The Environmental Impact of Hiking Gear
Safety-conscious hikers know the list of 10 essential hiking items and might have multiples of some items. However, environmentally conscious hikers might feel conflicted about buying new gear when they understand the impact hiking gear has on the environment. The clothing and textile industry accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions. That’s more than aviation and maritime shipping combined.
Our world has a clothing problem. There is already enough clothing on the planet for six generations of people. We believe the less clothing we can make, the better off we’ll be.
Caroline Staudt, founder of The Green Ostrich and sustainability advocate, walks us through the textile industry and sustainable hiking gear. She says being an environmentally conscious hiker isn’t hard, but it takes thoughtful consideration of what you have and need. Often, creating a more sustainable closet means doing nothing.
Outdoor Apparel and the Environment
During the pandemic lockdown, Caroline did what many Americans did. She cleaned out her closet. The Marie Kondo-inspired task led her to ask herself, “Why do I have so much stuff?” and then, “What happens to this stuff when I get rid of it?” While most purgers might have stopped there, Caroline felt she had to answer those questions for the good of her own closet.
Caroline’s online sleuthing returned some shocking results. What stood out to her most was “seeing images of clothing landfills in the global south – Ghana and Chile – from the US and Europe.” She realized her discarded clothing – even items donated to a second-hand store or a charity organization – too often end up in landfills. “Eighty-five percent of clothing in the US ends up in landfills or incinerated, including donated clothing,” Caroline said.
To make matters worse, her exercise apparel – moisture-wicking running shirts and water-repellant hiking jackets – are made of synthetic materials from petroleum, which takes up to 200 years to decompose. However, Caroline uses that term loosely, if at all.
“The key with petroleum-based clothing is that they don’t decompose or break down - they break up,” explains Caroline. “It’s really just the plastics breaking up into smaller pieces, eventually becoming microfibers that pollute our oceans and waterways.” It was the final straw – so to speak. Caroline knew she had to get involved beyond her own closet and buying habits.
Smarter Hiking Gear Choices
Hikers, runners, and outdoor enthusiasts can have a meaningful impact on the environment through their closets and buying habits. Understanding how they use their apparel, choosing environmentally friendly materials, and extending gear lifespans are good places to start.
Caroline’s best advice for a more sustainable closet is to use what you already have instead of buying something new. “Most emissions from clothing come in the production through the first sale. Something like 90% of clothing emissions occur between material sourcing and production through first sale,” Caroline says.
If you’re new to hiking, consider how your current clothes might work for a day on the trail. The shorts or leggings you bought for running, yoga, etc., can cross over into hiking. Sturdy running or walking shoes are enough for your first few hikes. If you are a veteran hiker with seemingly worn-out items, consider patching rain jackets and other apparel to give them a longer life.
Sometimes, though, new gear is necessary. So, what’s the most sustainable alternative to resource-gobbling cotton and petroleum-based synthetics? While there is no silver-bullet fabric, Caroline is a big fan of ethically sourced wool and bamboo products.
“Wool is great because it’s not oil-based. And as a performance product, it’s great - can go longer without being washed,” she explains. But not all wools are created equal. Caroline recommends doing a little research about the brand first. Look for a “Responsible Wool Standard” seal from the brand, suggests Caroline.
Guineafowl partner brand Minus33, is an excellent example of ethically produced wool products from a company based in New Hampshire! Our guides love their merino wool socks for all-day comfort on the trail.
Another top contender for closet space is man-made cellulosic fibers (MMCFs), namely wood and bamboo-based fabrics. MMCFs include viscose, lyocell, modal, and acetate. These items can be harder to find as they are just getting established in the textile market; according to The Textile Exchange, MMCFs accounted for 6.4% of the global fiber market in 2021. But look for these products to expand their market share in the coming decade.
Partnering with Green Ostrich
Caroline’s experiment in her personal closet led her to start Green Ostrich. Through her company, she partners with race directors, event organizers, and businesses to reduce the textile-based carbon footprint of events and organizations.
Data is important to Caroline’s sustainability conversation with race directors and event organizers. She likes to share the fact that the average T-shirt is only worn seven times. She hopes it makes race organizers, who often provide participants with a commemorative T-shirt, question their choice. “The T-shirt isn’t the keepsake – it’s the stories, photos, and memories of time well spent,” insists Caroline.
She gets it; most folks don’t know that one cotton T-shirt requires over 2,700 gallons of water to produce – enough for one person’s drinking water for 2.5 years. Likewise, outdoor event organizers offering participants a performance or tech-tee might not realize the 12-pound carbon footprint that petroleum-based shirt carries with them.
When a brand is looking at what to do that will please their sponsors and lower their carbon footprint, Caroline suggests a few ideas. She challenges race organizers to think about other ways they can promote their sponsors and help participants celebrate the event. But if they’re all-in on a race T-shirt, she suggests an opt-out button for participants and partnering with organizations like Trees Not Tees that will plant a tree for every opt-out. “I know sponsors want shirts. But if people aren’t wearing the shirt, it doesn’t do anyone any good,” Caroline said.
Caroline’s Advice for a More Sustainable Closet
Do nothing. Go through your closet and figure out what works. What can overlap from your existing yoga or workout wardrobe for a hike? Can your trail running shoes double as hiking boots? Go shopping in your closet and get creative with repurposing clothes for multiple activities, events, seasons, etc.
Repair worn-out items. Don’t discount that rain jacket with a hole. There is a way to repair things that show their age on your own. Look for online tutorials or check in with a local seamstress for options and ideas.
Borrow or buy second-hand. If you need to go outside your closet, focus on new-to-you items. Which might mean borrowing or shopping second-hand. See if a friend has something you can borrow for your first hike or two in case you don’t enjoy the activity and won’t use the item again. Next step, look second hand where options seem limitless today. Don’t forget that some brands – REI, Patagonia, and Arc’teryx, for example – offer online and in-store used gear and apparel sections.
Guineafowl provides clients with a hiking pack, hydration bladder, trekking poles, and more to help folks get outdoors without buying new gear they might not need.
Buy thoughtfully. If you do have to buy new, make sure it’s an item you need, you’ll wear and is durable enough to last. The average T-shirt is only worn seven times before it’s discarded! Consider ethically sourced wool and MMCFs. Go beyond buzzwords and greenwashing – research the brand and the product.
To learn more about Caroline and her work at The Green Ostrich, visit their website: https://thegreenostrich.green/
Guineafowl Adventure Company provides full-service, turnkey guided day hikes in the White Mountains and beyond for people of all abilities and experience levels. We take care of all the planning and preparation for hiking and provide round-trip transportation from the Greater Boston area, day packs with hydration and snacks, safety and convenience items, and friendly, knowledgeable, and experienced guides to lead the way! Guineafowl's mission is to remove the barriers and obstacles that keep people from exploring nature, so they can feel comfortable, safe, and relaxed while experiencing the physical and mental health benefits of hiking and connecting with nature. Visit our website to schedule your guided hike or contact us to book a private excursion.