At first glance, outdoor pursuits like hillwalking and camping appear to be fairly ethical activities. Respect the environment, leave no trace of your passing and you should be able to sleep easy at the end of a day in the countryside. But delve a little deeper into the whole issue of the human race’s impact on Planet Earth and you soon discover that a love of the great outdoors, whether it be hiking up mountains or enjoying a quiet Sunday afternoon stroll along the coast, could be responsible for a plethora of unfriendly activities, such as the exploitation or workers, climate change and animal cruelty.
A study published by the Ethical Consumer Research Association (ECRA) questioned just how ethically aware walkers, cyclists, campers and climbers are, despite obvious green intentions. It also threw the spotlight on the activities of gear manufacturers and suppliers.
So where do we start our journey of ethical awareness? Not, it seems, on the fells or in the forests. The minefield begins as soon as you step into your local outdoor equipment shop to try on a new pair of hiking boots or pick out the latest waterproof jacket.
The study examined the activities of over 30 of the top outdoor brands available in the UK and scored the companies across a range of ethical categories, including environmental reporting, human rights, political activity and animal rights.
On the whole, the sector faired well and none incurred a boycott call. However, one of the key findings was the impact of an industry-wide shift of manufacturing to the Far East, with associated concerns over the rights of workers in countries like China. The outdoor industry, it has to be said, is not alone in sourcing goods from developing nations where production costs are much cheaper than they are here in the UK.
Martin Hearson, campaign co-ordinator for pressure group Labour Behind the Label, said: ‘Tents and other outdoor gear are often sourced from overseas contractors who use cheap labour. They come especially from the growing economy of China, where workers are not able to form and join trade unions of their own choosing.’
So how do we know if the workers stitching together our new tent or cagoule are not being stitched up themselves? We could spend hours checking labels and buying kit that has not been made in the Far East, but this is not an easy task.
Inspired to retrospectively assess my own ethical consumerism, I sifted through my own wardrobe and I soon found fleece tops from Indonesia, a waterproof jacket from Vietnam, a down-filled jacket from China, a sleeping bag from China, a rucksack from Vietnam and a tent from Vietnam. Indeed, the only ‘Made in Britain’ labels I possessed were on a Snugpak sleeping bag and a Mardale fleece jacket. Clearly there are some companies that do still manufacture in the UK, but they are now in the minority.
Goods made in the Far East are not necessarily bad news for the ethical consumer. The ECRA report found that a number of outdoor companies in the study did have in place codes of conduct aimed at protecting workers rights.
Once manufacturing issues are resolved, there are other moral considerations to address. Down-filled sleeping bags and jackets are a particularly vexing area for ethical consumers. Although most down – the soft layers of feathers closest to the bird’s skin – is harvested from slaughtered birds, animal rights campaigners are opposed to its use period.
None of the companies in the study were linked to animal testing or factory farming, but all manufacturers of down-filled products lost points for their use of feathers. Ethical consumers are advised to go for artificial fillings. These are widely available and tend to be less expensive.
Animal products are also an issue when it comes to picking walking boots. Leather has long been a popular choice and even in this modern age of Gore-Tex and other man-made fabrics, it continues to be used in the manufacture of outdoor footwear. Boot makers lost points here. Marks were also deducted in the animal rights column from firms involved in the manufacture of hunting and fishing equipment.
In addition to protecting the rights of humans and animals, more fervent ethical consumers embrace a strong anti-war stance and avoid buying clothing or equipment from firms that sell to the military. By contrast, outdoor companies supplying the armed forces, or developing products with them, view this as a positive selling point, enforcing a reputation for rugged reliability under the most enduring conditions. For the ethical consumer seeking robust gear this just adds to the dilemma.
Fortunately, report author, Katy Brown, offers some simply advice on alternatives.
‘In many ways buying second hand is the simplest and most accessible way of avoiding the uncertain workers’ rights implications of buying new camping equipment,’ she said.
But, based on my own experience, I cannot help but worry that when a bit of used kit is passed or sold on, it tends to be because the original owner has upgraded, placing added pressure on the workers of the Far East I’m now trying hard to protect, and on the planet’s resources.
I am more interested in her suggestions regarding products utilising natural or recycled materials, which reduce landfill and carbon emissions. Abandoned plastic bottles offer the greatest potential here. The technology already exists to divert PET plastic bottles from landfill sites and recycle them into fibre that can be used to make fleece clothing and fillings for sleeping bag. But a visit to my local outdoor retailer reveals only a small number of products.
In America, Earthpak has carved out an ethical niche, selling rucksacks and holdalls made from recycled PET. Their Transcension backpack, using the plastic of eight two-litre bottles, would suit day walkers.
More choice exists in the footwear market. Ethical Wares offers a small selection of walking boots, including heavy-duty, leather-free, waterproof vegan hiking boots, complete with a good solid Vibram sole. The company also sells fabric trekking boots, but unfortunately they are not waterproof, reducing their appeal to UK hikers. I am, however, intrigued by their nettle shirt, made in Tibet.
Among the major outdoor gear manufacturers, Patagonia (which was not included in the ECRA survey) stands out as one with a strong environmental focus. The US-based firm has a range of base layers made from reclaimed polyester sourced from plastic bottles and worn out garments returned by customers under its Common Threads Recycling Program. It also pioneered the use of recycled PET in fleece clothing.
Ethical consumers should also look out for products carrying the Oeko Tex Confidence in Textiles label. It guarantees that a garment is free from allergenic or carcinogenic dyes, harmful chemicals and heavy metals and has skin-friendly pH levels on its surfaces.
I end my ethical shopping trip buying a fleece bonnet made from old plastic bottles (one of the few mainstream products I find) and feel I have taken a small first step towards ethical consumerism.
The next stage is to work out an ethical way to reach the mountains. Public transport is the obvious choice, but reliance on buses and trains limits my destination. Many of my favourite walks can only be reached by car. I don’t drive a gas-guzzling 4×4, but the prospect of trading my moderately thirsty coupe down to a more environmentally friendly sub-1 litre hatchback fills me with dread. I know there must be sacrifices; I’m just not sure I’m ready to make this one quite yet. I seek comfort from the fact my car was bought second hand.
A bicycle would be the most ethically sound option, and could be combined with rail travel for longer journeys. Of course, I would need to buy a bike and once again I face the predicament of acquiring a product more than likely manufactured in the Far East.
As a short-term compromise, I opt to load up the car with as many bodies as it will comfortably fit, securing the most efficient use of my fuel.
I choose a less frequently walked route for our day out, avoiding the busy honeypots where heavy boot traffic leads inevitably to environmental damage in the form of path erosion and the destruction of vegetation.
The final ethical challenge to address before I set off is planning lunch. I decide to go organic and rather than wrap my sandwiches in plastic bags or foil, I dig out an old plastic lunch box. Fairtrade chocolate bars complete the menu. I will, of course, need liquid, but rather than buy a bottle of mineral water, I fill up a reusable plastic bottle from the tap.
Squeezing it all into my new Earthpak rucksack, I hit the trail, sticking to existing paths and tracks to avoid impacting on the local ecosystems. I marvel at the scenery, the flora and the fauna, and the blue sky above me. And I realise why ethical awareness might just be worth the effort after all.
Ethical Consumer – www.ethicalconsumer.org – offers free mini buyers guides on a range of products, including walking boots and fleeces.
Ecowise – www.ecowise.com – has a small range of eco-friendly outdoor products.
Freecycle – www.freecycle.org – is the place to pass on unwanted outdoor kit or find secondhand stuff.
Labour Behind the Label – www.labourbehindthelabel.org – supports garment workers’ efforts worldwide to defend their rights.