With fall right around the corner (I know that is hard to believe) many of us will be packing more layers as the weather begins to cool. This usually looks like packing a warmer sleeping bag, puffy jacket, extra base layers, hats, gloves, and a pair of cozy socks. Staying warming, especially in the backcountry, is incredibly important. But, is it possible to stay warm while still being sustainable and ethical? As someone who has been vegan for many years, choosing ethical winter gear has been a common topic for me. I avoid purchasing items that contain leather, down feathers, or wool. And let me just say that it is not always easy. But recently I got to thinking about the environmental impacts of warmer gear. After all, do we really know what goes into sourcing these materials?
Whether you are aware of it or not, chances are some of your gear contains wool. Most likely this comes in the form of socks, base layers, hats, and even gloves. But I mean wool is already growing on sheep so it’s fine…right? Like any type of agriculture, wool has a carbon footprint. Similar to raising cattle, land must be cleared, trees cut down “leading to increased soil salinity and erosion and a decrease in biodiversity”. Also, similar to cattle, sheep release a large amount of methane into the atmosphere which contributes to global warming and the climate crisis at hand. On top of the environmental impacts of raising sheep, the process of shearing them is far from ethical. Shearing, at its core is a necessary act for maintaining the health of a sheep. However, the wool that is your shirts, leggings, socks, and hats, most likely does not come from a small countryside farm that takes its time shearing their sheep one by one while they whisper sweet words into the sheep’s ear. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that shows the harsh truth behind the mass production of wool. Many sheep shearers are paid by the pound, not by the hour. This means they try to shear sheep as fast as possible, often with no regard for the animal at all. This results in many sheep being left with bloody wounds, being kicked or punched into submission, and even resulting in death. When speed runs the industry, it is not uncommon for a sheep to be killed by the blade hitting a major artery or the sheep having a heart attack from the shock of the violent handling. Needless to say, most wool is not a sustainable or ethical option for a textile. There are a multitude of other fabrics out there that are working at filling this gap. Everything from using hemp and coconut to transforming bamboo fibers. Below is a link that briefly goes over eco-friendly and ethical alternatives:
Down is perhaps the most commonly used material to fill high end sleeping bags and puffy jackets. But have you ever wondered where these feathers came from or rather the animal that they came from? Down feathers come from the undercoating of geese, ducks, or swans which the majority, roughly 90 percent, comes from ducks. Many companies within the down industry claim that the process is incredibly sustainable as the feathers are a byproduct of the meat industry. When ducks or geese are slaughtered for food, companies will harvest their underbelly feathers to ensure they do not go to waste. As a vegan the mere thought of this makes me sick to my stomach, but it gets worse. This process it thought to be the most humane way to harvest these feathers, while live plucking, ripping the feathers out while the animal is pinned down and alive, is viewed as the most inhumane. Many companies claim that they harvest the feathers merely as a byproduct but never disclose how much of their feathers come from living plucking. China produces “roughly 80 percent of the world’s down”. In 2016 many videos and eye witness accounts came to the surface revealing that nearly every major down company participated in live plucking. Despite video evidence many brands claimed that they would not support such unethical practices. As time goes on it becomes nearly impossible, for a company to verify whether or not their down is “ethically sourced” and free from live plucking. Not to mention it takes over 100 birds to be plucked to fill a lightweight sleeping bag. While the outdoor industry, especially The North Face and Patagonia, have made an effort to ensure their down is ethically sourced, there is no denying that raising animals poses environmental impacts and in the end animals must be killed. DOWN ALTERNATIVE Coming from an ethical standpoint, down alternative seems like the perfect solution. It doesn’t require the raising of animals as a commodity and animals aren’t brutally harmed or killed. So, what’s the draw back? While the outdoor industry has shifted to including down alternatives that will keep you warm, many of them are derived from petroleum. Some major companies are trying to create both ethical and sustainable down alternatives include Polarguard, Thermore, and PrimaLoft. Companies like Primaloft also try to use recycled content to minimize the environmental impacts of their products. One of the reasons traditional down is so popular is due to the longevity of the product. Synthetic products often wear out sooner than down feathers. But constantly buying new gear is most certainly NOT sustainable.
So, what’s the secret to staying warm and ensuring your gear is both ethical and sustainable? When it comes down to it the most sustainable option is to always use the gear you already own and minimize the number of new products you buy. Not only does that cut back on the amount of materials that must be produced, but it also cuts back the carbon emissions of shipping new items all over the world. I myself own plenty of items that contain wool or down that I bought prior to being vegan. Throwing these items out or donating them just to buy new ones is not the most sustainable option. Instead I take care of these items, repair them when necessary, and try to make them last for as long as possible. If you do need new gear always opt for buying used. I know that some vegans are against buying even used items that contain down or wool. If this is the case try to find a used item that was made with an alternative material. Buying used, whatever the product is made of, is always going to be more sustainable than buying a brand new item. If you’re looking for used gear be sure to check your local thrift store, Facebook Marketplace, Good & Used by REI, Worn Wear from Patagonia, or RENEWED by The North Face. If you can’t find what you need or have to buy something new, try to support brands that are doing their best to make a difference. Like I said earlier, both The North Face and Patagonia are doing their part to ensure their gear is as ethical and sustainable as possible for all parties involved. Support brands that understand the environmental impacts and influence that they hold. Sustainability, or rather lack thereof, is embedded into nearly every aspect of our lives and the outdoor industry. As consumers we are given a choice to vote with our dollar and demand change in the unethical and harmful practices that go into producing gear. This extends to the people making our gear, the animals involved, and the environmental impacts it poses. It is time we demand more of companies and support those who are focused on protecting and preserving the land they encourage their consumers to explore.