As a young kid exploring the nature trails around the National Wildlife Federation where my dad worked, I vividly recall the two, simple rules on the trail sign: Take only pictures, leave only footprints. It was my first introduction to the principles of Leave No Trace, and it’s stuck with me ever since. I’ve hiked hundreds of miles in the 35 years since, but I still ask the same basic question:
How do we reduce the impacts of our steps, both on and off the trail?
Like Leave No Trace on the trail, consumers are increasingly mindful of the ecological impact of their clothing and gear. Whether it’s our groceries, or our next pair of socks, we care about what we buy, where it comes from, who made it, grew it, picked it, shipped it, and most of all- how the people involved are treated.
In a world where our food travels an average of 1,500 miles before reaching our plate, companies are realizing they need to explain the impact of their products if they want consumers to support their brand, and their cause.
But can I outfit myself with gear and clothing, and reduce my impact? Thankfully, yes. Outdoor clothing companies around the world are developing sustainable practices, ethical sourcing of raw materials and production, and reducing waste by reusing post-consumer materials.
Here’s 10 ethical outdoor clothing companies you can feel good about buying from:
Patagonia is at the forefront of sustainable, ethical practices in the outdoor clothing and gear market. Started by a group of climbers and surfers in California in 1973, they create durable, lasting products that are produced using ethical manufacturing practices, and that reduce waste through their longevity. They maintain transparency in their sourcing and production process through a Supply Chain Environmental Responsibility Program, and their commitment is evident in their core values:
- Build the best product
- Cause no unnecessary harm
- Use business to protect nature
- Not bound by convention
72% of their products use recycled materials, and Patagonia has an extensive portfolio of sustainable materials like recycled wool, down, nylon, cotton, and polyester, to organically grown cotton, and even natural rubber wet suits.
Patagonia is mindful of the chemical intensive processes associated with some fabrics. For instance, when using ePTFE, the mineral-based fabric that goes into GORE-TEX™, they only adhere it to products with recycled content. It’s a good step forward.
Also, a portion of Patagonia’s proceeds (your money) goes into conservation advocacy, like the non-profit, environmental law organization, Earth Justice.
Their Nano Puff jacket combines Patagonia’s work with PrimaLoft, another company making great strides in sustainability.
For more info: patagonia.com
Begun in Vermont in 2008, Skida is a young company whose mission from the beginning was local, ethical production, using responsible materials. From strategic pattern layout to reduce waste, to ensuring their shipping packaging reduces waste, to producing all of their products in rural northern Vermont, Skida is employing sustainable efforts while supporting local workers.
I really like the minimal, comfortable feel of their Glacier Nordic hat.
For more info: skida.com
If you’ve been around an outdoor store lately, you can’t miss their colorful, creative clothing and gear. Started in 2013 by Davis Smith, Cotopaxi is a class B Corp which dedicates 1% of its proceeds to fight poverty worldwide. The company maintains transparency through their sourcing and manufacturing process, all of which is visible through their website.
Their wool is produced in a WRAP-certified facility, a rigorous international social compliance standard.
Their backpack factory in the Philippines completed the Higg index module to ensure fair labor and sustainable efforts. Among their creative efforts: all scraps in their factory that came from other brands are recaptured by Cotopaxi, and the sewers then make new bags of their own design. Look for their Del Dia line.
Absolutely love the spirit and quality behind their unique, colorful bags like the Allpa 35L Del Dia.
For more information: cotopaxi.com
4. United by Blue
This is a certified B Corp that maintains a mission of removing one pound of trash from the ocean for every product purchased. The efforts are community volunteer based and results are published in an annual report, available online. They produce a wide range of clothing, gear and goods, which are all produced using sustainably-sourced materials in GOTS-certified factories.
Check out their Women’s Recycled Rain Shell, with 100% recycled polyester, and PVC-free DWR finish.
For more info: unitedbyblue.com
5. Toad & Co.
Toad & Company, like many other successful ventures, was begun by one woman in a garage in Telluride, CO. In addition to making awesome clothing, Toad & Company is making specific strides in environmental awareness. By using responsibly-sourced materials like organic cotton, vegan fabrics (yes, vegan), and recycled materials, they have excellent products with reduced impact.
Look for their “eco” label, which indicates it includes 80% sustainable fibers. In 1997, they co-founded Planet Access Company, a logistics warehouse which trains and employs adults with disabilities. (Epic kudos.)
Toad & company also has some progressive, documented goals:
- 100% Recycled synthetics by 2025
- 100% Responsible Wool Standard by 2020
- Reduce water usage by 100,000 L per year by 2025
- Use of 100% Organic cotton
- Hire and train 1,000 disabled employees
Their Barrel House Hoodie II is made from 60% recycled cotton and 40% recycled polyester (from plastic water bottles), and it’s looks great.
For more info: toadandco.com
Another California-born brand, PrAna was started in a garage in 1992 by a climber and a yogi. They produce high-quality clothing for active outdoor and everyday activities like yoga, climbing, swimming, and travel. Their sustainability efforts include bluesign®, organic cotton, Responsible Down Standard, recycled wool, and Fair Trade™ certified products.
While PrAna excels in yoga and exercise clothing, they also have outerwear and numerous options for both men and women. Their popular Momento racer-back top is made with 76% recycled polyester.
For more info: prana.com
In 1971, two UC Santa Cruz students began a friendly climbing group called the Marmot club. A few years later, an apparel store and rental service followed, and the Marmot brand was on its way. Their stated philosophy revolves around: People, Product, Planet.
Marmot uses Bluesign, organic cotton, GOTS, as well as Envirofree, a Marmot initiative to reduce chemicals in the production process. Through their Marmot Down Policy, they are committed to the ethical treatment of animals during production. They also support numerous social and conservation outreach efforts.
Their featherless, hooded parka is very popular.
For more information: marmot.com
PrimaLoft is an innovative, highly-effective, synthetic insulation that gives down a run for its money. Begun in 1983 when the military sought an alternative to down, PrimaLoft has continued to engineer new and better products in the synthetic market.
You will increasingly see the PrimaLoft label inside your insulated garments like jackets, mittens, and sleeping bags. It is incredibly lightweight, and has excellent insulation power.
As a company, PrimaLoft has a stated mission to be Relentlessly Responsible™. But what does that mean exactly? Here is a breakdown of just a few of their current efforts:
- By the end of 2020, 90% of their products will include a minimum of 50% post-consumer recycled content.
- PrimaLoft P.U.R.E.: Their innovative practice of using air, instead of heat, to produce the insulation, reduces carbon emissions.
- PrimaLoft Bio: A new product which is a 100% biodegradable synthetic insulation and fabric.
You will likely see the use of more down-alternatives, like PrimaLoft, as companies innovate the use of new and classic materials. And I am especially eager to see the applications of their PrimaLoft Bio.
In the meantime, here is a highly-rated jacket with PrimaLoft insulation: (The North Face Thermoball Eco Jacket)
For more info: primaloft.com
9. The North Face
Begun by two hikers as an outdoor supply store in 1966, The North Face® is now one of the most recognizable brands in the outdoor sports market. They have supported wilderness protection efforts from the beginning, and continue to incorporate innovative sustainable efforts to reduce their impact.
As a prolific retail company, they include the impact of their production facilities, offices and stores into their sustainability mission.
Here are some their initiatives:
- Utilizing solar-power, rain water recapture at their HQ
- Achieving LEED certification for numerous facilities, as well as a commitment to using LEED-certified products in retail interiors.
- Co-founded the Conservation Alliance to support organizations seeking to permanently protection natural resource areas.
- “Clothes the Loop”: TNF is dedicated to keeping their products out of landfills and will take back old, used, unwanted clothing and shoes for recycling, and you’ll earn a $10 reward for doing so.
Check out their Eco-Nuptse jacket – made with 100% recycled materials, both inside and out.
For more info: thenorthface.com
Begun in 1994 by skiers looking for a better winter sport sock, Smartwool has grown into a broad brand that leverages the many benefits of sustainably-harvested Merino wool. Wool is a renewable resource to begin with, and Smartwool has partnered with New Zealand-based ZQ Wool to ensure their fibers are ethically-sourced, and they reuse wool scraps whenever possible.
They also published two, life-cycle assessments on their website to give transparency into the way their products are sourced, made, and delivered.
Their PhD socks are super popular on the trail, and you can feel good knowing the animals and farmers were fairly treated.
For more information: smartwool.com
Ethical, Sustainable, or Both?
Most outdoor clothing and gear brands began with a love and respect for nature and responsible recreation. Some began manufacturing with a sustainable supply chain from day one, while others are readily adopting, or furthering, sustainable practices throughout their production process.
So, how do we quantify a company’s sustainability efforts? There are numerous third-party certifications utilized by companies to document the impact their products have on the environment and the labor force around the world. (The topic is worthy of its own article – stay tuned.) Here are just a few programs that indicate a company’s commitment to ethical, sustainable standards:
Certified B Corp: companies dedicated to fostering social, environmental and economic change.
Fair Trade Certified: Commitment to fair wages and practices for farm and factory workers.
Bluesign systems: Helps companies document their chemical and water impacts.
Responsible Down Standard: Certifies adherence to the five animal freedoms. (And no live plucking.)
GOTS: Global Organic Textile Standard
WRAP: Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production
Without one standard to cover all of our concerns, it’s a lot to take in. Yet, whether a company is using known certification programs, or their own model, here are 5 simple questions we should all be asking:
- Is the company using documented ethical work practices?
- Are they using sustainably-harvested raw materials?
- Do their products include post-consumer recycled content, or other innovative means of reducing and recapturing waste?
- Are their products durable, repairable, and recyclable? (diverted from the waste stream)
- Are they offsetting their impact through CO2 reduction, conservation efforts, or other means?
Ideally, companies are doing some or all of the above.
All the above companies are just a few out there making great products, while trying to reduce their ecological footprint. If you know of others, please send me a note, I’d love to learn about them. In the meantime, I wish you: Happy (sustainable) trails!
Up Next In Outdoor Clothing:
Bryce is a freelance writer and preservation consultant who lives in Southern Maine with his wife and their two awesome kids. Previously from Upstate NY, he climbed the 46 High Peaks in the Adirondacks before discovering the mountains of New England. When he’s not exploring the outdoors, Bryce can be found writing, teaching, photographing old buildings, or getting crushed by his daughters in Monopoly.