When it comes to the outdoors, what do we mean by sustainability? How should we prioritise conflicting interests? What constitutes taking your fair share? And is leaving no trace even possible? In this series of environmental opinion pieces, Tomas Frydrych wrestles with these big questions. This time he examines the outdoor gear industry...
It is a crisp winter night, yet I am cosy in my technical clothing in spite the -10C, watching stars falling 'into' Lochan nan Cat. Moments like these are precious, a priceless escape from the bustle of the modern world, as if briefly passing through an alternate reality. And, naturally, taking care to leave no trace on my way out!
But have I not, really? My tent was made by someone (Maria, says a little tag inside), somewhere, from nylon. Some place on the planet there is a messy hole from which came the oil, a noisy factory where that fabric was woven (probably by someone who could not afford to own one), a dirty bauxite mine for the aluminium poles and pegs. And somewhere else yet all this kit will end up one day – it is only in that imaginary alternate reality that I am leaving no trace.
Elizabeth K. Andre argues cogently that Leave No Trace (LNT) is not really an environmental ethos, but merely an etiquette: it is not about protecting the environment, but about protecting our experience of 'wild' places by preserving their perceived 'wildness' – the focus of LNT-like approaches is social rather than environmental, and social in a rather parochial sense.
The basic business model of any outdoor equipment manufacturer is the selling of unnecessary goods. To be blunt, the industry is built on the ongoing creation of (expensive) waste - this is an inherent part of the true environmental cost of modern outdoor pursuits
In the context of the 21st century environmental challenges such an etiquette is not enough, for outdoor recreation is no longer a marginal pastime but big business. And I mean BIG. According to the US Outdoor Industry Association 2017 report outdoor recreation is worth more to the US economy than the pharmaceutical industry, oil industry, or car manufacturing, is not far behind financial services and health care, and creates more jobs than any of those. Not only that, but it is a rapid growth industry - these numbers appear to have grown by nearly 40% in the five years from 2012 (see here).
Talk about Kit
People heading into the outdoors and job creation is all good, but the environmental footprint of an industry of this size is far from negligible. This comes in different forms, but the one I want to talk about is equipment. The annual sales of outdoor gear come to some $185 billion in the US alone, roughly the entire GDP of New Zealand – and that's lot of kit.
The problem with the kit is twofold. On the one hand there are the questions of how it is made – from what (mostly oil), where (to what environmental standards) and by whom (under what employment conditions). In recent years we have become more savvy about these things, and so companies go to great trouble to demonstrate their environmental and social credentials. Brands that have made an effort are to be commended for their efforts of course - any improvement is good, and some are far from negligible. But how far towards true sustainability can they go, really?
There is another problem with outdoor kit, one that we don't talk about enough: the fact that outdoor gear is being manufactured on such a scale in the first place. This is the elephant in the outdoor industry room.
Outdoor equipment manufacturing faces the same basic challenge as any industry producing non-consumable goods: how to maintain a steady turnover. After a while everyone who needs a particular product has it, sales dwindle and steps are needed to avoid going out of business.
The Ultra-Light moniker magically kills two birds with one stone: I am getting a product that is guaranteed to need a replacement soon, and at the same time I am charged a premium for the privilege
First comes market expansion. This involves lots of marketing, which is a euphemism for selling unneeded things to unwilling buyers. It can come in different guises, but at the end of the day even that famous 'Don't Buy This Jacket' ad by Patagonia is just that - an ad (otherwise, why not stop making it?). But market expansion has hard limits, and ultimately the business needs to get its existing customers to buy again and again – it needs to make their previous purchases obsolete.
There are a number of different ways of achieving that, some more innocent than others. The most innocuous is innovation: an improved version of a product might justify an upgrade. Unfortunately, innovation is hard, and much of what hails as innovation are small quantitative improvements, while qualitative game changers are rare. So other forms of obsolescence are needed.
One option is to change an established standard in a way that makes a new product line incompatible with what the customer already owns (the mountain bike industry has honed this one to an absolute perfection, but they are not alone). Sometimes it is possible to terminate a product outright – one to watch out for as more and more high-tech equipment is becoming 'essential' to our outdoor pursuits, for the current trend in the high-tech industry for moving from 'products' to 'services' is driven principally by the desire to tightly control product life-cycle.
Then, of course, there is specialisation: replace a single jacket with a bunch of similar ones, each marketed for a different activity. And so I find myself with a waterproof jacket for skiing, running (road), running (hill), cycling, casual and bird watching use, I even have one for taking the bins out (not marketed as such, perhaps someone should fill that niche). The differences are subtle, invariably unnecessary, but at times significant enough to discourage generic use.
Lighten up? Not necessarily good for the planet
But my favourite is the simple reduction in durability: it's a complete no brainer - if the product doesn't last then it will need replacing! Of course, this might not be good for the brand, but don't worry, the marketers have that covered: Ultra-Light.
The Ultra-Light moniker magically kills two birds with one stone: I am getting a product that is guaranteed to need a replacement soon, and at the same time I am charged a premium for the privilege. It's like a 'sustainable' variation on the Emperor's new clothes, for this Emperor keeps coming back for more. Now, as a runner I fully appreciate the importance of weight, but this incessant emphasis on reducing it has gone well beyond stupid, and worse, it has steadily conditioned us into accepting that equipment is for a season rather than for life. This is not only silly, it is irresponsible.
It is not that people behind outdoor equipment don't care about the environment. For example, reading Yvon Chouinard's book Let My People Go Surfing, the author's passion for the environment is palpable and demonstrated both in the quest to minimise the environmental impact of Patagonia's operations, as well as the substantial philanthropic funding of environmental causes.
But the elephant in the PR room will not go away no matter how much the outdoor industry recycles or donates to conservation causes. There is no getting away from the fact that the basic business model of an outdoor equipment manufacturer is the selling of unnecessary goods. To be blunt, the industry is built on the ongoing creation of (expensive) waste - this is an inherent part of the true environmental cost of modern outdoor pursuits and the sooner we face up to it, the better.
Of course, once I understand what makes the industry tick, it becomes obvious that the real problem here is me, the guy with the countless waterproof jackets. It all hinges on me buying into the marketing spiel. And so that's where the change has to start.
Have I mentioned stoves yet?
Any self-respecting critique of LNT will raise the camping stove as an example. This is justified, for the camping stove gas cartridge symbolises all that is limited about the philosophy, and all that's wrong with the gear industry.
Gas stoves, for instance, are an environmental nightmare. To start with, they are filled with liquid petroleum gases, so they come with the whole oil industry baggage.
Then, if you check the tiny print, you will find that they are normally manufactured in the Far East, then transported across the globe. This is a big deal (Chouinard's book has a bit on Patagonia's analysis of energy costs of transport, which is quite revealing – shipping by sea is not the magic bullet you might think it is, and is mostly powered by very dirty diesel engines anyway).
And to add insult to injury, the cartridges are not reusable. They end up in landfill, or just left behind wherever they run out; our bothies are overflowing with them. It's not that they could not be refilled. If you Google a bit, you will find out that some thrifty people refill the small cartridges from the bigger cheaper ones. Now, I am not not suggesting in the slightest that you do that, not simply because the manufacturers say not to, but because gas is nasty, dangerous stuff. But it shows that the fundamental problem here is not technical, just the industry's cavalier attitude.
Personally, I have stopped using gas during the summer and switched to an alcohol stove, which is also a lot cheaper to run, and for short trips it works out lighter too (broadly speaking, gas only becomes weight-efficient when you use enough to carry the big 450g canisters, you are never worse off than taking the 110g small canister, and only worse off if you were to completely use up the 220g medium canister).
Yes, there is some inconvenience, in that everything takes a few minutes longer. Wind is more of an issue. With open-bath stoves you need to be careful of spillage, and also alcohol stoves tend to produce more CO, so care is needed when cooking in a tent. I can live with all of that. I still use gas during the winter, mostly because the time advantage becomes more significant, but I think I'll need to review that in the future.
So where does this leave us? Out of the critique of the LNT etiquette have emerged new perspectives. There are different ways of formulating these, and those interested in exploring this more will find Elizabeth K Andre's paper mentioned above useful. To me the core of the requisite outdoor ethos needs to include at least the following:
Reuse, repair, and (only if all else fails) recycle: before buying new kit, see if anything you already have could be used, or adapted to use, instead.
Prioritise durability over weight: 'nough said about that.
Prioritise environmental / social considerations over cost: try to avoid kit manufactured in places with a poor environmental and employment track record; in the UK buying EU manufactured kit is the best option, I think.
Prioritise local: transportation matters.
Prioritise cottage over enterprise: market pressures mean that large corporations operate on basis of middle-of-the road, status quo, ethos. To affect a positive change we need better than that, and small manufacturers are easier to keep accountable.
Cut down on packaging: an energy bar is just a wastefully packaged handful of oats, so explore alternatives (e.g. flapjack, easy to make, tastes better, costs a fraction and a lunch box / a good quality ziplock bag, can be reused great many times). Ask yourself whether you can't do better than those heat-up-in-a-bag pre-packaged meals, it is really not that hard to make your own food for a night or two.
The above list is not meant to be exhaustive or authoritative, but food for thought. As with the Fair Share principle (see here), modern outdoor ethos can't be simply about static rules. Codes of practice can provide helpful guidelines and boundaries, but ultimately we need to develop a mindset and self-awareness that gives us a better understanding of where and how our pursuits fit into the bigger scheme of things, both individually and collectively.
More so, the world around us is in a constant flux, and our outdoor ethos needs to be able to deal with that. If Leave No Trace is a child of the '80s and '90s, then the Beyond Leave No Trace principles are the product of the early '00s. There have been some significant changes since then, changes that have a profound bearing on our outdoor activities. The most notable among these is the extent to which our lives have become permeated by social media – and I will look into the implications of that next time.