Outdoor clothing and gear should help us better explore the world around us, but not at the expense of other people or the planet. Learn how to tell if clothing is sustainable (or if it isn’t). Plus, we’re sharing our favorite sustainable outdoor clothing brands so you can gear up with companies focused on doing good.
When buying clothing and gear for our favorite activities like hiking, camping, and going to the beach, we look for items that are comfortable, well-made, and sustainable. The more time we spend outside, the more we feel we have a responsibility to protect the natural world around us, and the more we understand how each of our choices impact our planet.
The fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world. Getting accurate stats on just how much waste is created is a little sketchy (you can read more about that on The New York Times or Vox), but in the age of fast fashion, it’s pretty clear that consumption is up and the traditional manufacturing process creates some pretty horrible messes. Pollution is created during every stage of the fashion life cycle – from the chemicals, water usage and carbon emissions in creating textiles to the millions of pounds of garments that end up in the dump or incinerated every year.
We don’t want the clothes we wear to create a long-lasting, negative impact on the environment. So, we researched our favorite outdoor clothing retailers and brands to find out which ones were really focused on sustainable and ethical practices.
Sustainable, eco-friendly, and ethically-made are terms thrown around pretty often by a lot of companies. But, it’s hard to know just how committed a brand is to practices and policies that don’t pollute the environment. While a clothing company may label its clothing as sustainable or eco-conscious, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is. Unfortunately, some companies engage in what is called greenwashing – making claims of sustainability, even if it’s not true. And since a lot of the terms surrounding sustainability aren’t legal terms, there isn’t a way to regulate it or really prove it.
We took a deep dive on some of our favorite outdoor brands to find out which ones are committed to sustainability and ethical practices – from the fabrics they produce, how they manufacture their clothing, and how they deliver them to customers. For the past few years, I’ve focused on being more intentional with my clothing purchases, and buying clothing that uses sustainable fabrics like wool or recycled materials. This article is to help me (and you!) take that one step further, to highlight ethical outdoor brands that are not just using sustainable fabrics, but doing everything they can to minimize their impact on the environment.
Terms to know when talking about sustainable clothing
There a few terms that are helpful to know when talking about ethical and sustainable outdoor brands. We thought we’d go through those first.
1 Sustainable Fabrics
This is the easiest to determine since all you have to do is look at the label. All fabrics are not created equal. Fabrics are considered more sustainable if they’re from renewable resources, from recycled materials, and need less water or chemicals during the manufacturing process. Basically, the less we need to pull from new natural resources, the better it is for the planet.
Here’s a list of sustainable fabrics to look for: organic cotton, organic linen, organic wool, hemp, Lenzing Modal® and Tencel®. I often look for wool when buying outdoor clothing, especially hiking shirts, since it’s not only a renewable resource, but also moisture-wicking, quick-drying, and naturally odor-resistant.
Natural fibers that are less sustainable include: conventional cotton, silk, and bamboo. Before my research, I thought bamboo would be included on the sustainable fabrics list. After all, it grows incredibly quickly and self-regenerates, so it doesn’t even need to be replanted. While it can be good when used in its original form in things like flooring or furniture, it takes a very intensive chemical process to transform bamboo into soft fabric.
Synthetic fibers like acrylic, rayon and viscose, polyester and nylon are also to be avoided. These synthetic fibers use large amounts of water during products, are not naturally biodegradable, and pollute water systems and oceans with microplastics.
2 Recycled Fabrics
Most synthetic fabrics were created as an alternative to natural ones; they’re versatile, strong, and could be easily and inexpensively mass produced with characteristics similar to or superior to natural ones. For example, a lot of outerwear is made of nylon because it’s water-resistant, or polyester, because it’s strong and durable.
In garments where it might be hard to replicate the properties of synthetic fibers with natural ones, the next best option is to look for ones that use recycled fabrics. So if you’re looking for a polyester jacket, try to find one using recycled polyester. Using recycled fabrics (even natural ones) means new ones aren’t being created, and old ones aren’t ending up in landfills.
3 bluesign® approved or bluesign® certified
If a product is bluesign® approved or bluesign® certified, it means that the textiles, trims, buttons or buckles used were created as part of a sustainable manufacturing process, which is independently verified by bluesign® technologies. The bluesign ® organization works with manufacturers through every step of the supply chain, helping them to make positive changes. This starts with resource use, which aims to reduce water, energy, and chemical use. The bluesign ® system also focuses on the occupational health and safety of workers, water and air emissions, and consumer safety.
4 Fair Trade Certified Factories
Fair trade is a global movement aimed at putting people and the planet first. It feels like we’re missing the point if we only focus on the type of fabrics that are used, and not the people that are creating them. That’s why companies creating ethical outdoor clothing use Fair Trade Certified factories. This certification means that the goods are produced in safe conditions, and the factories work to protect the environment, build sustainable livelihoods, and empower and uplift the communities in which they are located. Learn more about the movement and where to purchase fair trade clothing at fairtradecertified.org.
4 Certified B Corporations
The B Corp Certification process takes a wholistic approach to evaluating a company; the assessment evaluates the company’s impact on the environment, its workers, customers and community. Part of becoming a Certified B Corp is amending the company’s legal documents to require the board of directors to balance profit and purpose. There are over 3,200 B Corps that focus on using business as a force for good.
6 1% for the planet
In 2002, Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, and Craig Mathews, owner of Blue Ribbon Flies, created 1% for the Planet, a non-profit corporation that encourages businesses to protect the environment. Companies that participate in this movement donate 1% of gross sales directly to an environmental nonprofit. Over $250 million dollars have been donated by companies certified by this nonprofit.
Sustainable Outdoor Brands
Now that we know a few key things to look for, we’re ready to dive into our favorite outdoor clothing brands. These ethical and sustainable outdoor companies will get you the best gear and clothes for your next adventure while still looking after the planet.
How they’re being sustainable: Sustainable Fabrics, bluesign® approved fabrics, 1% for the planet, partners with the Renewal Workshop
You can easily tell Toad&Co puts sustainability at the forefront of its business – any tag of Toad&Co clothing encourages people to go sustainable, or go nude. Luckily Toad&Co has a great line of outdoor clothes that use sustainable and bluesign® approved fabrics, so you don’t need to head out on an adventure au naturel.
Toad&Co’s commitment to doing good for the planet goes beyond just fabrics. The company co-founded Planet Access Company. This organization trains and employees people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in its warehouse where it packs and ships clothing. Toad also partners with a company called Limeloop to use reusable shipping envelopes.
To use less raw materials and keep clothing from ending up as trash, Toad&Co partners with The Renewal Workshop. This workshop upcycles fabric, or renews clothing that can then be washed, mended, and sold on The Renewal Workshop website. The goal of The Renewal Workshop is to keep one million pounds of clothing out of landfills by 2025.
How they’re being sustainable: Recycled fabrics, Fair Trade certified sewn, 1% for the planet, Worn Wear program
Listening to founder Yvon Chouinard talk about the guiding principles driving Patagonia is what inspired me to first reevaluate where I buy my outdoor clothes. Chouinard summed it up succinctly when he said this about his company: “We’re in business to save our home planet. We aim to use the resources we have – our business, our investments, our voice and our imaginations – to do something about it.”
Back in the 1950s, Chouinard funded his climbing trips by forging and selling steel pitons. These small metal pieces were wedged into cracks in the rocks to help climbers along their route. But Chouinard eventually realized that these pitons were damaging the rock, so he and his partner created a new product that was much less damaging to the environment. When they knew better, they did better. And that’s how Patagonia has operated ever since.
Patagonia is a pioneer among sustainable outdoor brands, from its focus on ethical and environmental practices to its innovative use of new materials. The company has pledged 1% of its sales to preserving the world around us since 1985, which eventually led to the creation of the 1% for the Planet organization.
Patagonia sells technical clothes for almost every outdoor activity, including climbing, surfing, and mountain biking. They understand that everything they make has an impact on the planet and are constantly finding new and improved ways to deliver high quality and sustainable outdoor clothing and gear. Patagonia helps you keep your clothes for longer by offering repair services, or allows you to send in your used Patagonia clothes for store credit as part of its Worn Wear program.
How they’re being sustainable: Recycled and sustainable fabrics, bluesign® approved fabrics
Coalatree makes eco-minded clothes and gear for the mountain to city lifestyle. Coalatree clothes are as practical and functional for a hike as they are stylish enough for most things you’ll need to do around town. I have the trailhead pants and could practically live in them. They are so incredibly comfortable and perfect for just about anything, from an intense hike to hanging out on the couch.
With each new product, Coalatree is innovating new ways to be sustainable. The next line of clothing includes a hoodie and joggers made from spent coffee grounds and recycled plastic bottles. Coalatree also minimizes waste by creating blankets from any surplus fabrics to give away to homeless people in need in their hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah.
How they’re being sustainable: Sustainable fabrics and recycled fabrics, bluesign® approved products, Fair Trade Certified™ factories
REI is one of our go-to shops for anything outdoors. The in-house REI label makes as good as gear and clothing as any of the other brands it carries. Plus, the price point is hard to beat; REI makes some of the most affordable sustainable clothing on the market. And for just $20, you can become a lifelong member of the REI Co-op. This means you get 10% back on almost every purchase as part of an annual dividend.
REI created the REI Product Sustainability Standards that apply to all products sold at the co-op, including its own. These standards cover using Fair Trade Certified™ factories, chemicals management, land stewardship, environmental management, and animal welfare.
You can find evidence of REI’s efforts to be both a sustainable and ethical outdoor clothing brand in its down jackets; these jackets are made with recycled nylon taffeta for the exterior, bluesign® approved nylon taffeta for the interior, and the down is certified to the Responsible Down Standard (RDS). Plus, the jacket is made in a Fair Trade Certified™
How they’re being sustainable: Certified B Corporation, Recycled Fabrics, Fair Trade Certified™ Factories
Cotopaxi’s “Do Good” creed is reflected in its status as a Certified B Corporation. Cotopaxi doesn’t just donate 1% of every sale to nonprofit partners that focus on fighting poverty; it tries to integrate its philanthropy into the core structure of its business and through its supply chain by how it sources its fabrics and the factories it uses.
Cotopaxi clothes are known for their bright, eye catching colors. Many of these clothes use sustainable and recycled fabrics. Cotopaxi also creatively utilizes remnant fabric so there is very little waste. As an ethical outdoor clothing brand, they also place a heavy focus on promoting fair labor practices and forging strong relationships with the factories they work with.
Have a favorite ethical and sustainable outdoor clothing brand? Let us know why you love them in the comments below!