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It’s Easy Being Green: Leave Only Footprints

SOURCE: AP/Rick Smith

Several questionable chemicals are used in the manufacturing of outdoor products. Outdoor lovers can purchase recycled or durable equipment, or trade or rent used products to minimize the use of these chemicals.

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Most people think of sportswear companies as down-to-earth, forward-thinking, and environmentally conscious—like the hikers and campers who buy their products. And there are many sportswear manufacturers that deserve praise for their efforts to protect the environment. But the processes that make boots durable and tents waterproof can cause all kinds of environmental damage. People who love the outdoors should keep this in mind when buying new equipment.

Patagonia, Inc., is aware of their manufacturing’s impacts. Their mini-website “Footprint Chronicles” provides plenty of information about the costs beyond the price tag for some of their products, as well as what the company is trying to do to reduce those costs.

“Our performance standard for water repellency comes at an unacceptable environmental cost,” the website says, explaining that to secure a water-repellant layer onto fabric requires perfluorooctanic acid, or PFOA, one of the most dangerous chemicals that isn’t entirely illegal. PFOA is carcinogenic and is associated with a laundry list of other diseases in humans and animals. It never biodegrades, either, which means it indefinitely persists in the environment. The website promises that Patagonia is working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to eliminate PFOA by 2015.

To be fair to Patagonia, no manufacturer has found a better way to make waterproof fabrics. Reducing consumption—buying less stuff—is the only way for individuals to help reduce the amount of PFOA in the environment, and the best option for environmental health in general.

A good first step is to make sure you really need the piece of equipment in question. Avoid buying stuff that has only one use when you can—most people should be all right with just one or two backpacks, for example.

Some companies promote thrift. Mountain Equipment Cooperative, better known as MEC, is the largest outdoor manufacturer and retailer in Canada. The company encourages its customers to trade and rent used products, which lowers its profits along with consumption. But since MEC is a cooperative, it isn’t obligated to shareholders to maximize its sales.

If you are going to buy something new, first look for companies that offer a program to recycle their products after you’ve worn them out. Otherwise, whatever you buy will eventually end up in a landfill, which is especially worrisome if it’s been made with a chemical, such as PFOA, that doesn’t biodegrade.

Consider investing in quality as well. Buying equipment that will last you a long time often means you make less frequent purchases, saving money and limiting environmental impact in the long run.

Finally, look for clothing made from recycled plastic. Manufacturing new nylon is an energy-intensive process that releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas hundreds of times more potent than carbon dioxide. Buying synthetic fleeces and other clothing made from post- or pre-consumer recycled material reduces emissions resulting from production and diverts plastic bottles from landfills.

People who love the wilderness were the first to advocate for its protection and have always been staunch environmentalists. Hikers, campers, skiers, and climbers must do their part today to make sure what they’ve inherited is available for future generations.

Read more articles from the "It’s Easy Being Green" series

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