For the Environment

As a walker, a backpacker and more recently a kayaker the environment is incredibly important to me. When we talk about the environmental impact of backpacking we quickly think about things like “leave no trace” but what about the kit we carry? Many of us now are setting off into the hills with a rucksack full of high end ultra-light kit made from synthetic materials (aka oil) that takes an enormous amount of resources to produce, costs us a lot of money and will last far beyond its intended use.

To illustrate this let’s look at the humble and much loved synthetic fleece.

Fleece is generally made from 100% polyester, a wonderfully versatile fabric derived from petroleum in a complex process which on average produces 27kg of CO2 per kilo of finished clothes (in comparison wool is about 19kg) (1). Of course environmental impact doesn’t stop at CO2 and we need to consider the impacts of other pollutants (take for example pollution of waterways by heavy metals used in commercial dyes) and impacts on human health. This is notoriously difficult to measure but one estimate suggests that the production of one ton of polyester clothing costs 0.48 DALYs (1). That’s a disability adjusted life year and can be interpreted to mean that, if all the impact (pollution etc.) was focused on a single person, they would be disabled by it for half a year. Sticking to the comparison wool comes out at 0.36 DALYs per ton (1). Some companies are now using recycled polyester which reduces the impact of creating the raw fibres but still needs processing into fabric, dyeing and transforming into clothes.

Most of our clothes are made in countries where labour is cheap and often the fabric will be made in one country and the finished item of clothing in another. About 92% of this transport occurs by sea freight and 8% by air freight, associated with 100x higher emissions (2). Even if your clothes come from halfway round the world this stage is generally considered to be pretty low impact compared to the manufacture and usage of the garments (2).

Most of the impact here comes from washing with the use of electricity, water and detergents (2). A typical fleece gets reasonably dirty compared to our stay-at-home clothes and will end up in the wash more regularly as a result. Another factor that we are becoming increasingly aware of is microfibers with one 2016 study calculating that each time we wash a fleece we release an average of 1.17g of microfibers into the waste water (3). Around 40% of these escape through our waste management systems and directly enter our oceans as microplastics (3). Wash your fleece 12 times and you’ve chucked the equivalent of a plastic grocery bag (5.5g) into the sea.

It’s unusual to really wear out a fleece. More likely it gets a bit flat and you wander round an outdoor shop and get seduced by a wonderfully fluffy and warm new one. The old one gets relegated to gardening duty/given away/abandoned in the back of a cupboard/chucked in the bin. Chuck it in a composter and polyester does show some initial breakdown, losing around 12% of its mass over the first month (which heads off into the atmosphere as CO2) (4). After this, while natural fibres such as cotton continue to degrade, the polyester just sits there (4) and (we think) takes hundreds of years to completely break down. It doesn’t just disappear and mostly becomes greenhouse gases. Note that while this is the same for natural fibres, they are generally considered CO2 neutral because they are releasing gases that the plants etc. absorbed as they grew.

For this example I’ve stuck with a 100% polyester fleece because it’s easier to look at one material, but think about buying a tent and suddenly you’ve got a waterproof shell which is probably full of PFCs and a set of aluminium or carbon fibre poles to consider. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the complexity of the issues so here’s a few starting points that we can all consider:

1. The most environmentally-friendly kit is the stuff we already have.
We are driven by a huge for-profit industry that tells us that in order to get to the top of that mountain we need this new jacket. But in reality most of us don’t need a waterproof that’s been tested on Everest to enjoy for a walk around our local hills. Mend things, learn how to re-proof a jacket and resist the temptation to buy new stuff just because it’s new. (It’ll also save you a small fortune which you can spend on awesome adventures)

2. Buy and sell second hand.
When I started kayaking I managed over a couple of months to get my kayak, paddle, spray deck, buoyancy aid and a really high spec cag all second hand for a grand total of £560. That’s a lot of money, but it’s also a lot less than the £1010 that the same items would have cost new. And it cost the planet nothing. I used to have a lot of reservations about the quality of second hand kit but all these items had previously been used only one or two times or, in the case of the cag, came with the tags still attached! If you only need an item for a short time consider borrowing or renting. If you’ve got a pile of old kit in the attic have a look through and see what you can sell on. Kit that you no longer use might be perfect for someone who’s just getting started and doesn’t have a lot of money to splash out.

3. Buy ethically and sustainably.
If you really need to buy new have a think about the way items are produced and the companies that make them. Everyone’s criteria here will be different – I might opt for clothes that use recycled materials while a friend might prioritise items produced in a factory that focuses on workers’ rights and empowering women. There’s no right or wrong answers but we do need to ask the questions. If you’re not sure where to start think about using natural fibres (I’m a huge fan of my merino wool thermals) or picking a company that offers good customer support and a repair service for the years ahead.

1) JRC Scientific and Policy Reports. Environmental Improvement Potential of Textiles. 2014 2) J Butow. Sustainability Issues and Strategies in the Outdoor Apparel Brand Industry. 2014 3) Microfiber Pollution and the Apparel Industry. 2016 4) Li, Frey & Browning. Biodegradability Study on Cotton and Polyester Fabrics. 2010
Written April 2019