Your Guide to Sustainable Outdoor Clothing

Amy Rutter - Jun 07, 2022 - Inspiration

As adventure enthusiasts, we want to protect the outdoor spaces that we love and explore. That’s why it’s so important to look for sustainable outdoor clothing.

We all follow the ‘leave no trace’ message and try our best to be environmental ambassadors, but our efforts mean less if the clothing we wear is doing a lot more harm.

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Hiker wearing sustainable outdoor clothing to tackle the 14 peaks challenge in snowdonia national park

Everything we consume has an environmental impact, and our outdoor clothing is no exception. The global outdoor industry unfortunately accounts for a large carbon footprint, ironic for us outdoor enthusiasts who get so much joy from being out in the beautiful landscapes.

You’ve ditched the plastic bottles and left the wet wipes on the supermarket shelf – that’s a great start! Another great way to look after the planet is to buy your outdoor gear responsibly.

This guide to sustainable outdoor clothing will help you make more ethically-conscious decisions next time you make a purchase to update your adventure gear – so you can continue exploring the outdoor places you love without costing the Earth.

What is sustainable outdoor clothing?

Any gear we buy for our adventures comes at a cost – there’s no getting around that. Each point in a supply chain brings with it a carbon footprint and the potential to do social and environmental harm, making it pretty difficult to avoid all the pitfalls. But some brands make it their mission not only to make high performance outdoor gear, but to do the least harm possible.

Hiker watching the sunset from a mountain summit in north wales kitted our in sustainable outdoor clohting

When choosing a brand, it’s important to look deeper into what they do to look after people and the planet. Whether it’s making the gear of recycled materials, paying a fair wage, offering repair and recycling programs, or offsetting the emissions generated by manufacturing the gear.

We don’t believe that carbon offsetting is a silver bullet: ultimately we must all reduce our carbon emissions if we are to halt the climate crisis. But we do believe that mitigating carbon emissions for climate change is a positive step to take.

How does outdoor clothing impact the environment?

It’s sometimes shocking when you find out the impact even small items can have but it’s always important to be aware. You can find some of the impacts outdoor clothing can have on the environment below. Remember, responsible gear is the solution, not cutting down on adventure!

Solo traveller in sustainable outdoor clothing exploring on an adventure in wales
  • Synthetic materials

Synthetic materials tend to be made using non-renewable resources, which is bad news for the environment as large amounts of harmful gases are released and natural resources are consumed. Some natural biological products such as cotton however, can also take a toll on the planet if not produced responsibly or organically.

It’s also important to keep an eye out for down-filled insulated jackets. These can be produced from the live-plucking of ducks and geese, so is a major issue in terms of animal welfare. Avoid clothing that contains down, or only buy recycled down or down certified as free from this cruelty.

Plant and animal-based natural materials such as merino wool, organic linen, organic cotton or hemp create minimal impact as long as they’re responsibly and ethically sourced.

Products made from recycled materials such as recycled polyester, cotton and nylon will also help to combat the climate change crisis propelled by fast fashion.

  • Waterproofing

If you’ve ever worn a waterproof jacket or trousers while out exploring, chances are you’ve probably already come into contact with PFCs.

Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) have been used for some time to give clothing water- and stain-resistant properties. The same chemicals are used to make nonstick cookware and cupcake wrappers. Some PFCs escape into the atmosphere and into wastewater during production and small amounts can turn up as residue on the clothing itself.

Iceberg floating above sea level in Antartica linked to clothing chemicals

You may be shocked to discover that PFCs have been found in glaciers, on the icecaps and even in the stomachs of polar bears. Some PFCs are more toxic and harmful than others. However, all PFCs can break down into other substances which are harmful in high quantities.

The problem for outdoor gear makers is that PFCs are devilishly useful in waterproofing fabrics. They help gear makers to create fabrics that breathe, allowing air in and out, while repelling water.

Harmless alternatives appear to be hard to come by. For this reason many outdoor firms still use PFCs. These include companies with carefully cultivated green reputations – such as Patagonia, who once planned to go PFC-free in 2020, but are still developing a replacement technology.

Woman walking through a forest wearing sustainable outdoor clothing brand, Fjallraven

Other leading brands have successfully introduced PFC-free waterproof fabrics, or gone entirely PFC-free, among them Vaude, Jack Wolfskin and Fjallraven.

  • Waste

The average consumer throws away 37kg of clothes per year, while globally we produce 13 million tonnes of textile waste in the same amount of time – so it’s little wonder that the clothing industry has a waste problem that weighs heavily on our planet.

Abandoned clothing factory with tonnes of clothing waste being sorted

The fashion industry accounts for about 8-10% of global carbon emissions, and nearly 20% of wastewater. And while the environmental impact of flying is now well known, fashion sucks up more energy than both aviation and shipping combined.

Top 5 Tips

Any gear we buy for our adventures comes at a cost – there’s no getting around that. Each point in a supply chain brings with it a carbon footprint and the potential to do social and environmental harm, making it pretty difficult to avoid all the pitfalls. But some brands make it their mission not only to make high performance outdoor gear, but to do the least harm possible.

1. Don’t buy anything

The most eco-friendly thing you can do is to mend and fix your existing kit where possible. Unlike fast fashion items, outdoors clothing is built to last so think about getting them repaired before buying something new.

With the increase in ethical consumerism, most adventure clothing brands now have impressive product warranties and repair services. Brands like Alpkit and Patagonia offer a free repair service to save your hiking kit before it reaches the point of no return.

Our very own surf partner down in south Wales also offers a repair service. TYF has been selected by the Welsh Government to help accelerate growth of the circular economy by creating a Planetary Repair Centre.

Surfing with TYF at Whitesands beach in St Davids, where the brand run a repair centre for broken outdoor clothing to be fixed

If it can’t be repaired, recycle! In an ideal world, the ability to recycle outdoor gear would be as simple as putting it in with your household recycling. But unfortunately it’s not quite so simple.

With a little bit of effort you’ll find plenty of ways to recycle your outdoor gear so that as much of it as possible is diverted from landfill – this could mean the fibres from your tattered old jacket could have a new lease of life as insulation or maybe even yarn.

Brands like Cotswolds Outdoor allow you to drop off clothing that can’t be repaired. Once you’ve dropped your unwanted gear to in-store recycling boxes, SOEX comes to collect. Once sorted, your old clothing is given a new lease of life.

2. Buy second hand

Every product has some kind of environmental footprint. No piece of clothing is 100% sustainable. It can be eco-friendly, and ethically conscious, but at the end of the day every product that is produced has an impact on the environment. Even when brands do everything they can to minimise this, it’s unavoidable.

This is why buying second-hand is not only good value, but also often the best environmentally responsible choice. The product has already been made and used, after all.

You can find great second-hand equipment and this is one of the most environmentally-friendly options. It can save you money and also help you meet like-minded people in the community. You can try looking in charity or thrift shops, car boot sales or online marketplaces.

On the flip side, there are instances when not to buy second hand. Safety equipment tops that list. For equipment like climbing harnesses, climbing ropes, winter outdoor gear, ice climbing or camping equipment you plan to use in tough conditions – it has to be safe.

Climbing rope and anchors leading up rocky mountain face

For this reason, unless you know what you’re doing, you need to be extra cautious buying outdoor safety equipment second-hand from individual sellers.

3. Buy to last

Buy once and buy well. Cheap outdoor kit is usually a false investment you’ll need to repeat regularly, so you won’t end up saving money in the long run.

Spend as much as you can afford on great quality items and look after them, especially hard-wearing items such as jackets or boots.

Salomon hiking boot work by outdoor hiker in sunny forest, wearing sustainable outdoor clothing

4. Choose sustainable brands

When you buy something from a company, you’re supporting them, and by extension their ethos too. That’s why it’s so important to do your research on the brand before making your purchase. If the brand only talks vaguely about their environmental credentials, chances are there isn’t much substance behind them.

On the flip side, there are some brands out there creating great ethical and sustainable outdoor wear. So you can enjoy the great outdoors knowing your gear isn’t contributing to the exploitation of people or the planet.

Exploring a lake in Penrith in the Lake Distict wearing sustainable outdoor clothing

Consider investing in gear from a brand that has a quality sustainability policy – a brand that lives and breathes the outdoors. There are plenty of brands out there that just talk the talk, but not walking the walk. Some great examples of brands that are creating ethical and sustainable outdoor wear are Patagonia, Rab and Osprey.

Patagonia is an environmental heavyweight when it comes to sustainable gear. They have strong labour rights and use recycled, rather than virgin, polyester. Patagonia has also committed to reducing its energy use and emissions and takes their own gear back for repair or resale.

What to look out for when choosing sustainable brands:

  • Sustainability pages on the website, mission statements, and adherence to sustainability
  • Purchase products that state materials are recycled, or sourced from sustainable sources, and use only or mostly materials that are less impactful. Companies will likely state this on product pages
  • Does a percentage of your order go towards sustainability? Whether profits, or a percentage of revenue, these are small things that can help a little
  • Look for recyclable materials in packing and shipping when possible

5. Choose locally grown

It’s not just your fruit and vegetables that you can source locally. Geography is worth considering in terms of shipping. How many miles has the product had to travel to reach you? If it’s flown by plane, it’s already contributed a good few hundred kilograms of carbon into the environment.

Thank you for shopping locally sign in shop window in blog about choosing sustainable outdoor clothing

Things like this can weaken a brand’s “eco-friendly” claims. Locally-grown fabric has a smaller carbon footprint and natural fabrics such as wool also degrade once discarded, unlike oil-based synthetic fabrics.

Every Little Helps

Being more sustainable in our consumption is a challenge but one that’s worth tackling. Any and all changes we can make when thinking about our outdoor clothing can make a difference – and it’s these changes that will allow us to explore the outdoor spaces we love for years to come.