In 2017, Americans spent $184.5 billion on outdoor products. That’s more than home entertainment, movie ticket and video game sales combined. In 2016, nearly half of the U.S. population participated in some form of outdoor recreation, and that number is steadily rising. Major retailers like REI are reporting record profits. All of this points to two things: the U.S. outdoor industry is booming, and Americans are quantifiably obsessed with outdoor gear.
We’ll be the first to admit that gear obsession, especially when left unchecked, is not always good. Gear Patrol is, first and foremost, a place where products are discovered and product culture is explored, but it is also a place where smart purchasing decisions are encouraged. There is never merit in buying something simply for the sake of buying it. There is always merit in buying purposeful, intelligent, made-to-last products — the things that build fervent loyalty by word of mouth and elicit all-caps Amazon reviews.
More than any other kind of consumer product, outdoor gear is often marketed with such neon-lit phrases as Extremely Rugged! and Lasts Forever! Yet at the first sign of wear and tear, many outdoorsmen are quick to discard a ripped jacket or broken tent in favor of something new and shiny. Why? Because doing your own repairs seems a lot harder than swiping a credit card. But any true gearhead knows that it’s not. Take Renan Ozturk, for instance. A world-renowned mountaineer and climber sponsored by The North Face, Ozturk has a universe of top-notch gear at his disposal. He gets new jackets and pants and backpacks whenever he wants. But Ozturk has been wearing the same pair of haggard, patched-up alpine pants for nearly eight years.
“[The pants are] a testament to not always throwing stuff away and getting the latest and greatest gear,” Ozturk once told me. “You can revive gear, keep it going longer than you think. It’s important to not keep consuming blindly.”
That’s just the reality of globalized consumerism. You mass produce products, you leave a hole in the Earth.
If you can’t be persuaded by the prospect of hundreds of dollars saved every year, consider outdoor gear’s impact on the environment. Few issues cause such an existential crisis among outdoorsmen and outdoor brands. For an industry so completely reliant on — and financially invested in — the health and prosperity of Earth’s wild places, most major outdoor gear manufacturers have an insatiable appetite for natural resources. The apparel industry is particularly voracious: A 2014 report by the World Resources Institute found that the average consumer bought 60 percent more clothing than they did in 2000, but kept the clothing half as long; a 2014 report by the EPA found that Americans threw away 16.22 million tons of clothing in 2014 — 71 percent more than they did in 2000. And world resource consumption is set to triple by 2050. It’s a hard pill to swallow, I know, but that’s just the reality of globalized consumerism. You mass-produce products, you leave a hole in the Earth.
In this way, the outdoor industry stands apart from many consumer industries. Those who buy denim jeans won’t go frolicking through the wastelands where cotton is grown; those who buy Apple’s newest magical emoji machine won’t go spelunking in the Congolese caves where cobalt is mined. But those who buy or make outdoor gear — packaged in ocean-polluting plastic, grown with colossal amounts of increasingly scarce water, shipped by burning fossil fuels — must cope with an awkward truth. They are eating the table beneath their food.
Not all outdoor brands are complicit, of course. Some, like Patagonia, Black Diamond, The North Face, Arc’teryx, and Eddie Bauer, have openly acknowledged the oxymoronic nature of their existence, and are taking drastic measures to become more sustainable. Every year, Patagonia, perhaps the world’s most sustainable large company, exerts more and more control over its supply chain. It demands that raw materials (cotton, polyester, wool, down, and so on) are sourced and processed responsibly; many of its materials are entirely recycled. The Worn Wear Initiative, Patagonia’s refurbished gear program, continues to expand. The Outdoor Industry Association, a unifying force in the outdoor industry, assembled a coalition of 300 outdoor brands called the Sustainability Working Group, which develops tools and resources for more sustainable business practices.
Smaller brands, like Cotopaxi, Parks Project, United by Blue and Mountain Standard, captained by the millennial vanguards of the outdoor’s industry’s bright future, are equally ambitious. Cotopaxi, whose tagline is “Gear for Good,” produces many of its products with factory-waste fabric, sources Fair Trade llama wool from local Bolivian farms and goes to great lengths to alleviate poverty in developing nations — perhaps more so than any other outdoor brand. This is all to say that the outdoor industry is among the most eco-conscious industries on the planet. Why? Because they must be. But it would be naive to say that “going green” will be enough to kick the world’s dangerous overconsumption habit.
I do not deny my own implication in this mess. I am holier than none. Like you, I am obsessed with outdoor gear. Hell, it’s my job to be obsessed. But if I have learned anything in the past six or seven years in the outdoor industry, it’s this: outdoor gear, when cared for properly, lasts a lot longer than most people think. I have also learned that price tags almost always correlate with quality and longevity. Spend less on a shoddy jacket, for instance, and you will likely end up paying more on repairs or a replacement. Spend a little more on a jacket that’s both high-quality and comparatively sustainable, and you will likely enjoy it forever. There are obviously exceptions to this rule. Carhartt, for instance, built its name on a foundation of affordable, exceptionally long-lasting workwear. And every outdoorsman has different gear demands. Not everyone needs an Everest-ready jacket, and not everyone wants a Coleman car camping tent from Walmart. Yet the wise words of Yvon Chouinard still ring true: “The more you know, the less you need.”
If I had five seconds to speak to every outdoorsman, CEO and lobbyist in the outdoor industry, I would say this: My family! Buy less, invest more. Don’t throw away, learn to repair. Our industry and our earth depend on it.
I yield the floor.