sure companies are acting responsibly regarding people, the environment and the resources they use. It also means that brands can demand all their suppliers are certified, making their supply chain more transparent.
For more information, click here for the Bluesign website and here for a list of accredited brands, manufacturers and chemical suppliers
2. The Higg Index
The Higg Index was developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and provides tools that enables brands to measure and score their company and product sustainability performance throughout the supply chain, checking the performance of each stage rather than the company as a whole.
This makes sure they are protecting the well-being of factory workers, local communities and the environment. It has to be carried out once a year, and looks at various things including energy use and emissions, water use and wastage, waste management and chemical use.
For more information, click here to access their website.
3. EU Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS)
EMAS is run by the European Commission for companies to evaluate, report and improve their environmental performance. This only applies to companies in Europe, so international companies are not accredited.
Check the website here to see if a company is accredited
4. The European Outdoor Conservation Association (EOCA)
EOCA is committed to showing that the European outdoor industry is putting something back into the environment. It provides grants to conservation projects around the world to protect the outdoors, like cleaning mountain peaks, replanting forests, protecting species and creating trails. Any company operating in the outdoor industry (international companies too) can be a member, and their fees go directly into the projects that are nominated.
For more information, click here
What do the companies have to say?
The second part was looking at each company’s website, and the information they have available about their sustainability. I looked at whether the website mentions each part of the process:
1. Locally Sourced Materials
Does the website mention where the raw materials are collected from, and if they are sourced locally?
2. Product Manufacturing
Does the website talk about the manufacturing process itself, which is usually the most environmentally detrimental part of the product’s life-cycle (this is where Bluesign comes in). Common things that companies mention include water-use, chemicals (for example PFC-free waterproofing), using organic cotton, using recycled wool and using responsible down that does not involve animal cruelty.
Does the website mention the company’s efforts to reduce packaging waste, particularly plastic?
Does it mention how they transport products, from importing materials to exporting the finished article to the retailers? For example, exporting goods by shipping is far more efficient than sending them by plane.
5. End of Life
Do they talk about whether their products can be recycled, and if so, is there a recycling scheme in place within the company?
6. Climate Change Action
Does the website mention emissions and greenhouse gases and the work they are doing to reduce their carbon footprint? For example, many factories have installed solar panels and are working entirely from renewable energy sources, and many employers encourage their workers to cycle to work instead of drive.
7. Sustainability Reports
Does the company produce regular reports analysing their processes and looking at where to improve?
Is the website clear, honest and easy to navigate? A lot of companies tend to ‘greenwash’, by providing a lot of vague information to make it seem like they are doing more than they are. It’s important that companies are transparent about the actions they are doing to make their products eco-friendly, and are honest about the problems they face – nobody is perfect, and understanding this makes brands a lot more trustworthy.
Location and Outsourcing
Lastly, I looked at where the companies are based and where the products are made. If the headquarters and factories are in the same place, rather than outsourcing the production, the emissions from importing goods and products will be much lower, and will also be supporting local businesses and economies.
Unfortunately, this tends to be more expensive, and a lot of brands are very open about the struggles of keeping it local when the industry is just not available.
So who is the best?
Here’s what I found, in a handy table. The green circles show that the brand is accredited by that third-party certification, or that the website provides a large amount of information about that part of the process.
The orange circles show that it is mentioned briefly but with no detail to what they are actually doing, or that they are accredited by a third-party group but there is no information on the website (for example, if they are Bluesign accredited their manufacturing process will be rigorously tested, or if they are part of EOCA they are contributed to outreach projects, but these are not mentioned on the website).
A lot of the companies have no information about sustainability on their website – this doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to make their products more sustainable, however if they are working really hard to be more eco-friendly then they should talk about it!
Who came out on top?
There are a few companies worth noting as being particularly environmentally conscious, that scored the highest on our assessment:
VAUDE are heavily committed to being as eco-friendly as possible, and have worked to be accredited by many third party certifications. Their website is full of information about the work they do, from making most of their products locally in Germany, using different dyes that reduce carbon dioxide emissions and energy, water and chemical use, and making their headquarters completely carbon neutral. VAUDE are definitely one of the environmental leaders in the industry.
Red Chili are also owned by them, so although there is no information about sustainability on the Red Chili website, it’s possible their products are also under the same regulations.
Patagonia were the first company to be Bluesign accredited, and their website is super transparent and has a lot of information about the work they do. They’re really honest about the problems they face with US and Canadian manufacturing, meaning they have to outsource to other countries. They provide a list of all of their suppliers, which not many companies do.
Based and produced in the UK, AlpKit are working with eco-magazine Ethical Consumer to write sustainability reports. Their website has a lot of information about the work they are doing and what they are working towards in the future.
4. 3rd Rock
Based in the peak district, their goal is to make climbing clothing and equipment as green as possible – and they pretty much tick every box. They want to create long-lasting products using organic cotton and recycled fibres, non-toxic chemicals, sourced from Europe and printed in Wales, and even the labels for their packaging are certified and recyclable. They also work hard to raise awareness and donate to other organisations working to improve our environment.
This wasn’t included in the above assessment because they don’t produce gear, but they do produce new products out of old gear! You can recycle your old gear at various climbing centres around the country, which are sent to the factory in Sheffield to make new products including chalk bags, accessories, belts and homeware – definitely worth checking out!
6. The North Face
The North Face have done lifecycle assessments of their products, following the supply chain from start to finish, and found that the majority of environmental impact comes from fabric processing and product manufacturing. They also have a ‘Clothes the Loop’ programme, where you can return clothing and footwear to their stores for recycling. Unfortunately, being a large company means they do outsource to many countries across the world.
What should you look for?
When researching into ethical companies and brands, there is one main thing the good ones have in common: their websites have a lot of detailed information about what they believe in, what they are doing, and what they want to do in the future, with constant evaluation about how they can improve.
When figuring out which brands are the best, find those that talk honestly about challenges they face with supply chains, and talk about future goals. Look for reports and third-party certifications. Show brands, retailers and manufacturers that we care and they will listen!