Tent vs. tee: the carbon footprint of outdoor gear

We love the outdoors. Whether it’s the sweeping landscape of a national park or the buzz of North York, unlimited recreation and relaxation opportunities await. But cycling around the city, paddling a nearby river or even stargazing in the backyard all require adequate gear, and each piece has its own carbon footprint.

The impact of retail goods is not lost on us – the outdoors has been our business since Mountain Equipment Co-op was founded in 1971 – and climate change is fundamentally altering the way we play and work. The loss of forests, dwindling snowpack and reduction in biodiversity thwarts our outdoor pursuits. Our retail processes are challenged by the prices of raw materials and disruptions in the supply chain, like droughts that affect cotton availability or factory production delays due to local pollution. We know the earth is warming from human activity – we trust the science – and as a retailer that manufactures and sources goods from around the world, we know we’re contributing to that warming. We also know we need to contribute to developing solutions. Here’s a look at the seven phases of a product lifecycle and where we’re making improvements:

1. Getting material

In this phase, we consider a material’s origins and whether it is natural or synthetic. Is it harvested or extracted? How much energy goes into that? What about water? By choosing environmentally preferred materials such as recycled polyester or organically grown cotton, we greatly reduce its carbon footprint.

2. Processing material

Turning fibres into fabrics at partner factories is often the biggest contributor to a product’s carbon footprint. In 2016, 87% of MEC-label apparel and sleeping bag fabrics were bluesign®-approved, a standard designed to minimize the negative impacts of textile chemistry and processing on the environment and human health. We put a lot of time and effort into testing these materials, holding them to stringent quality criteria to make sure they’ll last for years.

MEC fabrics materials and technology

3. Manufacturing

Sewing and construction also happens at MEC partner factories. This is a smaller chunk of a product’s footprint, although its impact can fluctuate depending on the type of apparel or gear as well as the intricacies of the design. Manufacturing a backpack or a tent is much more involved than sewing a T-shirt.

As a founding member of both the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and the Outdoor Industry Association’s Sustainability Working Group, we work on creating tools, standards and processes for measuring and reducing environmental and social impacts. Rallying our industry around these tools and processes will help us all better understand, reduce and communicate the effects of making and selling products – and where we can improve.

MEC Fair Trade factory

4. Shipping

Finished products must be shipped from factories to stores and MEC distribution centres, and then out to members. This phase, along with store operations, is what we have the most control over and the best data for. By having distribution centres in both BC and Ontario, we cut down on the volume of cross-country shipping. We limit the use of air freight for overseas shipments, and ship by rail whenever possible.

5. Store operations

This phase includes the impact of building, lighting and heating our head office, distribution centres and nationwide stores. We also consider water usage, waste reduction, employee commuting and business travel.

After working to curb carbon emissions, water use, waste and energy use for over a decade, we are proud to say we have some of the greenest retail and office buildings in Canada. We also foster an awesome commuting culture – most of our buildings have staff showers and all have secure bike parking. We make energy-efficient upgrades as new technologies become available, all our locations are powered by renewable energy, and some stores generate energy on-site with rooftop solar panels. We even have MEC staffers auditing our garbage so we can find more opportunities to recycle (yes, they actually dumpster-dive).

MEC green building designed sustainably

6. Washing and care

Cleaning and maintenance can be the second-largest chunk of a product’s carbon footprint, depending what type of gear it is – a tent or backpack might just get a spot-clean after each camping trip, but your favourite run shirt might go through the laundry after every workout. How often you wash, whether you use hot or cold water, and whether you tumble dry or hang your clothing all contribute to a product’s carbon footprint – making up as much as 40–75%, according to some studies.

To help you care for your new base layers, tent or down jacket, we publish maintenance and care instructions and offer repairs to give damaged gear a longer life. In 2016, we performed more than 10,000 repairs.

Washing and caring for wool outdoor clothing

7. Where it goes

The impact of this last phase is hard to quantify. Some members will cut an old tee into rags for their bike, pass on an outgrown jacket to a younger sibling, donate old skis or take part in the famous MEC Gear Swap. Whatever you choose to do with your well-loved activewear and outdoor gear, do your best to make sure it doesn’t end up in the landfill.

Directing sales

We aim to further reduce our impact on the environment as a member of 1% for the Planet. Every time you make a purchase, you help protect the wild spaces we all love. Since 1987, we have invested more than $37 million in Canadian recreation and conservation projects, including teaming up with Protect Our Winters (POW) to help fight climate change. Last year, MEC members helped us raise and donate $10,000 to POW.

Easy ways to help

Anyone who shops at MEC is a member of the Co-op and can help us minimize our impact. Here are 5 easy ways you can help:

  1. Take care when washing and storing your gear. Wash it in cold water. Lay it flat or hang it to dry. Make sure your items are dry before you store them.
  2. Don’t toss; fix. Patch your jackets, repair broken zippers and generally wear your garments until they’re done – we’re talking holes-in-your-patches done. If you aren’t sure how to repair something, bring it to your local MEC and we can help.
  3. Donate your used gear or swap. Consider borrowing or renting equipment if you’re trying a new activity or know you won’t use it very often, and buy only what you absolutely need.
  4. Travel close to home. We’re all for exploring, but there’s a ton of adventure (and a lower carbon footprint) to be found in your own backyard.
  5. Carpool, take public transit, walk or bike to your local MEC store.

And please, continue to hold us accountable to our mission and values. Tell us how we’re doing and keep the conversation going in-person or online.

There is an urgent need to curb global greenhouse gas emissions. We know we’re at a make-or-break point in human history, and we want to make sure we can all continue to enjoy our favourite wild spaces and natural playgrounds. Thanks for helping us make that happen.

Valerie Presolly

MEC Sustainability Director, world traveller, lover of coffee and outdoor pursuits. Currently rediscovering the world through the eyes of a 2-year-old.