Americans buy over $5 billion worth of outdoor gear annually, the production of which can take a tremendous toll on the environment. Everything from textile products—like clothing, sleeping bags, and tents—to electronic gear has eco-consequences for the planet.
Americans buy nearly 3 billion household batteries every year. Different types of batteries are composed of a variety of materials, but in all of them an electrolyte and heavy metal combine to make power. Mercury, cadmium, lead, and nickel are heavy metals found in some batteries that can pollute the environment and cause a potential risk to human health if they are thrown away with ordinary household trash. Batteries make up less than 1 percent of our municipal solid waste, but the amount of toxic heavy metals they contribute is much higher. In 1995, nickel cadmium (nicad) batteries accounted for three-quarters of the cadmium found in municipal solid waste, and 65 percent of the lead came from small sealed lead-acid (SSLA) batteries.
Harnessing the power of the sun
Solar collectors are generally made of tiny crystalline silicon disks attached to metal conductors, and can be mounted almost anywhere to take advantage of free, clean solar energy from the sun. The semiconducting materials in solar devices absorb sunlight, causing electrons to flow, producing electricity. Solar energy is generated cleanly and without producing air pollution during operation.
Outdoor gear textiles
The debate over which is eco-superior—natural or synthetic—has lead some to conclude that it’s a wash. The entire lifecycle of any fiber must be considered when evaluating it’s eco-friendliness—how it’s produced, processed, and recycled (if at all), it’s lifespan, ongoing care, and so on.
Although desired by many, leather—the byproduct of animal skins—is ecologically harmful. For one, raising livestock for meat and leather production requires a great deal of feed, land, water, and fossil fuels. Factory farms generate 130 times the amount of excrement as the entire human population; the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has noted that livestock pollution is the most damaging threat to American waterways. Additionally, the shoe industry produces waste during the leather tanning process. The chemicals traditionally used in pre-tanning include lime, sodium chloride, sodium sulphide, and other solvents, all of which pollute the environment.
Cotton and wool
Cotton farming uses only about 3 percent of the farmland around the world, but consumes 25 percent of all chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Conventional cotton production relies on vast amounts of hazardous synthetic chemicals, including pesticides, fertilizers, fixers, and dyes. Conventional wool production also involves the use of pesticides on pastures and chemicals in the feed.
Insects are quickly becoming resistant to recommended rates of pesticide application, and ever increasing amounts are needed be effective. Billions of pounds of nitrogen synthetic fertilizers are also used, resulting in runoff that can create aquatic "dead zones" in waterways. Due to cotton's natural resistance to dyes, roughly half the chemicals used as dyes or fixers end up as waste in rivers and soil. Chlorine bleaching releases carcinogenic dioxins. Permanent-press and stain- and water-repellent finishes can offgas formaldehyde, and their manufacture releases perfluorochemicals (PFCs) into the environment.
Organic cotton is pesticide-free,  while organic wool is produced without using hormones or pesticides in the animal or its food. Since pure wool is naturally fire resistant, fire retardant chemicals are not required. Wool is a sustainable resource because the sheep are not killed; they are merely shorn each year.
Despite the controversy surrounding hemp's status as a legal crop—especially in the United States where it is considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance like marijuana— it is an earth-friendly alternative to conventional cotton. Hemp produces three times as much fiber per acre as cotton. Like cotton, hemp requires water and fertilizer to grow but it doesn't need to be treated with pesticides or herbicides. The farming of hemp benefits overall soil conditions by adding nutrients, fostering microbial life, and eradicating weed growth.
In contrast to the dearth of industrial hemp farming in the United States, the European Union initiated a program in the 1990s that provides hemp farmers with subsidies to encourage hemp fiber production. Over the last several years, the leading exporters of processed hemp fiber to the United States have been Romania, Poland, China, India, Canada, and the Philippines.
Bamboo fiber, a natural fiber spun from the pulp of bamboo grass, resembles cotton in its unspun state. However, that's where the similarities end as bamboo is considered a sustainable crop. It doesn't require the use of pesticides or fertilizers, needs little water, and is a self-renewing plant, meaning that new shoots grow on an uninterrupted basis. Bamboo also releases a great deal of oxygen into the air—even more than trees—helping to lower levels of carbon dioxide and curb soil erosion.
The same natural antifungal, antibacterial agent found in bamboo plants that acts as a sort of internal pesticide (called "Bamboo kun") is also useful in bamboo clothing, controlling bacteria growth on the skin, as well as moisture levels. This is especially beneficial for those prone to night sweats and for athletes. Bamboo fabric is a natural insulator and can be worn in both the summer to keep cool and the winter to keep warm.
Soybean-derived fiber—dubbed "vegetable cashmere"—begins as a waste byproduct from the manufacturing of edible soy products such as tofu, soy milk, and soybean oil, making it a completely natural and renewable resource. The resulting fabric is silk-like in texture, retains heat well, and is both easy to care for and durable. On the downside, like cotton, a large percentage of soybean crops—around 80 percent—are GMO. Soy fiber has been used in the past as a textile, but made a reemergence on the fashion scene only recently with new production advancements from China.
Many outdoor gear manufacturers add chemical treatments such as GORE-TEX and Teflon to fabrics in order to help repel insects, water, and odors. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), fabrics treated with such chemicals can break down in the environment or in the human body. Scientific studies have identified 15 PFCs in human blood, and one 2001 industry study of six PFCs in human blood identified four PFCs at higher levels in children than in adults.
One PFC—sometimes known as “C8”—has been found at low levels both in the blood of the general US population and in the environment. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is used to make fluoropolymers, substances used in breathable, all-weather clothing. Although the EPA does not currently believe there is any reason for consumers to stop using products containing PFOA, it has called on companies to reduce facility emissions and product content of PFOA and related chemicals by 95 percent by 2010, and to work toward eliminating emissions and product content by 2015.
Vinyl products are made of hazardous polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which releases dioxin, mercury, and other harmful pollutants into the environment. Dioxin moves easily throughout the environment and accumulates in fatty tissue up the food chain. PVC is derived from petroleum, a fossil fuel that is non-renewable. Its use contributes to the environmental hazards associated with petroleum exploration and processing. These hazards include disruption of land and ocean habitats, oil spills which can kill wildlife, and pollution of water supplies. Areas surrounding PVC plants suffer from groundwater pollution, as well as air pollution. PVC also can’t be recycled because it contains an array of toxic chemicals that are added during production to make the plastic soft. Unfortunately many consumers, unaware of this, attempt to recycle PVC plastic and unknowingly render thousands of potentially recycled containers useless. Just one PVC bottle can contaminate a recycling batch of 100,000 bottles!
In addition, Greenpeace's research has found lead and cadmium in vinyl backpacks. These findings are backed up by research from the Center for Environmental Health, which found a popular children's backpack to contain 13,000 parts per million of lead, more than 21 times the legal limit for lead in paint. Phthalates, a type of plasticizer, are often used in backpacks and can be inhaled or ingested, posing health risks to both humans and animals.
There’ll be downsides regardless of the materials employed, but some argue that the advantages of so-called “green” materials like organic cotton and hemp are minor, if present at all. For instance, organic cotton, although grown without the exorbitant pesticides employed in conventional crops, still requires a lot of irrigation in its production, and enormous quantities of dyes during the processing stage. Hemp and bamboo are also naturally tough resources, requiring chemicals to soften them into fibers suitable for fabric products. Some argue that natural fibers such as organic cotton and bamboo have shorter lifespans than synthetics (especially when tumble-dried) and require more water and energy to wash and dry.
Polyester, on the other hand, is produced using less water, resists stains (thereby requiring less laundering), and dries quickly (can even be air-dried in humid climes). It can be recycled, but few facilities exist. The downsides? It requires more wood and oil to produce, which adds to the growing climate change problem. Many poly-products can’t be washed, but require dry cleaning instead, a process rife with eco-concerns. And though products made from recycled pop bottles keep usable products out of landfills, their production often involves shipping spent containers from the US to far-flung countries to be processed, only to then be shipped back to the US for sale, racking up loads of air miles and carbon emission in the process.
While the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that feathers and down are removed from geese and ducks after they are killed for meat, reports of live-plucking of these birds persist. Additionally, down and feathers are blamed for allergy symptoms. Yet, studies show that less than 1 percent of the population is allergic to down and feathers. Rather, people are more likely to be allergic to the dust and dirt that can accumulate in bedding over time.
Many individuals and organizations, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), take issue with how wool-producing sheep are treated—even those subject to a pesticide-free, environmentally sound production process. A particular act of sheep mutilation that has caught the attention of animal rights supporters is the “mulesing” of Australian Merino sheep. Merinos are bred to have wrinkly skin that, in turn, results in higher yields of wool. These characteristic wrinkles attract flies that lay eggs in the folds of skin, resulting in fatal maggot infestations. To prevent this, ranchers perform mulesing—the sheep are restrained without painkillers and chunks of flesh are removed from the area around the tail, resulting in smooth skin that discourages fly egg-laying.
Mutilation and organic certification aside, another environmental danger of the wool industry is enteric fermentation—or livestock belching and flatulence—a major contributor to global climate change. In New Zealand, for example, 90 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions (methane, in particular) result from enteric fermentation, primarily from sheep.
Related health issues
Though gear companies making water-repellent products stress their desire to minimize the health impacts of their clothing, slick finishes, like those made famous by GORE-TEX, pose significant hazards. Though some environmentally-persistent perfluorochemicals (PFCs) such as perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) were phased on out US products in 2000, some outdoor gear is still made with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a likely human carcinogen. More eco-friendly (and healthy) options include recycled polyester and polyurethane (though this is a non-renewable petroleum product).
- cadmium: A chemical used in pigments, fabric dyes, plastics, and metal coatings that can harm kidneys, lungs, and digestive tracts.
- dioxins: Extremely persistent chemical compounds that are created inadvertently by human activities like incineration and fuel combustion. Dioxins break down slowly so they persist in the environment for many years. Exposure to dioxins may cause adverse health effects, such as cancer, reproductive and developmental disorders, and skin disease.
- genetically modified organism: A GMO is created by merging the genetic make-up of two organisms, resulting in a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature. Engineering GMOs is a common practice in conventional farming, and studies have shown that GMOs pose significant environmental risks such as killing off living, natural organisms and becoming immune to pesticides.
- methane: A greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere from both natural and man-made sources, including landfills, agricultural activities, wastewater treatment, and coal mining. Once introduced into the atmosphere, methane can exist for 9 to 15 years. It’s more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere (global warming) than fellow greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.
- polyvinyl chloride (PVC): A strong plastic polymer that can be made flexible through the use of plasticizers. These plasticizers, not the PVC itself, can be toxic and carcinogenic. However, the monomer used to make PVC, vinyl chloride, is carcinogenic, posing a serious health threat to the people who work at factories where PVC is created. PVC is often used to make teethers, bath toys and other toys that young children play with, and often place in their mouths.
- phthalates: A group of chemicals used as plasticisers in PVC plastics that are known to be testicular toxins and can disrupt hormones.
- American Bamboo Society
- Hemp Industries Association
- International Council of Tanners
- North American Industrial Hemp Council
- Organic Trade Association
- Style Will Save Us
- Sustainable Cotton Project
- Sustainable Style Foundation
- The Soy Daily
- Leisure Trends - Outdoor Retail Sales up 10 percent in 2007
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Municipal Solid Waste: Batteries
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Product Stewardship: Batteries
- Solar Panel Info - How are solar panels made?
- US National Renewable Energy Laboratory - Photovoltaics
- The Green Guide - Green Power Utilities: Environmental Issues
- US Department of Energy - Why PV is Important
- Grist - The Environmentalist's New Clothes
- Cows are Cool - Leather: No Friend of the Earth
- The Green Guide - Product Report: Shoes
- Sustainable Cotton, see third paragraph
- Green Home - About Mattresses and Futons
- EcoBedroom - Cotton: Conventional versus Organic
- The Green Guide - Product Report: Mattresses and Box Springs
- The Green Guide - The Eco-nomical Bedroom
- The Green Guide - Greener Workout Wear
- Globalhemp.com - Industrial Hemp Investigative and Advisory Task Force Report
- Industrial Hemp: For A Better Tomorrow - Environmental Beneftis of Industrial Hemp
- Federation of American Scientists - CRS Report for Congress: Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity
- wiseGEEK - What is Bamboo Fabric?
- Buy Organic - Benefits of Bamboo Clothing
- TreeHugger - Bamboo Sheets Keep Germs Out of Bed
- Hong Kong Trade Development Council - Green Sleeves: Eco-friendly Incentive Clothing
- Managesmarter.com - Green Sleeves: Eco-friendly Incentive Clothing
- Ideal Bite - Wanna wear your love for soy on your sleeve?
- Environmental Health Information - Perfluorochemicals and Health (PFCs)
- Environmental Working Group - PFCs: Global Contaminants - PFOA is a pervasive pollutant in human blood, as are other PFCs
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Fluorinated Telomers: Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA)
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Fluorinated Telomers: 2010/15 PFOA Stewardship Program
- Grist - Of Classrooms and Closets: Eco-friendly supplies and clothes for back to school and beyond
- E: The Environmental Magazine - Head For The Hills
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Questions and Answers About Dioxin
- Energy Information Administration - Petroleum (Oil): A Fossil Fuel
- The Center For Health, Environment and Justice - PVC: The Poison Plastic
- Center for Health, Environment and Justice - PVC: The Poison Plastic
- The Green Guide - The Honorable Schoolbag
- Center For Environmental Health - Vigilant Mom Helps Sniff Out Lead
- Articlebase - Sustainable Fashion: Polyester Vs Cotton
- New York Times - A World Consumed by Guilt
- Well dressed? The present and future sustainability of clothing and textiles in the United Kingdom Page 43
- New York Times - A World Consumed by Guilt
- US Department of Agriculture - Fact Sheet: Duck and Goose from Farm to Table
- Good Intentions - Down is Not Comforting
- Home Shopping Network - How to Buy and Care for Down-filled Bedding
- Save the Sheep! - The Animals
- Save the Sheep! - The Environment
- The Green Guide - Reliable Rainwear
- SFGate.com - Will your sofa make you sick?
- Green Facts - Scientific Facts on Dioxins
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Questions and Answers about Dioxins
- ProQuest CSA - Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Methane
- The Chemical Heritage Foundation - The Great PVC Controversy
- The Green Guide - Product Report: Toys
- Introduction to Hormone Disrupting Compounds - Phthalates