Environmentalism and outdoor adventure enthusiasm tend to go hand-in-hand. This is unsurprising; people care more about things that they have emotional connections with, and it’s difficult to spend a weekend—or even a day—hiking, biking, or skiing in the great outdoors and not feel some degree of awe. I know this is at least true for me. An epic three-week Outward Bound course in the Rocky Mountains inspired me to pursue a career in conservation and continuously strive for a low-impact lifestyle. On that course we practiced Leave-No-Trace principles, taking and leaving behind nothing but footprints. Lately I’ve been thinking about another kind of footprint, the carbon kind.
It seems safe to say that we view outdoorsy people as eco-friendlier, but how sustainable are our favourite outdoor pastimes really? There are multiple factors to consider when buying outdoor gear. Who makes it and what are their values? How was it manufactured and with what materials? How far does it travel to get to you?
Patagonia recently announced a goal to be carbon neutral across their entire business, including their supply chain, by 2025. And once they achieve that, they aim to become carbon positive through continued investment in carbon-capture and renewable energy projects. While theirs may currently be the most ambitious goal, other outdoor clothing and gear companies are sure to be close behind.
I could go on and on about the clothing side of the equation and what materials are best (personally I swear by wool, even in the summer and even while tree planting in 30°C sunshine…), but I want to focus a bit more on the gear.
Bikes: I think we can all agree that biking is great. Great exercise, great fun, great for the environment! A life cycle analysis of different transportation modes found that bikes are 268 times less energy intensive per passenger mile than the average car. There are a few material choices for bike frames, each with its own impact: aluminum, steel, carbon fiber, and titanium. But there’s a new kind of frame rolling onto the roads: bamboo. In addition to being renewable, bamboo is both light and durable, having a seemingly infinite fatigue life. Booomers bikes is a social enterprise that creates bamboo bike frames and accessories in Ghana, creating jobs and supporting local schools. They are launching in North America this fall! Tires and tubes can be recycled, but this depends on whether you live near a facility that does so.
Skis/Snowboards: Skis, snowboards, boots, and equipment in general are not the most environmentally friendly things to produce, often being made with plastics, fiberglass, metals, and chemical veneers. Companies are trying to do better and have been for a while. Snowboard company Arbor has been making sustainable snowboards since 1995, replacing the standard plastic top sheets with hand-crafted and responsibly sourced wood veneers and pioneering the use of bamboo, bio-plastics, and other renewable alternatives. And they repurpose old snowboards into skateboards for when the powder runs dry! Meier Skis is a Colorado-based company with science-based forest management at its core, using 100% wood-based products harvested locally. Old gear can be difficult to recycle, but any gear with life left in it can always go to a thrift store!
Kayaks/Canoes: My family owns a 16-foot aluminum canoe from the 70’s that I’m sure will outlive me. Canoes and kayaks come in a variety of materials, wood and aluminum being the most sustainable, but not ideal if you plan on paddling moving water. Melker Kayaks is a Swedish company that 3D prints kayaks, using corn and wood pellets, that are both stiff and lightweight. Pretty neat technology, but a long paddle away from us over here in North America! A pretty solid option for keeping your footprint—or wake—small is to buy a quality boat and properly maintain it so it lasts forever (hopefully).
Surfboards: Small brands are making big waves in the world of sustainable surf, using recycled or bio-based foams, bio-resins, natural fiber reinforcements such as hemp, flax, or coconut, and balsa or paulownia wood. Using recycled or bio-based foams reduces the carbon emissions of the production process by up to 80%. The ECOBOARD project accredits companies for transparency and commitment to sustainability, and with a comprehensive, continent-by-continent list on their website, it is easy to find an eco-friendly surfboard near you.
How far a product travels during production, and then afterwards to reach its final destination, should also be included in its overall impact. The most naturally sourced, sustainable set of skis on the market still carries a lot of embodied energy use when shipped halfway around the planet. As do we, when we follow our powder dreams to Japan or even just live the weekend warrior lifestyle. Greg Hill is a Revelstoke-based pro skier who realized that his pursuit of vertical around the world was racking up a carbon footprint to overshadow the peaks he’s climbed, so he came up with the idea to reach 100 different summits without the use of fossil fuels. Now a bona fide electric convert and proponent of “localism”, Hill has a documentary coming out later this year detailing the early days of his electric adventures. While going electric may not be feasible for all of us just yet, car-pooling is always a great option to minimize our footprint.
Another key component to the sustainability of a product is what happens to it once it’s reached the end of its intended use lifespan. There are lots of creative ways to recycle/upcycle old gear. Think surfboard benches, ski fences, waterproof grocery bags… I’ve seen an old bicycle made into a pretty cool table.
Admittedly, buying the most sustainably sourced product may hit the wallet a little harder than more energy intensive choices, but not always. As eco-friendly products become more mainstream, it will be easier to match budgets and values. And of course, the most affordable option is almost always to buy second-hand. With initiatives like Patagonia’s Worn Wear and The North Face Renewed, you can still find quality outdoor clothing without having to leave your house (although currently both of these only ship out of the USA).
So, what can we do?
- Carpool! I’ll always remember the day I fit five people and five sets of skis into my Honda Civic for a Whistler day trip during university…
- Recycle what you can, upcycle the rest. Get creative!
- Buy used, or don’t buy at all: I recently got an awesome paddling jacket from a clothing/gear swap organized by a pal.
- When you do buy new, support companies that align with your values. We have power as consumers; companies won’t make products if nobody buys them.
- And of course, leave no trace: tread lightly while out there!
How do you minimize your footprint while adventuring outside?
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