Images: Ethical Consumer
Ethical Consumer is a British not-for-profit co-operative, who are, in their own words, "dedicated to the promotion of universal human rights, environmental sustainability and animal welfare. We produce independent research into the social and environmental records of companies, and to inform the development of ethical consumerism."
One of their latest such reports is their 62 page Outdoor Gear Special, which rather than ranking individual products, scores the companies behind the gear. And it sure makes for intriguing reading. Nearly 30 brands are assessed for their waterproof jackets, with similar scrutiny for fleeces, walking boots, sleeping bags, tents and rucksacks. In total over 60 outdoor companies were put under the microscope of their Ethiscore ranking methodology.
A bucket load of work obviously went into this research. Hats off to Ethical Consumer for some of the in-depth digging. But some of the results are rather brow wrinkling though. Take for example, Patagonia and Rohan* being logged as equally ethical for their waterproof jackets. Patagonia receive a bottom rating for Environmental Reporting, even though they have the very transparent Footprint Chronicles. Patagonia pioneered recycled fibres for outdoor products 17 years ago, whilst Rohan's environment policy is not to use any recycled materials, believing recycling uses too much energy, saying, "When we have better information we will act on it."
However, Environmental criteria is only one aspect of ethical rankings.
Companies are marked down if they manufacture synthetic products derived from oil. But they are similarly penalised for use of renewal natural materials like goose down, leather or Australian merino wool, due to animal welfare issues.
One of the aspects that seems to drag down Patagonia's overall ranking is their supply of goods to the military.
Other issues that can attract a negative score in the rankings may include: nano technologies, genetically modified cotton, whether companies source from countries such as Uzbekistan, which raises a flag for human rights issues. Other countries to incur the same ire include China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and remarkably the USA! Such countries are currently on Ethical Consumer's oppressive regimes list, earning businesses with product made in these countries to score a Human Rights black mark.
By such reckoning an American company would be marked down if it manufactured on home turf in the USA. It would get demotions if it produced footwear from synthetics, or from leather. On the footwear point Ethical Consumer outdoor gear guide says "hemp boots, which may be less sturdy but are a much more environmentally friendly alternative than leather or polyurethane (PU)." Are they saying that boots which wear out faster are more environmentally friendly? Odd, because a product's fit-for-purpose durability has always been a core component of ecodesign.
I'm not suggesting that the guide's rankings are wrong, (for they are intensively researched) merely that they highlight how difficult it is for companies to balance all those other characteristics that ride on the back of the product's usual performance, aesthetic and price criteria. Crafting a truly excellent product is exceedingly hard work. A great many balls need to be successfully juggled. Something few companies seem able to manage.
The company held up by Ethical Consumer as an exemplar in the outdoor market turns out to be Canada's Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC). And while not wishing to detract from MEC's excellent work (we've mentioned them here, here, here,here, here, and here) the co-op has previously acknowledged that they turned to Patagonia for help in greening their business. What a shame that Ethical Consumer didn't instead notice the home grown, multi-award winning, outdoor apparel maker, Finisterre. Here's a crew that uses mulesing-free Australian merino and even picked up a RSPCA award for their animal welfare work. And they relocated their manufacturing closer to home -- moving it from China to Portugal.
In general, though, Ethical Consumer's Outdoor Gear Guide authors came away less than impressed with the industry as a whole:
"... vast majority show a total disregard for the environmental impact of their businesses."
"Despite having a healthy and wholesome image the outdoor gear industry is in reality heavily dependent upon oil-based chemicals for the production of everything from tents to walking jackets the production of which results in highly polluting toxic waste."
" ... virtually all the companies surveyed have inadequate policies in place to ensure fair and decent working conditions for the workers who make their gear, the majority of whom are based in China and the Far East."
" ... most companies having no policies in place to protect workers' rights, questions must remain over the ethical credentials of the companies we surveyed."
As with any ranking survey of this nature there will be impressively good works executed by some companies that will not be adequately highlighted by a catch-all filter. Regardless of its faults, the survey will hopefully spur on companies to improve their environmental and ethical performance.