asics, store, shopping, apparel, boston

“ASICS Store Inside Boston” by Whoisjohngalt. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia.

It’s boxing week, which means you’re either avoiding the mall at all costs, or like me, you’ve had your head inside every discounted ski helmet your local shops have to offer.

When I consider what gear to buy, I’m usually thinking about how much it weighs, how well it works, and what colour it is (it’s important, ok?). But lately, and largely due to my sister-in-law, I’ve been thinking more about how that gear was made -who made it, and what they made it with. Most of us who like the outdoors also care about the impact we have on the environment. I hope we all care about the impact our purchases can have on our fellow humans. But the truth is, these may not be foremost on our minds when we’re taking out our wallets. And not all gear was created equally.

Kelly Warkentin runs a blog called Living Justly, about making good decisions about what we buy. She also happens to be my sister-in-law. I asked her some questions I had about buying ethical outdoor gear and clothing, and I thought her answers might be helpful for anyone else who’s starting to think about how they can make better choices at the till.

How does the outdoor outfitting industry stack up against other retail industries in terms of social and environmental ethics?

When it comes to ethically manufactured goods, companies who specialize in outdoor gear are generally miles ahead of the rest of the industry.  Finding environmentally friendly options is super easy. Finding items made in a socially healthy environment is a little trickier, but not nearly as hard as in the fashion industry.

thread, textile, colours

Is it possible to find good gear that was also manufactured ethically?

It is!  In fact, there are multiple outdoor companies that have Fair Trade certified options.

Does it take a lot of time and effort to figure out which items or which brands are ethical?

That’s a tough question to answer.  In some cases, no, not at all.  In others, you can never really be sure.  Anything that is certified Fair Trade, such as Patagonia’s line of clothing, you can be certain of.  Other companies may seem really good on their website.  They may state all the policies you’re looking for, like having no child or slave labour, ensuring their employees are aware of their rights, paying their employees a competitive wage, etc., but unless they can show exactly who made their products and where, there’s no way to be sure.

fair trade, logo, fairtrade

By Fairtrade ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


How can I know for sure that what I’m buying is as ethically made as possible?

Look for Fair Trade certified gear.  That’s really the easiest way you can be confident that your gear is ethically made.  Another option would be to check out the websites and check specifically for transparency.  A few companies (not many) state exactly where their products are manufactured, and can tell you details about their factories, such as the location and condition.

Can one brand manufacture products that are at different levels, in terms of how socially and environmentally responsible they are?

Yes.  Generally speaking it’s probably safe to assume that a company that is producing Fair Trade certified products in one factory isn’t enslaving children in another, but unless it’s a Fair Trade certified brand, you can’t be sure of that.

What steps do you take when you’re researching a brand? 

Google is my best friend.  I start by looking on companies’ websites.  I look at their “About” section for anything that sounds like “Social Responsibility.”  If I can’t find anything, I generally assume they don’t have much in place and avoid them.  Most websites have something.  For many companies, it just lists charities they give to, but for most others it will tell you their manufacturing policies.  If they have the policies I’m looking for in place, whether they be environmental or social, I then generally search them in Google news.  You can bet if a company,especially a large one, claims to be socially responsible and are found to have major human rights violations in their supply chain, someone is going to call them out on it.  It’s more difficult for smaller companies, though.

garments factory, bangladesh, clothing, workers

“Garments Factory in Bangladesh” by Fahad Faisal Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

What are some brands that you recommend, for outdoor apparel?

Patagonia has a line of Fair Trade certified, and environmentally friendly apparel, so they would be my first choice.  I’d also recommend prAna.  Though PrAna is not specifically an outdoor company, they do have outdoor apparel, and also have Fair Trade certified items, as well as organic cotton and recycled wool.  I would also suggest Columbia as their website has statements on their positions about all the big issues, such as Uzbek cotton (which is known for being harvested by children), and conflict minerals, which are in most things these days.  While they don’t have any certification, it’s good to see a company weigh in on some of these issues and state exactly where they stand.

tent, camping, mountain

What about brands that manufacture outdoor gear? For example, Petzl, Dynafit, Black Diamond, MSR. Do the same principals apply to such brands (looking for a Fair Trade certification, etc.)?

For gear, there are a whole bunch of different things you have to consider.  For material items, like tents, you’ll want to look for similar things to apparel – where was it made, how was it made?  For electronics, the one BIG thing I would keep an eye out for is where the minerals used to make up the electronic parts were mined.  We’re they mined by slave labour?  Are they in conflict areas, and therefore contributing to war and suffering?  It seems Dynafit manufactures their ski bindings and boots 100% in Europe, which is great news!  Most of their other accessories are made in Europe as well, but their textiles are still imported from Asia, which is always a red flag. While it’s not always the case, anything manufactured in Bangladesh or China has a very good chance of being manufactured in unhealthy conditions, by labourers who make little money and work too many hours. However, their website claims a third party monitors these factories, which is a good sign.