How 5 Outdoor Brands Are Saving the Planet (Or Trying To, Anyway)

From energy gels to wetsuits to cycling kits, these outdoor players are tackling conservation challenges in creative ways.

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Last Saturday, I was hauling my bike and carcass up a fire road approximately 12,500 feet above the altitude I live — and 12,400 feet above the altitude my lungs wanted to be. For some reason, the very limited operating capacity of my brain wasn’t focusing on cadence, or gear selection, or even the view. Nope, there I was in the middle of the Leadville Trail 100 fixating on a gel wrapper that I’d seen dropped on the trail. 

The impact that our outdoor fun has on outdoor spaces shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s not just the wrappers we leave, or the trails we erode, or even the carbon we generate flying around the country to have fun outside. The gear we use also has a huge impact on the planet we enjoy. 

During my 100-mile mountain bike misadventure, I had ample time to consider the ways we can reduce that impact — and broadly break them down into three categories.

The first is simply buying less stuff, which might mean spending more money, but hopefully less often. How many charge cables or pairs of headphones have you tossed in the past five years? Well they are all in landfills now, possibly being pulled apart by kids for the wire inside, permanently damaging their hands. The second is buying used stuff or stuff made consciously to reduce its impact: you might want those color pop trail shoes, but that dye might mean your grandchildren don’t have trails to run on. The third is limiting the waste from what we do burn through, recycling gel wrappers or using a reusable bottle instead of a disposable one. 

Of course, most of the change has to come from all of us, changing our everyday habits. But in the spirit of supporting people who do things right, I wanted to assemble a short list of companies who place a high value on sustainable practices. That way, when you do buy new gear, you can vote with your wallet to support the kind of outdoor future that you want to see, hopefully one without gel packets on the trail. And yes, on the way back down I picked it up. 

1. GU/Terracycle

So, what could have happened to that gel packet? GU has the answer. It could have become part of anything from a bike rack to a trash can. Through the TerraCycle website, GU users can request pre-paid labels to ship back packets once they’ve slurped all the sugary goodness out of them. “We accept all competitors’ trash, any sports nutrition packaging,” says Bridgette Travis, GU experiential marketing manager. “This should be helpful for race directors, especially if they are concerned about stepping on the toes of their nutrition sponsor.”

Travis suggests using an empty hydration mix canister, cramming it with packages, and then slapping a label on the whole sticky mess and sending it off to a better future. Saving that packaging makes a difference. One ton of aluminum takes about 170 million BTUs to produce — about as much as 1,400 gallons of gasoline — and emits about 12 tons of greenhouse gases. It’s also very long-lasting, taking as much as 400 years to break down after it’s discarded. Gu now adds a Terracycle clause in all its sponsorships, but signing up is free — and an easy way to reduce the impact of your outdoor fun. 

For the record, GU’s Stroopwafel line is full of delicious pocket size snacks. I particularly enjoy the campfire s’mores flavor. If you prefer your nutrition semi-solid, their Hoppy Trails gels use real hops to mimic the taste of a refreshing post race beer.  

Stroopwafel 16-pack: $18 Hoppy Trails 6-pack: $12

2. Sole

Perhaps even better than recycling? Using post-consumer recycled materials to make things in the first place. That’s what Sole does with its excellent cork insoles. Thanks to recycling partner ReCORK, Sole takes used wine corks and turns them into excellent off-the-shelf orthotics in a range of sizes and applications.

As someone with high arches, I use Sole’s performance insole in my backpacking boots and the Costa flip-flop just about any time I am not hiking or cycling. If you’re in the mood to raise a glass to sustainability, you might also want to consider wine packaged in cans, because shipping glass bottles around really isn’t the most efficient way to get your happy hour on, and aluminum is more readily recycled. 

BUY NOW: $59

3. Picture Organic

As sea levels rise, and water temperatures increase, surfing is becoming subtly different. But pulling on a wetsuit remains part of nearly every surf experience and, thanks to Picture, it needn’t be one that ruins the oceans for future generations. Picture’s EicoPrene is made from a mix of limestone (70 percent) and recycled tires (30 percent). This fabric is then glued with a water-based eco-friendly glue and lined with polyamide from recycled fishing nets. Not only does this reduce the use of new fossil fuels, it takes products which can harm or kill fish — and are hard to recycle — and turns them into new wetsuits. 

Picture is committed to lobbying for the climate, to never shipping by plane, to respecting workers in the supply chain and to sharing findings. It’s refreshing to see the brand admitting it can’t find a packaging material that works as well as plastic bags, but is looking, or that there is a trade-off between sustainable fabrics and low energy use in production. This kind of transparency, often lacking in the outdoor industry, is great; it helps us all know the true cost of our purchases. 

Picture’s Fluid 3/2 wetsuit is a great bet for warmer water summer surfing. Picture also offers thicker suits for the hardier four-season shredders. 

BUY NOW: $277

4. The North Face

The North Face is a mountaineering company, and mountaineering — or at least skiing — sucks when there’s not snow, so the brand has a vested interest in keeping the climate well managed. The North Face supports conservation efforts, recently announcing its support of the Eastern Sierra Stewardship Council’s Queers in the Wilderness program, an eight-day LGBTQ+ inclusive trip that will introduce a group who often feels marginalized to the outdoors. 

Additionally, The North Face is now producing its ever-popular down jacket with Thermoball insulation. Thermoball is made from recycled polyester fabric and recycled insulation sourced from industry leaders Primaloft. Just the recycled insulation alone is spun from at least five plastic bottles that are diverted from the landfill.

The North Face also reconditions apparel and sells it again for a reduced price — so you get good gear at a great price, and TNF gets to make less stuff. Through the Renewed program, the brand saves enough energy to power 13,333 lightbulbs and enough water to fill 12,010 Olympic swimming pools each year.  The refurbished Apex Flex GTX Jacket not only rhymes, it also costs half the price of the original. It makes a great do-it-all outer layer thanks to the warm insulation, well fitted hood, and stretchy Gore-Tex exterior, which can be worn without the insulating liner on warmer wet days. One jacket, many uses, less waste!  

BUY NOW: $150

5. Velocio

Cycling apparel brand Velocio make some of the most stylish spandex I’ve ever seen — and does it using Bluesign fabrics. Bluesign establishes management systems for improving environmental outcomes in five areas of manufacturing: resource productivity, consumer safety, water emissions, air emissions and occupational health and safety. Chemicals used in manufacturing are assigned to one of three categories: blue – safe to use; grey – special handling required; and black – forbidden.

The Bluesign system helps factories properly manage gray chemicals and replace black chemicals with safer alternatives. But that’s not all Velocio does. The company also ships product in biodegradable packaging and doesn’t overpackage goods (a practice that seems endemic to cycling brands). Thanks to Velocio’s commitment to give one percent of revenue back to nonprofits, the brand supports cycling and conservation groups.

I love the bold designs of Velocio’s signature line of shorts and jerseys; not only do they fit like a superhero costume (in a good way, not in a “Spiderman with a beer gut” way), they also continue to fit after repeated washing and wearing. A lot of cycling gear is blown out and baggy after a season, and that isn’t good for your wallet or the planet. Velocio’s gear isn’t cheap, but it is great value. 

Signature Soft Shell Jacket: $299 Luxe Bib Short: $259

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