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Outdoor Equipment and Sustainability—A Goal in Sight

There is no doubt that mountaineering equipment continues to evolve by becoming more technical and by using sustainable materials. Mountaineering in the 21st century requires equipment that is able to take on more ambitious challenges while respecting the environment and the ethical treatment of animals. This article sets out to explain the main standards of sustainability both in the attainment of raw materials, in the use of resources and pollution management, and in the treatment of the workers who produce them. RDS, Bluesign, Fairtrade... We explain some of the most frequent independent standards on sustainability.

Raw materials need to be ethically sourced. Photo: Devold

This is the first of a series of articles, which will look at how the manufacturers of mountain equipment are committed to the preservation of the environment and the good working conditions of employees.

This first article will look at some of the most important international standards that regulate these aspects, naming only those that are verifiable and independent, that is, excluding standards created by the brands themselves as these, while undoubtedly commendable in practice, cannot be considered entirely objective. We will take a look at the following standards and certifications:

  • The ISO standard
  • The certification of raw materials of animal origin (down, wool, leather).
  • The certification of production and materials.
  • The certification of working conditions.

The Importance of Environmental and Socially Responsible Regulations

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Have you ever wondered why the items found in fashion or department stores have a significantly lower price than equivalent items designed for outdoor activities? We’re not only talking about comparing those that are technical and difficult to manufacture but also simple cotton t-shirts, for example.

Apart from reducing the profit margin when manufacturing on a large scale, manufacturing huge quantities often means there are cuts in quality, materials, technology and also manufacturing and working conditions as well as raw materials. Is the price difference between a down jacket from a fashion store and a comparable product from a technical store justified? The answer is yes, and it is based not only on the quality of the product, but also on the requirements imposed during the manufacturing process.

Manufacturers and points of sale are becoming increasingly aware of sustainability.

Those of us who enjoy outdoor activities are well aware of the importance of product regulations. Each time we go climbing, skiing, canyoning, caving or do any other activity that pushes our equipment to the limit, safety is guaranteed thanks to rigorous testing on strength and quality. These basic safety requirements are certified by independent companies who grant a seal of approval for the commercialization of a product.

Equipment quality controls are not only required for reasons of safety, however. Outdoor enthusiasts have always been sensitive to the natural environment, but in recent years they are becoming even more active and are asking themselves where their equipment comes from and under what conditions it is manufactured. Fortunately, not only customers show this concern. Technical brands and points of sale such as Barrabes share this sensitivity and the importance of social and environmental sustainability plays a large role in the criteria for choosing equipment. Organizations that independently certify the ethical origin of our equipment are essential when it comes to choosing a brand that meets our ethical criteria.

ISO Standards

ISO standards (International Organization for Standardization) are a set of voluntary standards for companies, aimed at ordering the management of a company in its different areas. They guarantee the consumer that a product complies with certain parameters that are usually stricter than the legislation of each country. These two aspects are important: on the one hand, they are voluntary standards and, on the other, they are strict. This means that the companies that are issued ISO certification in a particular area have passed very demanding tests that guarantee they are very close to excellence.

Certain companies may choose to relocate their factories to developing countries with laxer legislation on environmental protection, to avoid having to comply with the environmental measures of a brand’s own country of origin. Therefore, choosing an ISO approved brand guarantees that its standards are higher than a country’s legislation.

The ISO standard relating to the outdoor equipment sector that interests us on this subject is the ISO 14001 (Environmental Management Systems). This standard sets out the requirements of environmental responsibility such as emissions, pollution, harmful elements to climate change, as well as sustainable labelling and supply chains. In short, the standard establishes which parameters companies must comply with for respectful and effective environmental management.

ISO 14001 guarantees good environmental management. ISO image.

Down, Leather and Wool—The Problem With Animal-based Materials

Down, leather and wool are examples of a number of natural materials used in mountaineering equipment that have yet to find a synthetic substitute able to match their properties. Sealskins are no longer made from sealskin and horse grease has not been applied to boots for years. Gradually, technological advances are making it possible to find synthetic substitutes for animal-derived products. However, the animal origin of certain materials gives rise to concerns on where these materials are sourced as well as the living conditions of ducks, geese, cows and sheep.

Practically every outdoor brand uses sustainable down. Photo Rab.

There are quite a few general certificates for animal-derived textiles, from those widely used in the mountaineering world, namely leather, wool and down, to less common textiles, like silk. All these certificates deal withanimal welfare and the ecological conditions of the associated processes such as tanning or dyeing. Although general standards for textiles already exist, such as GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) which certifies the organic origin, free of pollutants or toxins and with decent working conditions for producers, it is common for each natural product to have its own particular standard. Here are some of the main ones for outdoor brands:

Down: RDS (Responsible Down Standard) and Advanced Global Traceable Down Standard

We have already talked about the features of down garments and how, to this day, their level of insulation and low weight has still not been surpassed by any synthetic fibre.

Outdoor gear still depends on animal sourced textiles. Sourcing from small producers is best

Without getting into the quality of natural fibres, there is an ethical debate about the origin of down and the living conditions of the birds, which are sometimes ducks, but predominantly geese. The European Union prohibits live-plucking with the exception of the birds' natural moulting period, but in other countries, mainly China, a goose can be plucked every 6 weeks throughout its life, according to environmental organizations.

Awareness of the environment and maybe from fear of customer awareness having an impact on sales has led to confirmation from outdoor brands that their down insulation is sourced from European birds, which guarantees that, in the worst case, down has only been harvested during the natural moulting cycles of the bird. However, certificates now exist that not only guarantee the down has been obtained respectfully, but that the living conditions of geese and ducks on farms are suitable.

The RDS (Responsible Down Standard) and the Advanced Global Traceable Down Standard are two demanding parameters for obtaining down sustainably. It was Patagonia who announced in 2013, that from then on, their garments would only use100% sustainably sourced down, without inflicting unnecessary harm to animals and it would be subject to the permanent audit of the independent company NSF International in order to obtain certification. The North Face in 2014 made the same announcement although its standard was not as demanding until a few years later with the appearance of the RDS 3.0 that practically equalled Patagonia's criteria, also ceding the audit to the company Textile Exchange. Little by little, almost all outdoor brands have joined these practices.

RDS Logo. Control Union image

When talking about the European Union's ban on live-plucking, we have cited the only exception where removing the down by hand is permitted: during the moulting period of birds. This, according to animal welfare groups, is an open door for practices which are contrary to animal welfare as it causes a great deal of stress and injury to the birds and makes it difficult to prove whether the down been harvested by moulting or live-plucking. Similarly, this allows feathers from slaughtered animals that have lived in very poor conditions to be used, so animal welfare would again be excluded.

The RDS (Responsible Down Standard) certificate was created to avoid such mistreatment of birds during down harvesting. This sets out a series of standards regarding breeding of ducks and geese. The two most important are as follows:

  • The birds have not been subjected to forced feeding or hydration.
  • The feathers have not been removed from live birds, not even during the moulting periods.
  • 100% of the feathers used has to meet these premises in order to be labelled as RDS.
  • The birds live in good conditions throughout all stages of their life.

To learn more about the Responsible Down Standard criteria we invite you to take a look at this link to the RDS

Wool: RWS (Responsible Wool Standard)

We already talked about the benefits of wool as a thermal insulator and you can read about it in our article on merino wool. The collection of wool is considered a process which involves no animal suffering as the sheep are alive and the action is painless. However, as with any natural fibre, the consumer may have concerns about the sheep shearing procedure, as well as the living conditions of the animals.

Wool obtained without harming the animal and from small farms. Photo Devold.

The RWS (Responsible Wool Standard) certifies that the sheep live in dignified conditions and that the shearing, carding and spinning processes are environmentally and animal friendly. The different processes involved are respectful to the animal and the environment. As in the case of other raw materials of animal origin, third party companies must independently audit and certify that the treatment of wool is carried out in accordance with the established requirements.

Leather

The wide range of names given to cattle leather, be it suede, split leather, nubuck or grain leather, give an idea of how widespread and specialized this natural material is in the textile industry. In the world of mountain equipment, its use has been practically relegated to footwear, where its resistance, impermeability and longevity make it highly appreciated, especially in high-mountain boots.

The death of an animal creates a growing ethical rejection and the subsequent treatment of the skin (tanning, dyeing...) is often carried out with environmentally unsustainable procedures in non-conscientious brands.

Although the main manufacturers already work with certified raw materials, there are still brand products on the market that, due to lower costs, are made with leathers which are impossible trace to ensure they have not contributed to pollution.

Traceability of leather products by outdoor brands guarantees animal welfare.

The Higg Index and the Leather Working Group standards are two verification processes that focus on contamination, toxic products and working conditions in the tannery sector to guarantee the consumer a quality product with no consequences to their health and with the smallest possible footprint on the environment.

Pollution in Manufacturing, Safety and Environmental Impact

Certain brands are also willing to comply with other standards related to the environment, such as those related to pollution, during the manufacturing process. This includes the fabric dyeing process of garments and the chemicals used to manufacture them; waste management, the pollutants involved in making a garment and the implications the materials may have on our bodies and on living organisms. These aspects are becoming more and more valued by brands, stores and athletes.

Bluesign®

Bluesign® is an independent company that was founded in 2000 with the fundamental objective of motivating suppliers, manufacturers and leading brands to reduce the carbon footprint of textiles, with a particular focus on the chemicals used. Bluesign's goal from the start was to achieve sustainable textile production in the world's second most polluting industry after oil, which currently produces 20% of wastewater and 10% of all carbon emissions produced every year on the planet.

Bluesign® sets out three steps for awarding its seal of conformity:

  • Safety for the consumer.
  • Manufacturing with the least possible impact on people and the environment.
  • Responsible use of resources.

When we find a garment with the Bluesign® seal we can be sure that the elements that make it up, from the fabric to the treatments and dyes, are not hazardous to health and have also been produced using the correct treatment of the environment and waste management.

Bluesign Seal. Bluesign image.

About 1,000 chemical brands, manufacturers and suppliers around the world currently adhere to Bluesign® requirements in order to certify the safety of the environment, manufacturing process and use of their products.

For more information, this link to Bluesign explains what is required from brands in order to be granted the Bluesign seal.

Working Conditions

Awareness of all the processes involved in manufacturing material for outdoor activities also includes working conditions; acceptable working conditions, decent wages and the absence of any kind of exploitation are basic necessities that are often ignored, but are an essential requirement for people involved in this process.

Fair Trade and the Fair Wear Foundation

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The strategy used by companies to reduce costs and offer a competitive product involves moving manufacturing processes to locations where wages and production costs are lower. This way of working is not new and is widely extended in the textile sector but usually hides unethical working conditions. Many of the products we find in department stores continue to surprise us with their low price that is nothing more than a reflection of deplorable working conditions in the manufacturing process, with ridiculous salaries, precarious facilities and labour exploitation.

Founded in 1997, the Fair Trade™ certification aims to be an effective tool against poverty and in favour of human rights. Companies that want to achieve Fairtrade™ certification have to pass an audit throughout the production chain in which they are examined for compliance with requirements against child labour, in favour of gender equality, wage justice... and other even more obvious requirements, such as prohibiting forced labour or respecting the human rights of workers. Currently, some 66,000 workers of both sexes in 10 countries are protected by the Fair Trade™ label.

Fair Trade Seal. Fair Trade image

A product that wishes to be eligible for Fair Trade certification must fulfil the following criteria:

  • Dignified wages and conditions for workers.
  • No child labour and no gender wage discrimination.
  • Union organization and participatory and democratic associations are permitted.
  • Part of the corporate profit is dedicated to education and health care for the entire community.
  • Respect for the environment in all production processes.

To certify that these conditions are met, there are strict Fair Trade impartiality criteria:

  • The auditors are totally impartial and are replaced on a regular rotation basis.
  • Only the certificate pays the auditor's fees.
  • The audit submits the fully documented report for transparency.

Since 1999, the Fair Wear Foundation has been working to achieve something as basic as showing that ethical manufacturing is possible. They are trying to implement Fair Fashion in the textile world, which focuses on making fundamental rights the norm rather than the exception within the sector. To be granted certification as an ethical manufacturing company, brands must take steps to improve and achieve suitable conditions at three levels: ethical working conditions of all the brand’s factories around the world, be subject to inspections and listen directly to the workers of these factories.

Some 140 brands carry the Fair Wear Foundation seal, which certifies that they undergo audits to verify that they are being manufactured according to the foundation's requirements. These include well-known mountain brands such as Deuter, Dynafit, Mountain Equipment, Odlo, Ortovox, Salewa, Vaude or Wild Country.

Conclusions

The majority of outdoor brands, the stores selling their products and the people using them, are all increasingly aware of the importance of environmental responsibility. The fragility of the environment we move in and observe every day with the disappearance of glaciers, water pollution, the death of very sensitive species or the negative impact of garbage or infrastructure, cause us to become increasingly aware of the need to take care of the planet in all links of the chain and this pushes us to become more demanding.

The ethical care taken by the customer to choose a product, by the point of sale to choose a collection and by the manufacture to choose materials are small steps towards a more caring and supportive planet. We hope that this article, the first in a series on sustainability, has helped you to become aware of what we can all do together to conserve our home; Earth, for a long time to come.

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