GT: The environmental cost of new gear
We’re the first to admit: new outdoor gear can be dazzling to look at. The clever technology, the shiny ultra-light metals, the on-trend jacket colors, the dreams of everything you could do with all this cool stuff.
This is why the origins of that stuff are an incredibly harsh reality to face. And since we love the outdoors, we have to reckon with the fact that our Gore-Tex jacket’s manufacture left toxic “forever chemicals” in someone else’s drinking water halfway around the world. The snazzy new tech tee you bought for trail running not only depended on petroleum products to make its synthetic fibers, but it is now shedding micro-plastics into the very air inside your house. The nice dye color of your new hiking pants killed an entire river full of fish (and the livelihoods of fishermen who depended on them).
It makes us so sad. To say it dampens our stoke is an understatement. But, these facts also rally us to action. When we learn about the environmental costs of the typical outdoor product, it inspires us to insist that brands do much better. It drives us to support the brands that are taking the most action on the matter. And, it pushes us to buy used gear whenever possible.
A few sobering facts about shiny new gear.
Get ready. These realities are harsh. But keep reading, and you’ll learn what you can do.
“Forever chemicals” in the waterproof membranes of outerwear.
There are many types of pollution. One of the more sinister varieties are called “forever chemicals,” or PFAS, and they’re used in nearly all waterproof membranes like Gore-Tex. This category of man-made chemicals never breaks down in the environment, and they are also linked to cancers, immunity problems, thyroid disease, and other health problems.
These chemicals have already made their way into our water supply in the US, wreaking havoc on the health of entire communities, and the Biden administration is currently working to impose stricter limits here. But in overseas factories, regulation can be much more lax. The waterproofing in our ski/board jackets, snow pants, and rain jackets rely on these chemicals for production, and they are often made overseas where they end up in the water supply of people you’ll never meet, but who are paying a price for your brand-new pair of ski pants. This is serious and tragic stuff.
DWR repellent on water-resistant and waterproof products.
Water-resistant and waterproof items, including those made with Gore-Tex and brands’ versions of waterproof membranes, typically have a coating of Durable Water Repellent (DWR) on the outside of the fabric. This chemical makes water bead up on the outer surface of the fabric and never sink in, which makes the garment much warmer and allows it to breathe properly. It’s way nice for performance, but it’s awful for humans, wildlife, and fish.
In fact, it’s so toxic that governments globally are forcing outdoor companies to find an alternative. Patagonia has found a slightly less toxic alternative chemical that does the trick, but they admit it’s not a perfect solution. Making things worse, you’re supposed to re-apply DWR many times over a garment’s lifetime, adding to the environmental damage because you buy and use bottles of DWR treatment to pour in your wash.
A great solution and alternative to this is Nikwax which is a nontoxic and eco-friendly option for people to re-wash and re-waterproof their gear over time, as it needs to be re-applied.
Fabric dyes used in clothing, outerwear, shoes, packs, and tents.
The outdoor clothing and gear we buy comes in a lovely array of colors—on-trend and on-brand. But, these colors come at a painful price for people in the garment factories and dye houses where these fabrics are made.
In what one CNN article called “a cocktail of carcinogenic chemicals,” dyes, salts, and heavy metals destroy the environment around local waterways, where factory waste is typically dumped—and it poisons the drinking water of the local people. In fact, rivers and canals in Bangladesh, where much of the world’s clothing is made, now have ink-hued, sludge-like water.
People who can’t afford fancy bottled water or water filters are forced to drink this murky water as-is. Plants and animals who depend on the water die, and the textile dyes even show up in nearby crops that were irrigated by the water. Garment workers also typically don’t have adequate protective clothing or masks to protect them from the fumes inside the factories where this all starts.
Plastics in … well … everything.
Some gear is at least partially made of plastic, like ski boots and bindings. But, come to think of it, almost everything still gets packaged in plastic or shipped in plastic materials like bags. (Kudos to brands like Nordica Skis and Smith, who have vastly reduced or eliminated the plastic their products ship in.) This is why Geartrade bags are compostable, and even our tape is plastic free.
The result of plastic is devastating. Plastic manufacture around the globe releases hazardous chemicals from factory chimneys that make the air not only dangerous for humans and animals to breathe, but can also fuel climate change. On top of that, awful stuff drains from plastic factories—chemicals and heavy metals that permanently become part of the local waterways. It destroys fisheries, poisons water, and even poisons the fruit and vegetables grown as local crops.
We all feel terrible when we see images of marine animals made ill by plastic bags and straws, yet most of us don’t even think of all the destruction that took place in making the plastic to begin with. It may not be happening in our backyards, but it’s happening in someone else’s.
Even sneakier than plastic: micro-plastics.
If you’re mortified by the impact of plastic production, get ready for an even sneakier villain—micro-plastics. They’re in almost every synthetic tech tee, base layer, workout tight, jacket, or long-johns. If the item label says “polyester,” “nylon,” “polyamide,” or “acrylic,” it’s made from plastic. Which comes from petroleum (sorry, planet). And that’s just the start—when these fabrics are washed or even worn, they’re slowly releasing micro fibers of plastic into the laundry water and into the air around you. In fact, out of all the floating dust in a household, 33% of it is microplastics from textile microfibers. It’s in the indoor air we breathe. It shows up in our lung tissue—and can hinder the recovery and development of our lungs as well as other organs.
And those are just the things happening directly to us—workers in microplastic textile factories experience coughing, breathlessness, and reduced lung capacity.
Don’t worry, there are actions we can take to slow the harm push for change.
There are a few things you can do right away (besides marching in the streets with fury and indignation, which this issue deserves).
The first thing that nips new-gear pollution in the bud is not buying new gear. Then you’ve stopped your share of market demand in its tracks. We work hard to make Geartrade a convenient, fairly priced, easy-to-use gear marketplace that reduces new gear sales (and therefore production) and helps save the planet. And please tell us whenever you have ideas or feedback to make the used-gear buying and selling process even better for you, because we’re committed to this mission.
Hold brands accountable.
If you must buy a new item (we know not everything is available used), do serious homework on the brand’s sourcing and practices. In fact, don’t hesitate to call or email a brand’s customer service and directly ask where their stuff comes from and what they’re doing to mitigate pollution, sweatshop conditions, and animal harm. (The author of this article just may have made this kind of inquiry … many many times.)
Learn what “green” practices from brands indicate true progress, and which are only a first step (or, worse, blatant greenwashing). For example, we’re very glad Gore-Tex is now offering one option for waterproof membranes free of toxic PFAS chemicals, but all the other offerings in its lineup still use those chemicals. So while they deserve a pat on the back for that one small step, it really is only one small step.
By contrast, Patagonia has an entire in-research team dedicated to reducing environmental impact of its products, and they’re even committing to being carbon-neutral by 2025. There’s still some negative environmental impact from their product production—but they’re working full-steam ahead to fix this, and are self-reporting on their progress with transparency.
Similarly, Cotopaxi has cemented a real sustainability commitment, achieving the exceptional in 2020—actually becoming 100% carbon-neutral. In fact, 100% of their product line is made from recycled and non-virgin materials, as these materials drastically cut the horrific impact of new chemicals, dyes, fumes, and byproducts of the factory production process. (Ever wonder why Cotopaxi stuff is rainbow colored? Because they use the mismatched remnants from other gear manufacturers’ discarded fabrics. Very smart.)
Repair and repurpose broken gear.
Don’t buy a whole new jacket or tent just because yours is torn or has a busted zipper. And don’t throw ski boots into the dusty back shelf of your garage just because a buckle broke.
It’s amazing what can be fixed. Many gear manufacturers will either sell you replacement parts or have you send your stuff in for repair. And if they don’t, you can often find some crafty people at a local shop to help. A skilled tailor or seamstress can probably fix a zipper or tear. You may even be lucky enough to patronize the gear repair counter at our local Lone Pine Gear Exchange here in Salt Lake, where they employ a full-time outdoor gear seamstress to help customers.
Be assertive about telling friends, family, and folks on social media about brands’ negative environmental impacts, as well as the positive steps some of them are trying to take. We can force the most progress by voting with our dollars and by spreading the story about environmental impact.
Not only should we be vocal, but we have to keep paying attention to brands’ follow-through all the way down the line to ensure they’re doing the right thing. In one painful example, sweatshop conditions in one Asian factory were publicly outed in 2019, causing an outcry (good!) which led to that factory’s brands abruptly pulling out of operations, which left 26 Burmese workers jobless and destitute overnight (very bad!). The brands who had used the factory are now resisting doing anything to help the jobless workers they’d exploited. Rather than doing something to help improve conditions, they simply walked away to shut down their PR mess.
Collectively, we can hold manufacturers’ feet to the fire and keep pushing for a world in which the season’s hottest new jacket doesn’t hurt the environment, animals, or people. Until then, see you at the UnNew shelves.
Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.Follow us on Instagram + Facebook: Tag us @geartrade with the hashtag #unnewoutdoor #wearitout on your post or story for a chance to be featured on our page.
It is now easier than ever to sell your gear on Geartrade. With our new Consignment Selling option you can finally reclaim your gear closet. Send it in. We take care of the rest.