Hiker gazing over landscape
(Photo: Lachlan Gardiner/Cavan)
2023 Winter Gear Guide

5 Sustainability Buzzwords Worth a Closer Look

Shopping responsibly isn’t easy. We asked an expert for help.

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When it comes to purchasing outdoor gear, everything—durability, breathability, comfort—is relative. Evaluating a product’s environmental cred is no different. Without a clear definition and universal standards, words associated with sustainability often fall victim to misuse. So, we sought advice from Lauren Bright, a materials consultant working with some of the industry’s leading brands, to help avoid these common greenwashing traps.

Be Skeptical: Circular

Applied to gear, circularity means that a product returns to the supply chain at the end of its life—through reuse, recycling, or downcycling—instead of ending up in the landfill. But it’s incredibly difficult to break down so-called circular products into raw, reusable elements, which can involve separating natural materials like cotton from synthetic materials like elastane, or stripping chemical additives and dye from protein-based fibers like wool. A 2020 study by the Biomimicry Institute shows that perfectly separating blended fibers enough to create new fabric is impossible. “In my view, I wouldn’t say that anyone is doing it well right now,” Bright says. True circularity, Bright says, would require designing a next-generation bio-based textile, like a fiber made from tree bark that has no chemical additives.

Be Skeptical: Biodegradable or Compostable

Some brands claim that their gear is either biodegradable or compostable. And while their efforts are a step in the right direction, what they actually mean is that the materials will degrade under very specific conditions in an industrial composter. “Even if you put a cotton rag that hasn’t been chemically treated in the middle of the desert, it is unlikely to biodegrade for a very long period of time,” Bright says. Unfortunately, not all landfills support biodegradation: Many municipalities won’t even accept certain textiles—or even compostable flatware—despite the fact that they’ve passed industrial compostability tests. All that is to say: Be wary of any brands encouraging you to bury a puffy in your backyard.

Trust It: Traceable

At its most basic level, traceability means that companies can prove how and where every ingredient in a product was sourced. For example, the Responsible Down Standard can verify that the down in your puffy came from a farm that does not live-pluck geese. But while some brands work directly with domestic and overseas factories, many factories outsource labor and materials to keep prices low—thus complicating attempts at traceability. Luckily, new technologies like blockchain and fiber genetics are advancing the textile industry’s ability to track a product’s origins. If a brand is transparent about its traceability methods, you’ll likely know whether or not to trust their system.

Be Skeptical: Regenerative

The term “regenerative” has replaced “organic” as the hottest new label in the world of sustainable fabrics. But while organic farming isn’t always beneficial for local ecosystems, regenerative agriculture has the potential to create healthy, nutrient-rich soils, rather than depleting the land as is so often the case with monoculture-based textiles. The term has started to crop up as brands like The North Face and Patagonia explore regenerative cotton. The collaboration between gear companies, farmers, and scientists is still in its infancy. Do your own research before fully trusting this label: Universal standards and practices have yet to be developed.

Trust It: Upcycled

We’re finally seeing brands invest in upcycling operations to account for a product’s end of life, either by using leftover material, repairing returns for resale, or turning discarded items into something new. “Everything is repairable,” Bright says. “We just choose not to do it to continue our capitalistic cycles.” When we embrace patches and mismatched thread colors—and start buying repurposed rather than new garments—we inevitably lessen trips to the landfill. But be cautious of take-back programs that promise to fix or reuse items: In some cases, items end up in the trash or shipped to other countries to be burned.

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