How Are Outdoor Brands Using Recycling to Meet Environmental Sustainability Goals?

This week in the UK is ‘Recycle Week’, and this year the national recycling campaign Recycle Now is recognising the sacrifices that key workers and citizens have made to keep recycling going despite the challenges of Covid-19.  

So, for Recycle Week in a year where Covid-19 has forced many of us to reconnect with nature, we take a look at some outdoor brands that have sustainability at their heart and use recycling as one of the ways in which to meet their environmental goals.

Covid-19 has brought us closer to nature

In the past few months, we have seen the great effect our daily lives have on our surroundings. With lockdowns around the world, air pollution levels plunged. Reports of nature “resurrecting” flooded the internet, from cleared waters with dolphins in Venice to the overtaking of cities by sheep.  Many of the viral stories were untrue, but people felt an affinity with nature again and witnessed how reducing the human footprint brought the environment back to life.

Worldwide quarantines have also made us realise just how important the outdoors is to our wellbeing, with many of us taking to nature for exercise and to get a much-needed mental reset. Over these past months, the outdoor industry has been seeing a sales boom in cycling, camping, and other outdoor equipment. With the closure of the regular crowd-pullers like restaurants, bars, cinemas and exhibition centres, people have been substituting nights out with friends with a road trip out into nature, a hiking expedition, or a cycle ride around the countryside. 

The clothing industry and sustainability

The general (fashion) clothing industry’s lack of accountability in regard to its environmental impact has been well known for a while now. The industry has come under fire for issues such as: mass-production in questionable working environments; “fast fashion” or the extreme speed of changing trends resulting in huge amounts of production waste; to almost a complete disregard of the industry’s impact on the environment of some production processes such as leather tanning.

Although some fashion brands have started making changes to include a wider range of sustainable options in their lines, it is only the very first step in tackling the global problem of sustainability.

When it comes to the outdoor industry, a slightly different narrative plays out, and many appear to be pioneering recycling technologies. Well-known brands like Patagonia, Montane, The North Face and others have had environmental preservation as one of their business goals from the early days.

Some of the major outdoor brands are reassuringly committed to the issue of recycling, from using recycled rubber for the soles of walking boots to non-toxic aftercare products to increase clothing longevity, money-back recycling schemes and fabrics for outdoor-wear produced from recycled waste streams.

Outdoor brands leading the way in sustainability and recycling

Patagonia is, by far, the leader in brand sustainability. Their mission clearly reads “We’re in business to save our home planet”. On 24 September 2019, the brand was named a UN Champion of the World for their policies that put sustainability as their number one goal. They have been on the right track from the early days, ensuring their products are of such quality that they would not need to be replaced for many years. They are on track to use 100% renewable or recyclable materials by 2025, have a self-imposed Earth tax, are part of the Fair Trade initiative, and the list goes on.

The Polartec team have also set a high standard for themselves when it comes to sustainability, as they were the first to create performance fabrics from post-consumer recycled plastics back in 1993, and have recycled over 1.5 billion bottles using this technology. As for production leftovers, 95% go into producing products like flooring, insulation, furniture, and more. With such innovation, the brand is constantly improving their manufacturing processes to be more sustainable.

Pertex fabrics—found in a range of outdoor gear from sleeping bags to jackets from some of the world’s largest brands—have an ECO range that contains between 50% to 100% recycled content, with polyester fabrics deriving from post-consumer and post-industrial nylon recycled content.  By 2022 the brand intends to produce 80% of fabrics containing a minimum of 50% recycled content. 

Some brands have set up recycling schemes as a way of providing a safe route for disposal of unwanted garments. Páramo will take back any of their products (except underwear) and either find it a new home or recycle it into new fabric. Finnish childrenswear brand Reima has designed the Kulkija winter jacket to be 100% recycled.  It is made from a mono-material making it easily recycled, so when it is finally worn out it can be sent back to Reima to be recycled back to polymers and made into new products.

And it’s not just fabrics being targeted for recycling. Nalgene’s new sustainable water bottles are made with 50% recycled content.  Called Nalgene SUSTAIN, the range is created from Tritan Renew resin using next-generation recycling technology that transforms single-use plastic waste, destined for landfills, into high performance, BPA/BPS- and phthalate-free bottles.  Available in seven colours all inspired by nature.

Outdoor consumers’ relationship with nature is a driver, but brand ethics are stronger 

For many outdoor enthusiasts, a brand’s commitment to sustainability is just as important as the quality of their equipment. At the end of the day, if those who love spending their time in nature don’t care for it, there soon won’t be a place for them to enjoy their activities. Because of the outdoor industry and its customers’ relationship with nature, there is an expectation on the brands to not only focus on improving the performance of their products but to also work towards having the least impact on our planet. Or so we would think. 

Although the outdoor industry has sustainability and recycling much higher up their priority lists than the rest of the fashion brands, some still describe its relationship with nature as “troubled”.

Research on people’s outdoor recreation and nature conservation has shown that “whether a person recreates in the outdoors does not alone predict his or her environmental attitudes.” This demonstrates that relying on outdoor enthusiasts’ awareness of their responsibility to nature just isn’t enough, which is why initiatives from those in power are so important. The clothing industry has a role to play in educating consumers on the impact they have on the environment, as well as a duty to commit to sustainability as a business.

It may not be perfect yet, but outdoor brands are leading the way. David Karstad, Polartec’s Vice President of Marketing and Creative Director, says: “Polartec was built on collaboration, innovation and sustainable business practices and those continue to be our driving forces. Collaboration is how continuous innovation happens and we continue to look at everything through a lens of sustainability.  Not only how we can reduce, reuse or recycle, but how can we engineer for greater versatility and long-lasting durability.”

As we take the time to reconnect with nature, it is now more important than ever to acknowledge our impact and do everything we can to restore and protect our planet.

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