Article Types News The outdoor clothing market is set for a sustainability revolution

The outdoor clothing market is set for a sustainability revolution


As the world’s garment manufacturing industry moves to a more sustainable business model, what we’re wearing in the hills in three years time will be very different to today’s unsustainable, un-recyclable, polluting garments, predicts Mike Parsons, founder of the Outdoor Gear Coach, formerly owner and innovator at Karrimor and founder of OMM (the Original Mountain Marathon). But why is change needed? And what is going to happen?

What's the situation currently Mike?

Behind fossil fuels and agriculture, garments and textiles have been identified as the third dirtiest industry in the world according to Climate Trade, producing about 10% of our annual carbon footprint. That’s more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. This figure includes garments of all types, including fast fashion, not merely outdoor garments, but the two are most certainly intertwined.

The drive for ‘sustainability’ within the whole industry is thankfully now driven not merely by conscience and environmental concerns but also by the impending EU legislation requiring standards of repairability and recyclability of end-of-life garments and the collection of waste textiles.

This means that everything we have used and trusted in our outdoor garment layers over the last few decades will change within the next three years or so. What will also change is the marketing language used to explain these changes. The principles of how garments work will not change, however. What we as Outdoor Gear Coach teach in terms of principles, and the skills we refer to as ‘Performance Layering’ will become even more important.

What happened?

During the 1990s, as environmental controls were progressively tightened in the Western world, manufacturers faced high capital investment costs to control these processes while facing competition from Asian factories that lacked this regulation. This resulted in a massive shift, over 20 years, of production of textiles, garments, and electronics manufacturing to China and other Asian countries.

Since 2000, garment production doubled because of social factors, lower prices and online operation start-ups. A major contribution was that China joined the WTO, World Trade Organisation, with the effect that they agreed to observe many things from patent rights to labelling of fibre content. This opened up trading to the world at large.

This quotation from the book ‘Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy’ by Pietra Rivoli, a USA academic, gives a vivid example: “A joke I heard repeated several times was that you can always tell the next season's fashion colour by looking in the rivers in southern China.”

Sadly, the truth was even more severe, with factories trying to conceal their waste releases and introducing chemicals downriver to hide the colour. Further down the river, farmers then complained the water was unfit for irrigating their land, and all life in the rivers was poisoned. China and other Asian countries effectively poisoned themselves, aided and abetted by the Western world.

The disposal of solid textile waste is also a severe problem. When cutting garment pattern pieces from linear textiles, the inter-pattern waste is always at least 10%, usually 15%. When taken to a landfill, the leachate from the gradual breakdown of the textiles eventually permeates the water table unless the landfill site surface is sealed.

Why are the lovely, clean garments we buy and use so industrially dirty?

All industrial processes use energy, of course, which creates C02 emissions, and textiles are no different in this respect. However, textile processes use a large amount of water.

When released back into the environment (meaning streams, lakes or the sea), the water is polluted with chemical dyes and many other treatments. The use of fluoro compounds began in the late 1970s with Gore-tex ePTFE (expanded polytetrafluoroethylene) and DWR (Durable Water-Repellant) finishes in the mid-80s.

Greenpeace has played an important part here in ‘blowing the whistle’. More than 20 years ago they raised the issue of the dangers of fluoro compounds, and only now 2023, has the industry stopped delivering outer garments with DWR finishes using fluoro-based compounds. In the intervening period, Greenpeace also raised the issue of dyestuffs used mainly on fashion textiles.

Long-term, climate change and sustainability are locked together. However, only CO2 emissions are the subject of worldwide intergovernmental negotiations between members of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and COP (Conference of the Parties). Other ‘bad stuff’ that may get into the environment or go into landfills is controlled by legislation at the local (country) level or maybe not at all. Indeed, the sea is almost totally unregulated.

How are we coping with garment over-production?

In addition to this environmental pollution, societies and infrastructures worldwide are now struggling to cope with garment production. Charity shops can no longer deal with the sheer volume of unwanted garments, and the lesser developed countries that typically import used garments are closing their doors because it hinders the development of their domestic clothing industries.

McKinsey & Company (a global management consultancy) estimated in 2016 that 60% of all clothing produced ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being made. European and other national policy-makers are now waking up to this challenge. For example, the European Commission has already set a target for a separate collection of waste textiles by 2025. It will likely announce further policy initiatives to transition the clothing sector to a more circular economy.

The UK Governmental organisation WRAP (dealing with food, textiles/garments, plastics), has an ongoing program to improve this situation. SCAP is their Sustainable Clothing Action Plan, a collaborative framework and voluntary commitment to deliver industry-led targets for reducing the use of resources in the clothing industry. So far, over 80 organisations across the UK have pledged to hit industry-led targets through the SCAP 2020 Commitment.

What’s happening now?

The need for end-of-use garments to be recyclable has been building over the last several years. The use of polyester fibres recycled from plastic bottles began in the early 1990s, led by Patagonia. However, many textiles used for outdoor garments today are specially designed with a combination of fibres e.g. elastane (brand name Lycra) for stretchy sports garments and even waterproof outer garments. Also, if the outer fabric polymer is different to the inner lining and/or inner laminate, these combinations can’t be recycled.

The industry, therefore, is learning to design garments without Lycra and/or all from the same fabric; quite a challenge! Creating new multi-thickness outer fabrics with the same polymer is well underway, with many brands making announcements. These are known as monopolymer fabrics and are therefore recyclable as and when the collection services and recycling processes are implemented in each country.

It has taken many years to be able to find acceptable performance alternatives to fluoro-based compounds, but Gore-tex has launched its replacement for ePTFE, which is simply ePE and most other waterproof textile brands are launching their new alternatives right now.

There are now new processes to eliminate the high wastage when cutting fabric like Warp Knitting Seamless (WKS), which results in fewer garment seams for increased comfort from chafing and less weight in stitching pieces together. Right now the price is much higher than the traditional equivalent, but that will change.

Over the next few years we will likely see huge changes in the composition and performance of the outdoor clothing we will be buying. The exact impact is yet unclear, but many new words and marketing descriptions are coming our way. Here at Outdoor Gear Coach we will be keeping abreast of these developments and updating our courses accordingly. See our website here for the latest details and educational events.