Are Synthetic Fabrics Used in Outdoor Gear Environmentally Friendly?

Generally speaking, no.    But lets take a broader look.

After I got into myog and made a couple of backpacking quilts I wondered how the fabrics I used were made in the first place.  I examined some common pieces of gear that everyone has, namely my shelters, backpack, sleeping quilt, and some clothing.  Everyone needs some form of these pieces of gear to backpack.  Fabric is one of the primary ingredients in our gear.

Granite Gear Leopard 58- cordura (nylon)

REI Passage 2 Tent- nylon and polyester taffeta

Rab Element Solo tarp- silicone impregnated cordura (nylon)

Six Moon Designs tent- Polyester 190t

OR Helium Jacket-ripstop nylon

Homemade Quilt- ripstop nylon

Patagonia Midweight Capilene base layer (capilene is recycled polyester)

Not all are pictured, but you get the idea.  All are made with dinosaur bones:

Polyester and Nylon are petroleum based products, requiring fossil fuels to be made.  Not only do we have to expend fossil fuels to make them, they are literally made *of* fossil fuels.  They’re basically a plastic that can be strung out into a thread and made into fabrics.  A quick internet search reveals that Nylon is made from coal, petroleum, water, and air.  Same for polyester.  Over and over, these are the two most common fabrics I see used in so much of the gear we use on every single trip.  We all know that fossil fuels are non-renewable and terrible for the environment.

At least the Capilene in my base layer is recycled polyester.  This is hopefully saving loads of polyester from just being thrown in the dump to decompose over the next eon.  After perusing Patagonia’s site, they’re the only company that seems to sincerely give a shit about the environmental impact of the entire process of making their gear.  Check out this page which gives details about all the different sorts of fabrics and materials Patagonia uses.   You may be surprised by what you see.

Its worth noting however, that any recycled fabric like Capilene, requires the polyester/nylon/whatever be made in the first place for another use, then sent to the recycle bin.

For base layers, Capilene is clearly a more environmentally friendly choice than virgin polyester.  Of course, you could just buy wool base layers as well (with its own intensive carbon footprint).  On its face, wool would seem the most environmentally friendly solution.  It would be worth comparing the lifetime impact of merino wool vs capilene vs polyester.  Reason being, is that paper grocery bags are always touted as the environmentally friendly alternative to plastic ones, to the point of banning them where I live.  The reality is that paper bags have a larger carbon footprint by a fucking longshot.  Plastic bags are just an easy target in the effort to reduce carbon emissions.  In the end, both are terrible for the environment and its better to use a canvas bag long-term.

My point being, would wool really be better in the end when compared with synthetic fabrics (as far as environmental impact goes)?  Synthetics may be an easy target like the plastic bags.  I don’t know, but its certainly worth investigating.  Synthetic materials seem to hold up better long term compared to wool for example, so I think the competition may be close.  Hopefully someone reading this is nerdy enough to leave the answer in the comments section.

Fabrics used in tents, packs, and sleeping bags/quilts however cannot be switched to wool or any natural fabric that would be worth a shit in the backpacking world.  Basically we’re stuck using synthetics for the big 3, for unless you want to lug around heavy canvas gear with the help of pack animals.  I’ll save insulation for another post.  Buy for longevity.

My goal is to buy functional and cost effective gear, but also trying not to ruin the environment while I’m at it.  I’m trying to learn more about what is best.  This is a tall order in a fossil-fuel based society, where even our fabrics are made from coal and oil.  For now, I’ll be buying for longevity and prioritizing recycled synthetic fabrics like capilene over virgin ones.  Until I hear that wool is terrible somehow for the environment, I’ll be buying it as well.  I’ll continue to buy used gear too when it makes sense to.

One thing I loathe is unbridled, mindless consumerism, which is ruining the Earth and our souls.  Ultralight backpacking and minimalism go hand in hand, but all too often people end up amassing a load of shit for backpacking that they don’t even use.  Like jenkem, you need one hit after the other.  I’ve been there.  I’m convinced some people on ultralight forums don’t even backpack, they just buy gear and do math problems with it.

Anyhow I digress.  I think it’s important to support companies working towards substantive change and pressure companies to make environmentally friendly gear in a non-damaging way.  Also, we should keep in mind that fabrics aren’t the only environmentally unfriendly aspect of our outdoor adventures.  There is an interesting article here on sectionhiker examining the toxicity of DWR coatings; be sure to check out the comments section too.

As stewards of the environment, its important we put our money where our mouth is.  Backpackers should lead by example and put pressure where pressure is due.  Leave no trace doesn’t just mean digging a cat hole to shit in, but applying the principles to the Earth in general.

The less we buy overall of any fabric type and gear in general, the better for the environment.   

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