The outdoor industry relies heavily on fossil fuels. But this fact is usually hidden behind the marketing speak of nature-loving brands and our continued belief in endless, abundant adventure. Em Hartova argues that we should be agitating for change.
It’s early 2022, and an email lands in my inbox. “Winter doesn’t stand a chance” reads the subject line – seemingly apt, given that in the same week, research was published showing that Everest’s highest glacier, South Col, had lost 2000 years of ice since the 1990s. Traversed by climbers on their way to the summit, South Col is thinning 80 times faster than expected, a rate which could see it disappear completely by halfway through this century.
Such losses are not only confined to the Himalayas; two-thirds of glacier ice in the Alps is projected to melt by the end of the century, with half already doomed to melt as a result of past baked-in emissions. Meltwater now accounts for over one fifth of global sea level rise.
And yet, that wasn’t what the message was referring to. A marketing blast from one of the UK’s best-loved outdoor brands, it was promoting their new line of mountaineering gear, promising endless exploration – but only if you click “Shop now”.
The outdoor industry has always incorporated elements of environmentalism, from Patagonia’s renowned corporate activism to t-shirts reminding us that “the mountains are calling.” Yet the two diverge before reaching their final outcomes. Traditional forms of ‘adventure’ depend on pushing boundaries, breaking records and long-distance travel to the remotest destinations, culminating in some kind of result, be it widespread recognition, self-realisation or a moment of escapism. In such instances, we always have something to gain from exploring nature, be it physical, spiritual or emotional. And in turn, someone or something must lose. More often than not, it’s the planet.
The nature-loving exterior of outdoor recreation has for a long time been enough to hide its dependency on natural resource extraction, from petroleum-based synthetic fabrics to accepting without question land-management approaches that conserve “beauty” at the cost of ecological diversity. With less than a decade to avert catastrophic climate breakdown, we continue to see nature as a playground, instead of our home, often choosing adrenaline and adventure over humility and harmony, and creating new ways of moving in the outdoors. We can call ourselves outdoors-lovers, but the question remains – is loving nature really enough to save it?
'We can call ourselves outdoors-lovers, but the question remains – is loving nature really enough to save it?'
It starts and ends with language. As outdoors people, we voluntarily stand at the point where humans and nature collide. By repeatedly embracing discomfort, and cold nights under canvas over warm beds, we bring the two closer together - yet the words we choose pull them further apart. To be 'out there', beyond the four walls to which we should otherwise be confined, draws a line between the two worlds we have created: our human one, of safety and complacency, and that which we call 'nature' - the place we have yet to tame and control.
Such language of disconnection often transforms into one of conquest. The term 'exploration' itself comes with connotations of colonial times, of power and rule. To 'bag' peaks or collect national parks is an assertion of humanity's perceived power over nature. And whilst such terms are rarely used with the aim of implying such ideas, the way we talk about the outdoors subconsciously maintains a narrative which presents nature as something to be dominated.
Traditional outdoor recreation is built upon a foundation of love for nature — but also a decent dose of being in competition with it. Going further, faster, higher — all driven by a desire to see more, do more, and outperform others or past versions of ourselves. Such desire is a gift for marketers, and in their hands it multiplies, combining a lust for endless adventure with the artificially created needs and wants of a capitalist society.
There are few things more natural than being outside; we are nature, after all. And yet, the boundaries we have drawn for ourselves have enabled brands to convince us that we must consume in order to return to our natural environment. The outdoors has never been free, and adventure always comes with a price tag; there’s a reason why the most searched question related to Everest is “how much does it cost?”. We’re told we need the newest, lightest gear to be successful in the wild, regardless of whether we are walking the dog or attempting a first ascent.
'There are few things more natural than being outside; we are nature, after all. And yet, the boundaries we have drawn for ourselves have enabled brands to convince us that we must consume in order to return to our natural environment.'
‘Gorpcore’ has been having a moment since 2017, when Patagonia fleeces and Columbia windbreakers started to make their way into mainstream street style. Socks and sandals are in, haute couture is out – and all signs point to this not just being a fad. The global outdoor apparel market is estimated to be valued at $11.77 billion in 2022, and forecast to grow to $14.22 billion by 2028 – a sign that consumers’ prioritisation of comfortable over cool, or their equation of comfortable with cool, is likely to stick around. Whilst I’m appreciative of any trend that makes it acceptable to wear a down jacket to (almost) any occasion, with mainstream popularity comes a mainstream scale of consumption – and production. And no matter how many times Columbia Sportswear commits to “sustaining the land [they] love”, producing the same fleece in thirteen different colours will never be sustainable.
The commodification of nature as not only a resource for the manufacturing of material goods, but also for recreation, creates the illusion that we can continue to play, and to take, without limitation — from pro-athletes flying from one side of the world to the other, chasing waves or new routes to climb, to magazine articles enchanting us all with the newest ‘undiscovered’ hiking destinations. Such abundance of desire is the result of our most natural instinct – the need to be close to nature – being marketed back to us, presented as unreachable, or unsurvivable, unless we continue to consume.
'Such abundance of desire is the result of our most natural instinct – the need to be close to nature – being marketed back to us, presented as unreachable, or unsurvivable, unless we continue to consume.'
We talk a lot about the receding snow line, and our plastic-filled oceans. Less so about our plastic-filled closets. Walk into any outdoor store, and you’ll be sure to find swing tags peppered with the words “recycled polyester” and “carbon neutral” — if you’re lucky, perhaps even a used gear drop-off point or two. At first glance, outdoor brands are diving head-first into climate action; embracing circularity, tree-planting, and even taking back worn gear in exchange for a discount on your next purchase. And yet, there’s a catch, often hiding in plain sight: “your next purchase”. In order to be a “good” environmentalist, you must shop — after all, no trees get planted if you don’t buy the t-shirt, and what kind of outdoor-lover would you be if you actively decided not to plant trees? The fact that most corporate tree planting schemes result in non-biodiverse monoculture plantations remains an afterthought.
Likewise, recycled polyester is prevalent for good reason; making the swap from virgin material gives brands an easy opportunity to label their new collections as “green”, without having to sacrifice the technical properties synthetic materials bring to their garments. Despite this, it’s not quite the straightforward solution it appears to be. Even before we consider the inadequacy of most countries’ recycling infrastructure to deal with the immense volume of plastic waste being generated on a daily basis – only 9% of plastic is recycled globally – not all plastic can be recycled. Consequently, the manufacture of recycled polyester comes to rely on the few types of plastic which are suitable – namely polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the material used in single-use plastic bottles. Instead of decreasing the textile industry’s reliance on fossil fuels, embracing recycled polyester instead of natural materials, or developing new, innovative textile solutions, simply adds a new link to the chain. Far from alleviating plastic pollution, this system creates a new dependency on a steady inflow of suitable waste materials, providing an excuse for the continued overproduction and consumption of single-use packaging.
The symbiotic – almost co-dependent – relationship between outdoor brands and the fossil fuel industry isn’t something companies like to draw attention to, naturally. Unless they’re forced to, that is. In 2020, oil and gas company Innovex placed an order with The North Face for 400 co-branded jackets for their staff. It was rejected, with The North Face declining to place the Innovex logo next to their own. A natural reaction, you might say, from a brand founded upon a love for the outdoors – but it’s not that simple. When Chris Wright, CEO of Liberty Oilfield Services LLC – a competitor of Innovex – heard about The North Face’s refusal to do business with his competitors, he was surprised – not least because he had already purchased 2000 similar jackets for his own employees, hassle-free. In response, Liberty commissioned billboards with the message: “That North Face puffer looks great on you. And it was made from fossil fuels.” The company placed them around Denver, Colorado, where The North Face is headquartered. The campaign went viral, alongside a YouTube video in which Wright – who also happens to be an outdoor enthusiast – thanks The North Face for making such quality gear, albeit with the help of the fossil fuel industry.
You can call it whatever you want, but ultimately – and it pains me slightly to say it – Chris Wright and Liberty are the ones telling the truth: the vast majority of our outdoor gear wouldn’t exist without oil and gas. Synthetic materials, such as polyester, nylon and acrylic, make up 62% of the material input for textile manufacturing, and whilst we all love to obsess about the benefits of down versus synthetic insulation, the fact that our lightweight, quick-dry fabrics are in fact byproducts of the petrochemical industry isn’t often a part of that discussion. The right gear may keep us safe and warm on our adventures, but when its very existence is reliant on the processes which are tearing apart our home planet, perhaps it’s time to reconsider where our priorities lie.
There’s a wealth of research that shows that exposure to nature fosters ecocentric behaviours and decreases materialistic tendencies; put simply, spending time in wild places intrinsically motivates us to protect them. However, when the concept of an outdoor “industry” is added to the equation, it gets complicated. The marketisation of nature has created an outdoors which must be bought into, in the form of gear, travel, and technology, without which even our local hills have come to be deemed inaccessible. We are hardwired to perceive anything connected to the natural world as inherently ‘good’. In other words, nature sells - or at least, the idea of it does. As such, it’s become easy for outdoor brands to avoid the scrutiny faced by the remainder of the apparel industry, simply by professing their love for the mountains, and their desire to protect them. We love the mountains too, so it’s easy to believe them – and most importantly, it’s easy to continue shopping, guilt-free.
'It’s become easy for outdoor brands to avoid the scrutiny faced by the remainder of the apparel industry, simply by professing their love for the mountains, and their desire to protect them.'
The outdoor industry is in prime position to lead in shaping new ways for not only business, but also communities and individuals, to exist in cohesion with the natural world. Too often, the onus of responsibility for environmental change is placed on us as hikers, skiers, surfers, consumers; yet climate breakdown cannot be prevented on the basis of individual action, or consumption — the answer to the biggest crisis of our time cannot be purchased. As individuals, we can clean up our local trails, and repair our worn out gear – but the responsibility for real change lies on the shoulders of the brands, athletes and content creators who uphold ongoing cycles of production, consumption and growth.
Yet there’s power in communication – our relationship with nature starts and ends with language, after all. It’s high time we demanded an outdoors that is accessible for everyone, instead of settling for admiring nature through a screen. Challenged brands to rethink the ways they operate, and the scale at which they produce. Questioned athletes on the carbon emissions of their expeditions, and the ethics of their sponsors. Urged designers to adopt innovative solutions to the damage caused by the textile industry, and supported – loudly – the ones who already do.
An outdoor industry which maintains a narrative of ‘humans vs nature’ has no future on a warming planet; if nothing changes, we’ll still be comparing waterproofing technologies as the last patches of snow melt away at our feet. Saying we love the outdoors is no longer enough to make us environmentalists, nor is it enough to stop the planet burning. It is not only in our interest, but also our duty to ensure a liveable planet for future generations – unless we do, winter doesn’t stand a chance. And perhaps, neither do we.