Em Hartova is a 24-year-old grad student and environmental advocate, based between the Czech Republic and the U.K. Intrinsically drawn to cold places, she is happiest outside - or, for the sake of honesty, tucked away in a cafe reading about climate policy. The former has taken her on solo adventures from Scotland to Norway to Greenland, seeking some kind of deeper meaning within my relationship with nature.
You’ve written about the cognitive dissonance created by the romanticised idea of adventure. What do you mean by this?
It’s an idea that centres on the concept of the outdoors as an “escape” from everyday life. When I first started heading out hiking and wild camping, I was in my second year of university, and my ventures up to the Scottish highlands on the National Express night service were fuelled by a desire to get away from the city, deadlines, or relationships. But as I became increasingly actively involved in environmental issues, I found that I was starting to use my time outdoors as an antidote to the climate grief I was experiencing back at home. The more I learned about the state of the planet, the further I would travel to find the “wilderness” I hoped could distract me - but it never did. Ultimately, I’d divided my life into “inside” and “outside”, and the knowledge that I could always run for the hills - literally - lulled me into an endless cycle of apathy.
This indoor/outdoor divide is something I feel the outdoor industry capitalises on. The notion of escape sells well - especially in a society which places such value on labour and productivity - but it’s artificially created, and in the face of a climate emergency it can be destructive. As long as we consider nature to be our playground, we’re actively removing ourselves from the fight for environmental and social justice - and whilst we’re outside playing, there are executives in the fossil fuel industry lobbying to open up the Arctic for drilling.
Generally speaking, how complicit are outdoor brands in this phenomenon? And are brands getting better?
At the risk of sounding cynical, I’d say that brands aren’t just complicit, they are - for the most part - reliant on the idea of nature as a playground. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of brands that I love to support, and I love learning about gear and innovative materials. Simultaneously though, it’s important to remember that outdoor brands are just components of an industry which, like any other, is fuelled by a cycle of production, consumption and profit. Much of the outdoor community likes to distance itself from even the slightest notion of “fashion” - but our outdoor gear is just clothing, made by human hands from resources taken from the earth, and returned a few years later as waste. The only real difference between even the most technical jacket and the blazer you wear to the office is the situation the item is worn in, and the materials used, and the majority of outdoor brands work similarly to mainstream clothing outlets - each season brings new colours, graphics, or designs. Many brands are taking steps to decrease their environmental impact - phasing out PFCs, tracing down, committing to organic cotton - and that’s encouraging, but for the most part, it’s not enough.
We have less than ten years to prevent catastrophic climate breakdown, and there are still brands refusing to part with environmentally damaging practices for the sake of technical performance, and trying to offset that by launching a new, “green” product line. Good quality, reliable gear can save your life in the mountains, but it won’t protect you from a burning planet - and even the best mountaineering shell is useless when there’s no ice left to climb. The outdoor industry is in such a good position to lead in the development of sustainable business practice - it would be great to see all brands wholeheartedly throwing all of their resources and energy into creating change.
Are there any outdoor brands you feel are exemplary?
This is tough - on one hand, I’m a big advocate for imperfect environmentalism, and positively engaging with brands who are attempting to do better, even if they aren’t quite perfect yet. On the other hand, we are in the midst of a climate emergency; every day, we’re facing biodiversity loss, water shortages, forest fires. We desperately need to change the ways we design, produce, and consume things, and if brands - especially those founded on a love for the outdoors - aren’t willing to ditch ‘business as usual’, perhaps they shouldn’t be in business at all.
There are some outliers though! I love to support brands which have built themselves around strong environmental principles - Swedish brand Klattermusen, who create beautifully designed and durable mountaineering and trekking gear, or Findra, who craft the softest merino base layers up in Scotland. Paramo, who lead the way in producing PFC-free waterproofs. And of course Firepot and Outdoor Provisions, both of whom have rejected the convenience of single use packaging in favour of compostable alternatives.
You’ve also written about the importance of connecting ’ non-outdoorsy’ issues to the outdoors. What would you like to see more of in the adventure world to help us move from an 'individual responsibility’ to a systemic framing of our response to climate and environmental issues?
Something I love about the outdoor community is the seemingly inexhaustible energy for organising and campaigning when the natural places we love are under threat - but we shouldn’t be limiting our action solely to protect “our” outdoors. The time we spend outside, even in the remotest areas, is wholly shaped by the social, political and economic systems within which we exist. It’s in the manufacture of the gear we wear, the transport we take, and the land we can or cannot access.
I think this is so clearly illustrated in the issues surrounding wild camping and littering in national parks and beauty spots after the lifting of lockdown, and the conversations these have generated among frequent hikers and campers. I’m a big advocate for Leave no Trace, but this is about more than telling people not to litter and calling them idiots if they do.
What we saw post-lockdown is the result of a society starved of access to nature and green spaces - through systemic barriers, land privatisation, and political neglect. There is a wealth of research which shows that physical exposure to nature fosters ecocentric behaviours, but how can we expect people to act pro-environmentally when, particularly in the U.K., access to the outdoors is an extreme privilege. In England, 92% of land is already off-limits to the general public, and we have a government pushing through proposals to criminalise trespass - this would make simply stepping off a footpath to pick up a sweet wrapper a criminal offence. When the very steps we are able to take are defined through laws or political legislation, it becomes apparent that ‘outdoorsy’ issues reach far beyond litter-picking or recycling an old fleece, and though these conversations are starting to be heard, I’d love for them to be louder.
What useful steps do you think people can take to help ensure they are genuinely supporting sustainable practices (and not supporting damaging ones)?
First off I think it’s so important to know that on an individual basis, perfection is unattainable. “Zero-waste” has become such an Instagram trend that so many of us lose energy trying to craft the aesthetic of our activism, and we’re left with less to channel into the issues that really matter. The popularity of sustainable living has been capitalised on by brands and corporations, making it so much harder for us as consumers to distinguish between genuine pro-environmental practices and greenwashing. I find this is especially tricky within the outdoor industry, where brands are able to create a veneer of eco-consciousness simply by producing items for use in nature, combined with striking marketing campaigns.
As individuals, I think a bit of research and education goes a long way - organic cotton is a great example. Initially, the difference between organic and conventional cotton appears to be at most a little less pesticide or a marketing buzzword - but the production of non-organic cotton has absolutely catastrophic human and environmental impacts. When we buy outdoor gear, we dwell a lot on the differences between natural fibres or synthetic, warmth to weight ratios, or hydrostatic head - but our questions shouldn’t end once we have identified the value the product will bring to us personally. Questions about the production of materials, environmental impacts of waterproofing technologies, and the empowerment of garment workers should be as common-place as “Is this actually waterproof?” After all, how can we claim to be leaving no trace when the production of the waterproofs we wear has polluted drinking water elsewhere in the world?
Ultimately, however, it’s not on us. Whilst we can change our individual habits, it’s down to brands to take initiative and realise that their pursuit of business as usual is a threat not only to people and planet, but also their own profits - and this is particularly applicable within the outdoor industry.
Is there anything you’ve read/watched etc. you’d particularly recommend these themes?
Until very recently, I had been fairly reluctant to voice the thoughts mentioned above - I worried that I was being too critical, cynical, or just overthinking. Then by chance I read an article called Your Stoke won’t Save Us, by Ethan Linck - and it swept away all of my doubts. It’s a fairly long read, but I’d recommend it to every single person that considers themselves a lover of the outdoors. A gentle reminder that it might just take more than being ‘outdoorsy’ to save the planet. The True Cost, a documentary on the impacts of fast fashion, is widely renowned for a reason; it gives an emotive and detailed insight into the hidden truths of the clothing and textile industry. I’m also an avid reader of Another Escape, who frequently feature articles which touch on issues at the intersection of the outdoors and environmentalism.
What adventures and projects do you have in the pipeline?
Similarly to most, a lot of the big plans I had at the beginning of the year have been cancelled or postponed indefinitely: solo-hiking the Cape Wrath Trail was my main goal for this summer, and as autumn seems to be arriving early, I’m reluctantly letting go of the determination that I’ll somehow be able to do it this year! Despite that, I have a few shorter trips to the Highlands coming up, and some exciting writing projects planned, as well as returning to uni to complete my MSc in October. So nothing awe-inspiring, but I’m learning that it’s good to stay closer to home sometimes.