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Em Hartova
Written by Em Hartova
Published on 11th March 2021
9 min read

The North Face and Gucci's striking partnership, featured on the cover of the latest issue of Sidetracked Magazine, has divided opinion. But Em Hartova argues that the debate misses the real story when it comes to sustainability and outdoor clothing. 

In November 2020, scientists found microplastic fibres near the summit of Mount Everest. Their discovery made headlines; even the world’s highest mountain, upheld for so long as pristine, remote, a rite of passage for any aspiring mountaineer, had now been breached by something as banal as plastic. As the outdoor community recoiled in horror, the fact that every climber who has reached Everest’s summit and stood in awe, looking down at the world at their feet, has done so encased in layers of petroleum-derived fabrics was conveniently brushed aside. This unspoken agreement, the idea that things which are designed for use in nature must therefore be inherently good for it, is a very specific kind of cognitive dissonance; it’s the thread that holds together the entire outdoor industry – and simultaneously holds it apart from any notion of “fashion”. And what happens when it’s stretched too far? The answer can be found in Sidetracked magazine’s Instagram comment section. 

The release of the collaboration between luxury fashion house Gucci and The North Face, presented to consumers via a further partnership with independent outdoor publication Sidetracked, hit social media with a bang. Almost instantly, battle lines were drawn and uproar ensued - some marvelled at the creative flair, others were outraged that high fashion had dared to enter the outdoor realm, and a few simply voiced their bemusement over how much others cared. Meanwhile, executives in their respective marketing departments were patting each other on the back (virtually, of course), because this was everything they had hoped for. Marketing, at its core, is simply storytelling; if the original isn’t engaging enough, you create a new story - or entice your audience to do so instead. The TNF x Gucci collaboration was purposely designed to provoke such a polarised reaction - because in between the fire emojis and calls for a boycott, the real story slips through the cracks. Whilst we are distracted by the in-fighting of outdoor gear versus luxury fashion, we’re missing the main event: the entire clothing industry versus the planet.

'Some marvelled at the creative flair, others were outraged that high fashion had dared to enter the outdoor realm.'

The ecological destruction caused by the clothes we wear is by no means new knowledge. In Bangladesh in April 2013, the Rana Plaza disaster took the lives of 1,132 people, and injured over 2,500 more. Many were garment workers sewing clothes for the likes of Primark and Walmart, and the factory collapse tore down the glamorous façade of the fashion industry. Since then, the movement to combat the destructive practices of fast fashion and its artificially created cycles of insatiable need and desire has gathered momentum, with the industry facing increasing pressure to clean up its operations. Even pre-pandemic, some might say brands were having a tough time - but then again, with the clothing and textile industry having produced 2.1 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2018, so was the planet. 

Fast forward to 2020, and COVID19 hit the fashion industry where it hurt the most – profits. Faced with falling consumer interest, and unsold stock piling up in warehouses and ports, the once infallible business model of relentless production and consumption began to falter. Even the largest brands rushed to cancel orders, many of which had already been cut and sewn, leaving already vulnerable garment workers unpaid and unsafe in the midst of a global pandemic. Among them was VF, parent company of The North Face and its commitment to “sustainability and morality”. Despite paying up at a later date, VF’s willingness to sacrifice others in order to protect itself reveals a hard truth: the outdoor clothing industry is dirty too. 

The TNF x Gucci campaign was able to provoke such strong reactions for the very same reason that has for years enabled outdoor clothing brands to stand aside whilst the remainder of the textile industry faced criticism for their practices: a vocal rejection of the notion of ‘fashion’. But clothing is clothing, regardless of whether we call it “gear” or “couture” – made by human hands, with resources taken from the earth. Shared love, or brands’ promise of it, feeds the lie that our time outdoors relies on material objects - that we need them, and without them would be bound to an unadventurous life indoors. How could we ever harm the thing we love – except to love it more. To climb higher, travel further, run faster - to never stop exploring. The pursuit of endless adventure, so often presented as the antithesis to a life caught up in the economic rat race, isn’t quite as innocent as being “at one with nature”. Just like the climbers summiting Everest, we all leave footprints – regardless of whether we think we’re leaving no trace. Our footprints are in the carbon emissions of our long-haul flights, the fluorocarbons leeching from our waterproof jackets, and in the dyes that flow from garment factories into rivers on the other side of the globe. Whilst we’re admiring the view in our outdoors, the clothes we’re wearing are breaking apart somebody else’s; it’s the ultimate greenwash. 

Greenwashing has been around for decades, emerging in the 1960’s as the environmental movement began to gather momentum. The purposeful ‘greening’ of corporate images, it’s rooted in the practice of placing responsibility on the individual rather than corporations. In the same way that BP coined the term ‘carbon footprint’ in 2004, prompting customers to calculate and then grieve over the climate chaos caused by their everyday lives, the partnership between Gucci and The North Face and it’s collection for “those who just want to listen to nature” carries a simple message: buy this, and be absolved of environmental sins. But ethical consumption is a symptom of greened capitalism. When faced with the horror of climate breakdown, our automatic reaction has become: “what can I buy?” In a pandemic-stricken world, this individual responsibility is emphasised; yet whilst we’re still agonising over the single-use coffee cup we used back in October, The North Face have seen their jacket sales skyrocket by 300% over the past year on Asos alone

'Our footprints are in the carbon emissions of our long-haul flights, the fluorocarbons leeching from our waterproof jackets, and in the dyes that flow from garment factories into rivers.'

This piece was funded by our wonderful Patreon supporters. Our Patreon is designed to sustain and expand our capacity to tell vital adventure stories.

You can learn more here and offer support here in exchange for awesome rewards. 100% of revenue will go directly to Editions contributors, we don't keep a single penny.

Capitalism, with its relentless pursuit of consumption and growth, is the driving force behind the climate emergency. With less than ten years left to act, we’re hurtling towards a future which would see the earth become uninhabitable. In the case of the outdoor industry, we’re quite literally wearing away the ground beneath our feet; within decades there may be no ice to climb, and not even the most expensive, high-tech gear would protect us from a burning planet. Dropping a whole month’s paycheque in your nearest Patagonia store won’t stop the last patch of snow melting away, and let’s be honest, once the serotonin wears off, it won’t make you feel any better either. 

But what about the actions brands are taking? After all, TNF x Gucci is a collaboration “with sustainability at its heart.” Sure enough, the collection utilises materials such as ECONYL – regenerated nylon made from ocean waste – and sources its packaging from sustainably managed forests. Both brands tout their eco-focused mission statements and commitments to corporate responsibility on their websites; Gucci’s Equilibrium programme in particular outlines some exciting targets, built on a foundation of inclusivity, diversity and authentic expression – all of which the outdoor industry could use a little more of. It’s ambitious stuff. But like the promises made by so many other brands, often that’s all it is: a promise. And those are easy to break. 

Evaluating brands’ sustainability claims is no easy task. Whereas a decade ago only a few clothing retailers would even consider highlighting their ecological impact, nowadays companies must race to keep up with increasing consumer awareness. Gucci’s 2020 Sustainability Principles report contains a plethora of commitments, but the devil – quite literally – is in the detail. The report details that suppliers are required to ensure garment workers' wages correspond to legal standards – but simultaneously indemnifies Gucci from any claims or complaints made by workers or employees, securing them against legal liability. Likewise, VF’s Global Compliance Principles state that garment workers have a right to fair compensation, but makes no mention of legally enforceable contracts. The North Face’s U.K. website invites readers to click through and learn about the ways its parent company is working to bring about real change in countries such as Bangladesh. Unfortunately, the link doesn’t work. 

There is no such thing as a perfect environmentalist, or a completely “sustainable” company; when you’re producing “stuff”, it’s impossible. But transparency is no longer radical – it must be the bare minimum. In place of lengthy reports detailing their beliefs and endeavours, brands should be publishing hard data: names and numbers. Who their suppliers are, how much they pay, where they source their materials. The TNF x Gucci collaboration might use regenerated nylon, yet fails to fully commit to 100% organic cotton – and when a single pair of their jersey shorts is priced at £600, it’s not because they can’t afford it. Conventional cotton is one of the world’s most polluting crops, and its production has devastating human and environmental impacts – but with a direct, accessible alternative, it’s also one of the easiest to avoid. Its use alone is more than enough to negate any of the collaboration's claims of “respect for nature”. 

The fashion industry is plagued by numerous abuses of social and environmental justice, from the exploitation of workers, to the use of hazardous chemicals and dependence on fossil fuels – there’s a reason it’s the second most polluting industry worldwide. Brands know it, but they also know cutting pollution means cutting production, consumption, and ultimately profits. So instead of doing the work and shouting it from the rooftops, they leave it to us to filter through the details, again shifting the onus of responsibility. To buy, or not to buy - that’s our problem. Any damage caused along the way? That’s our problem too. “We’re just helping you get out there!” they call, whilst churning out fleeces in eleven different colours. 

As an outdoor community, we can be more than just “good” consumer-citizens, clinging to the belief that we are saving the planet by buying one recycled down jacket at a time. We could spend our lifetimes scouring product labels and transparency reports, but it makes little difference if we’re only doing so to inform our personal purchase decisions. Individual action will never be enough to combat a systemic issue. Instead of rolling out the well-worn phrases of “buy the best you can afford,” or “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing,” we should be organising. Lobbying governments to ban the use of bio-accumulating fluorocarbons, instead of just purchasing PFC-free, and demanding brands commit to legally binding agreements, instead of ‘encouraging’ suppliers to pay their workers a living wage. There should be no such thing as “bad” clothing; whilst we  continue to excuse it by presenting a “better”, more sustainable (and often more expensive) alternative, we will continue to break apart the landscapes we claim to love.

In the end, it comes down to the stories we tell. Whether you love or hate the designs, or think high fashion has no place in the outdoor industry, most of us will acknowledge that The North Face x Gucci collaboration makes for a good story – it has to, given that a pair of hiking boots from the collection retail for £1,050. And like most stories, it’s down to the audience to decide whether or not it is true. Striking photography, colourful fabrics and - let’s admit it – Jared Leto are easier to look at than a world on fire; it’s in our nature to turn away from disaster. 

An already struggling publishing industry knows the loudest stories sell best, whether or not they hold truth or value - and this leaves smaller, independent publications with big choices to make in order to keep their heads above the water. An environmentally sustainable outdoor industry would be reliant on the freedom of publications and writers to analyse and critique its actions, without being bound by the desire and power of brands. Simultaneously though, these publications are wholly reliant on access to steady funding in order to be sustainable themselves – and sometimes being solely supported by their readership just doesn’t cut it. Paid partnerships will always have a large part to play in the industry – there will always be someone willing to take the paycheque. TNF x Gucci and their partnership with Sidetracked is nothing but a symptom of an industry caught in a cycle of self-destruction; sure, we can carry on with business as usual, but nature is finite; there’s no outdoor recreation on a burning planet. In its reluctance to act, the outdoor industry is driving itself into the ground – and no amount of new, “sustainable” products will save it. Perhaps it’s time brands realised it’s time to stop exploring, stop exploiting, and come inside to do the real work – if not for us, then for themselves.

This piece was funded by our wonderful Patreon supporters. Our Patreon is designed to sustain and expand our capacity to tell vital adventure stories.

You can learn more here and offer support here in exchange for awesome rewards. 100% of revenue will go directly to Editions contributors, we don't keep a single penny.