How Our Favorite Brands Are Saving the World
Making a net-positive impact as a company selling stuff is hard. These businesses stand out for their design innovation, social and political action, and meaningful sustainability commitments.
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Maybe we’re biased, but we like to think outdoor gear companies are changing the world in ways that far surpass the size of their business. The outdoor industry is full of adventurers who are passionate about playing hard in nature and working hard to protect it. And you can bet the people who work at these brands are talking to one another.
They meet up at industry events, and they ski, climb, hike, camp, paddle, and practice yoga with another, trading intel about threats our public lands face and trying to figure out what they can do about it. Many of these companies’ leaders directly and indirectly push each other to set and meet challenging goals for getting plastic out of shipping, making their designs more eco-friendly, or rallying customers to advocate for public policy change. And as they influence one another to make their businesses better, they influence us to make better choices, too.
Of course, the ultimate sustainability move is to not make anything at all. Making more stuff—regardless of what it is—requires resources. Crafting apparel from organic cotton doesn’t un-use the water it takes to turn that cotton into a t-shirt, and neither does planting an entire forest of trees. So it takes a lot more than green design to have a net-positive impact on the world.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of companies doing valuable work to not just offset the impact of producing consumer goods but also improve the outdoors. We think the the eight brands listed here go above and beyond. They push the envelope for sustainability in design—which should be the bare minimum these days anyway—raise the standards for corporate and social responsibility in ways that improve lives around the world, have meaningful environmental impact, and influence both competitors and customers for the better.
Obviously, you can’t talk about advocacy, conservation, or political action within the outdoor industry without namedropping Patagonia. In addition to the brand’s well-publicized stunts to raise money for environmental causes—like donating all of its Black Friday sales, a total of $10 million, to 1% for the Planet back in 2016—Patagonia also holds social influence to motivate its customers to take political action. The company’s Worn Wear program has made it cool to repair, upcycle, and recycle your worn-out stuff instead of just tossing it or letting it rot in the back of your closet, keeping untold heaps of clothing out of landfills. It’s not afraid to campaign for political change or pick fights with state, federal, or outdoor industry leadership. And Patagonia’s workplace policies have set and raised standards that transcend the outdoor industry, from offering childcare at its headquarters to committing to posting bail for employees who are arrested for protesting abortion restrictions.
The bottom line: Patagonia is the O.G. benchmark for corporate responsibility, and has shown us time and again that it is indeed possible to run a profitable business while also standing for something, treating people well, and making a damn good product that lasts for generations—the ultimate sustainable design.
As one of the biggest retailers of outdoor gear in the U.S., REI Co-op holds a massive amount of influence. And it’s proven willing to wield that power to make positive change not just for the environment but for social good. Take REI’s Path Ahead Ventures, for example: a $30 million program to provide funding and support for non-white entrepreneurs—who currently make up just 1 percent of outdoor industry brand founders. Separately, the REI Cooperative Action Fund provides grants to local organizations across the country who are working on recreation access issues for the millions of Americans who can’t easily get out in nature or don’t feel like they belong in the great outdoors.
REI also exerts influence on the brands it stocks, pushing them to invest in greener design and expand size inclusivity. Its Product Impact Standards demand that brand partners do the following, among other things: establish an action plan to calculate and reduce their carbon footprints; annually measure and share sustainability outputs performance; have policies in place to prevent cultural appropriation; and use ethically-sourced down and wool. By 2030, every product on REI shelves is expected to have at least one third party certification for sustainability, such as Bluesign-approved chemicals or Climate Neutral certification.
As a beloved retailer and adventure outfitter, REI influences us, too: REI’s Cooperative Action Network shares information about pending legislation affecting climate change, equity in outdoor access, and conservation, and provides tools to help customers get in touch with their elected officials. Through this platform, REI has recorded sending over 140,000 letters to representatives . And you can call #OptOutside a publicity stunt if you like, but show us another ad campaign that sparked a widespread seven-year (and counting) tradition to ditch Black Friday shopping in favor of spending the day outdoors.
Finally, REI has demonstrated attention and care to threats to its own employees, publicly committing to helping workers access reproductive care if they have to travel out of state to do it.
Here’s the problem with audacious claims to change the world through product sales or one-for-one style donation campaigns (“you buy X, we give Y”): How on Earth can you verify that the cause you think you’re helping actually benefits from your dollars? Tentree has clearly thought about this.
Since 2012, Tentree has been planting 10 trees for every product sold. That amounts to more than 80 million trees to date, and they’re well on their way to their goal of planting 1 billion by 2030. Since this past Earth Day they’re taking it one step further with a blockchain verification system that lets customers check in and confirm that the trees their products supported have actually been planted. The system, Veritree, is backed by the public blockchain platform Cardano and makes it possible for everyone involved in the tree planting to keep in touch, track progress, and stay accountable to orders placed. Other companies that promote planting programs can use the technology, too.
Tentree’s commitment to transparency applies to its own business, too: The company has gone through the rigorous process of being certified as a B Corp (with an impressive score of 124.6, far above the required 80 point threshold) and has published an in-depth report explaining exactly how they measure the environmental impact of their products and how they compare to conventional design. Want to support the cause without buying new stuff? Tentree also enables customers to buy carbon offsets in the form of themed tree planting packages to make up for Netflix binges, delivery habits, international flights, and more.
Janji stands out for its commitment to work directly with various local, Indigenous artists to support one goal—clean water access—around the globe. Each year, the running apparel brand commissions local artists to design a unique product line with a limited run. For their latest product drop, Janji hired Indonesian artist Arwin Hidayat. He used a traditional Batik technique, which involves color blocking on fabric canvas with wax, to create his prints for the series.
The company takes special care to manufacture clothes using durable fabric that is often recycled and designed to reduce microfiber shedding. Two percent of proceeds from every piece sold go back to a local NGO partner working on water sanitation and access projects in the artists’ communities. Janji’s latest NGO recipient is Greeneration, which is working to remove garbage from Indonesia’s Citarum River, one of the world’s most polluted waterways.
Janji also recently introduced a membership program that gives customers a lifetime discount in exchange for a $25 fee, 100 percent of which is donated to those same clean water initiatives around the world.
Toad & Co
Being a sustainable apparel company requires more these days than simply using the least water-intensive fabric you can find. And while Toad & Co is committed to using organic and recycled fibers and Bluesign- and Oeko-Tex-certified materials, it’s also shown a clear commitment to investing in the circular economy. As a founding partner to the Renewal Workshop, which has since been acquired by global supply chain manager Bleckmann, Toad & Co got in on the ground floor with an idea that has since diverted over half a million tons of textile waste from landfills.
More recently, the brand has curated its own vintage line and partnered with online secondhand retailer ThredUp to encourage customers to send in clothing from any brand in exchange for store credit. They’re working to ship those products in eco-friendlier ways, too. From experimenting with reusable mailers and fully-recyclable paper packaging to partnering with the Forest Stewardship Council to test-drive paper poly bags (the protective coverings your clothing is usually shipped in), Toad & Co seems willing to take risks in pursuit of its sustainability goals—one of which is to be plastic-free by 2026.
Toad & Co has a longstanding commitment to providing employment and improving recreation access issues for people with disabilities. In 1997 the brand partnered with nonprofit Search, Inc. to co-found the Planet Access Company, which provides job training and employment for people with developmental disabilities. Since 2000, Toad & Co has also provided grants to fund outdoor adventures for people who face barriers to access.
LifeStraw acts like a people-first, not product-first, company. It started out by developing a simple plastic straw for humanitarian work to prevent Guinea worm disease. In the ensuing decades, the company has grown to make impressive sales of trail-focused water filters, and it puts proceeds toward funding clean water projects and providing emergency relief in disaster situations.
LifeStraw hires local employees in the communities it operates instead of dropping in workers from elsewhere in the world, and provides necessary education, training, and support around water safety rather than just dropping off products and heading home. Its efforts have helped tens of millions of people, including 6 million kids a year who get access to safe drinking water with LifeStraw water purification systems in their schools.
LifeStraw is certified as a Climate Neutral company and has B-Corp certification, as does its parent company, Vestergaard. It also has a robust internal code of conduct and non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, all of which are publicly available to read.
BioLite’s innovative solar, power, and cookstove products make great backpacking companions, but its household products are also directly changing lives in communities where people lack access to electricity, artificial lighting, and clean-burning stoves. Biolite cookstoves have been certified by the United Nations as a viable carbon-reducing solution, which they’ve been able to monetize to offset their production costs and provide the stoves inexpensively to people who need them. While producing solar products can be environmentally taxing itself, BioLite has been independently Climate Neutral Certified to prove that the carbon emissions from those its manufacturing operations are suitably offset.
BioLite estimates that it provided clean energy access to over 2 million people last year alone, and is aiming to reach 20 million total by 2025. The brand also says it offset an estimated 719,000 tons of CO2 in 2021, equivalent to taking 155,000 cars (that’s very roughly the entire population of a small city like Tallahassee, Florida) off the road for an entire year.
And if that’s not enough, BioLite products are also putting significant cash back into the pockets of its customers. According to the company’s 2021 impact report, the annual energy savings families have realized from these products amounted to an estimated $176 million last year, which for many of BioLite’s lowest-income customers equates to about 14 percent of their annual income.
The North Face
As the outdoor industry’s second-biggest brand (Patagonia is the first, according to the NPD Group), when The North Face speaks, everyone listens. And by expertly straddling the adventure space and lifestyle consumer apparel, TNF has a wide, diverse audience. In recent years, the brand has put money and movements behind inclusivity projects making impacts in communities across the U.S. Just one example: TNF’s adventure grant program Explore Fund recently got a major overhaul when the brand committed an additional $7 million and established a diverse council to administer the grants. And another: the Walls Are Meant for Climbing campaign provided funding for local community recreation projects like a climbing wall in Denver’s Montbello Open Space in the face of calls to “build that wall” at the border.
Behind the scenes, TNF is continually working on improving its design sustainability—and with the scale of the business, those changes have wide-reaching effects. Its PFC-free Futurelight series pushes the envelope for sustainable waterproof gear made without harsh, greenhouse gas-emitting chemicals. And TNF says it’s on track to using 100 percent organic, regenerative, responsibly-sourced or recycled fabrics, FSC-certified shipping materials, and no single-use plastics by 2025.
TNF has also made it easier for individual customers to shop more sustainably. Its Renewed and REMADE collections sell repaired gear and one-of-a-kind pieces, like down parkas, that have been professionally cleaned and repaired by designers who’ve taken rips and tears as invitations to make something special. And through its Clothes the Loop program, people can drop off unwanted clothes at any TNF retail shop—regardless of who made them—so they can be sent off and sorted for reuse or responsible recycling into raw materials.