How the boom in climbing, biking and sailing is costing the earth

Cycling and the environment
Outdoor sports are increasingly being linked to environmental problems
In the first of a two-part sport and environment special, Isabella Kaminski reports on how habitat damage, waste, nanotechnology and persistent organic pollutants are increasingly linked to our favourite outdoor pursuits

Whether for health, love of nature or just for a serious adrenaline rush, millions of us regularly take part in outdoor sports such as climbing, biking or sailing. Although true aficionados are out in all weathers, braving the rain and snow, Britain’s lush rolling hills and temperamental waters are most enticing at this time of year.

According to the Outdoor Industries Association, 43 per cent of the UK population takes part in outdoor activities at least once a month, with 35 million people hiking every year in the National Parks alone. But growing evidence suggests that these relatively green activities, powered by human muscle, wind or water, have hidden environmental costs.

David Cole, a research geographer at the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute based in the US state of Montana, says the impact of outdoor sports is typically very intense but highly localised: 'The general populace is probably largely unaware that their activities, when multiplied by the effects of everyone else out there, can have a significant effect. But I think it is widely recognised that these sports are not completely eco-friendly.'

The cumulative effect of thousands of hikers or cyclists using the same trail, for example, can cause serious erosion, inhibit the growth of plants and disrupt animal nesting and hunting sites, while watersports can disrupt aquatic life, including birds, fish and cetaceans such as dolphins, and destroy their habitats by eroding banks and depositing soil in the water. Camping muddies the issue further by adding fire risk and the disposal of rubbish and human waste to the list of potential problems.

Outdoor organisations have generally been good at minimising these effects – Surfers Against Sewage in the UK, for example, runs a strong marine litter campaign – and the ‘leave no trace’ ethos (although it is belied by the infamous mountain of rubbish deposited by hikers on Everest) still holds strong but it can be difficult to maintain. Many sports inevitably leave subtle remains that can have a large cumulative effect: rubber worn from bicycle tyres or shoe soles, plastic fragments from broken surfboards and shavings from boat hulls are difficult to avoid and can persist in natural ecosystems for years.

Biodegradability and durability

Even before they reach this stage, the materials and processes used to make this specialist equipment are difficult to assess, because the outdoors market has become a jungle of obfuscating brand names and baffling technical specs. Safety is not an area for compromise – you certainly wouldn’t trust your weight to a recycled carabiner or risk using a second-hand crash helmet – but when it comes to generalised products, such as tops, jackets and boots, there is always a trade-off between biodegradability and durability.

Outdoor gear needs to be waterproof, breathable, hardwearing and/or light, but not many natural materials can stand up to these rigorous demands. As a result, the market for outdoor clothing and equipment is dominated by synthetics such as polyethylene (used in everything from netting to canoes), carbon fibre (fishing rods and high-end bike frames) and nylon (waterproofs). Many of these materials are not biodegradable and until recently there has been no systematic way of assessing how they are manufactured.

Neoprene is a good example. Wetsuits keep surfers warm even in unforgiving British seas but the neoprene they are made from is derived from either petroleum or limestone, neither of which are squeaky clean, and as with many synthetic materials, most of it is made using a toxic chemical process. While no miracle alternative has yet been invented, greener versions are starting to appear. Sports specialist Patagonia, for example, recently introduced a wetsuit with a lining of merino wool instead of laminate. But neoprene is not made to last, and once it has torn it is difficult, and not usually cost-efficient, to repair.

Gore Tex, on the other hand, is now ubiquitous in outdoor coats and shoes, and is incredibly durable. It is popular because it is both waterproof and breathable, due to its membrane design which has thousands of tiny pores. But Gore Tex is made out of PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene, the same ingredient as in Teflon), which is a persistent organic pollutant. Gore Tex argues that it is environmentally friendly because it has a long lifespan, but there are durable alternatives – albeit with a compromise.


Leather walking boots can last a lifetime if looked after properly but come loaded with animals welfare concerns. On the other hand, some vegan boots use synthetic linings that contain silver nanotechnology. Smart Silver, a brand name for nanotechnology using silver, is increasingly being used for outdoor fabrics in products such as baselayers and footwear. When water comes into contact with these tiny silver particles, they release silver ions which prevent the growth of microbes (both bacteria and fungi), so the clothing smells less and does not degrade as quickly.

Smart Silver maintains that it is environmentally friendly, but Friends of the Earth recently released a report raising concerns about such forms of nanotechnology and called for them to be banned until more research has been done.

In terms of clothing, there seems to be general agreement among manufacturers that recycled and recyclable polyester is the way to go. 'Cotton is not good for outdoor or high-impact activities so that’s where synthetics are better in terms of, for example, moisture management,' says Isabelle Susini, environmental manager of Patagonia Europe. 'Our main goal is to make our products as durable as possible.'

Patagonia, which was founded by a man frustrated by climbers leaving bolts in rock faces, addresses the problem of degradability by inviting customers to send back their worn out clothing for recycling or repurposing. In the US, about 45 tonnes of clothing has been returned and upcycled into products such as fly fishing bags, while any materials that can’t yet be recycled or repurposed are stored until a solution is found.


But Ernie Capbert, marketing director of Cornish independent surf brand Finisterre, argues that many outdoor companies make products with higher specifications than are really necessary. 'When was the last time you went camping at minus 15?' he asks me. 'Most people will never be in an environment or situation, such as sleet or snow, where these benefits would play a role. I have to be comfortable and warm but other things don’t matter so much.'

Capbert argues that customers want to know exactly what’s in the products they buy and transparency should be key. But while outdoor enthusiasts are often interested in in technical minutiae of their specialist equipment, there has been a distinct lack of focus on the supply chain of these products.

According to Nick Brown, managing director of Páramo, which has won ethical awards for its outdoor clothing, this is simply a matter of scale. 'The industry provides goods and services to people who have an emotional relationship with the outdoors. Many companies, like ours, were started by people passionate about the outdoors who weren’t satisfied with what there was to offer.

'Now you have a new layer within the industry which is the realisation by more conventional businesses that there is money to be made here and they have a more aggressive approach. It has driven down quality and made it more disposable, yes, and it’s had a tremendous price pressure which has forced cheaper manufacturing with less questions asked. On the other hand as those large companies get above the parapet they are getting more concerned about their image.'

Pile it high, sell it cheap

Many established outdoor brands have been subsumed into conglomerates working on the ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ model boosted by the increasing popularity of staycations and summer festivals. The traditional wax jacket is a good example: it is still one of the best and more sustainable options for rainy, cold UK weather, and can last for years if looked after, but it has a dated reputation and few major retailers stock it.

Brown admits that the outdoor industry, like mainstream clothing, has succumbed to the pressure of fashion. Páramo’s response has been to turn this into a business opportunity by selling its customers repair services and care products.

An ‘Eco-Index’ recently developed by the US Outdoor Industry Association together with the European Outdoor Group is starting to make an impression on the industry. The index measures chemistry and toxics, waste, end of life, packaging and facilities of products in the outdoor industry, as well as labour and social responsibility issues.

However, there is little that can be done on an industry level to tackle the elephant in this massive room. Before you can actually climb a mountain, paddle a river or catch a wave you have to get there and for most of us that means racking up considerable petrol miles, with rear carriers and roofracks carrying bikes, surfboards or boats increasing fuel consumption by to 30 per cent.

Some activities, such as hiking, lend themselves to using public transport but for those carrying lots of specialist kit or travelling to remote locations a car is usually the only realistic option. While a UK-based trip is usually a more environmentally friendly option than a flight abroad, sports fans can try to plan local trips or, if travelling over longer distances, look to stay for a few nights. Joining a specialist club and buddying up to share lifts is another good way to lower your carbon footprint.

We all have a vested interested in looking after the environment but outdoor enthusiasts often see the effects of neglect first hand, so there’s a strong incentive to keep these spaces green – in every sense of the word – as possible.

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