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How Green is Your Gear?

Clothing companies and the hike toward greener pastures

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Synthetic standbys such as polyester and nylon have been "go-to" materials for decades in outdoor adventuring and foul-weather gear, thanks to their moisture-wicking, quick drying and warmth retention properties. But they're quickly being surpassed by a new fabrics crafted from organic plant-based materials.

Soybeans have moved beyond the wok and into outdoor clothing, with industry insiders dubbing soy fabric the "vegetable cashmere" due to its soft texture. Ex-Officio's Tofutech Tee Shirt, for instance, retains warmth and resists wrinkles like many of its competitors, but it is made of entirely soy-based, fully biodegradable fabric.

"Soy is a renewable resource that offers many benefits similar to natural and synthetic fibers without the necessity of adding chemical treatments," says Monica Smith, ExOfficio's director of product development.

Another forward-thinking, all-natural fabric is Cocona, which is derived from coconut husks discarded from the food service industry. Cocona helps traditional fabrics resist moisture, control odor and shield ultraviolet radiation. Some 40 outdoor clothing manufacturers, including GoLite, Marmot, Sierra Designs and Royal Robbins, incorporated Cocona into their 2007 product lines.

Not to be outdone is Patagonia, a company many consider to be the granddaddy of sustainable outdoor gear. The California-based company sources all of the cotton in its shirts, pants, outerwear and underwear from 100 percent organic producers. In 1993, Patagonia crafted its signature polyester fleece outerwear from recycled soda bottles—saving some 86 million Coke and Pepsi cast-offs from the trash heap. Today, the company is reducing energy and resource use by melting down customers' discards, which become new jackets and sweaters. This year Patagonia launched a new line of footwear made from organic cotton, latex made from the milk of Hevea trees, hemp, recycled rubber soles and laces made from vegetable waste.

Oregon-based outdoor clothing manufacturer and retailer Nau was launched last year with strong green production values. Every item in the company's diverse line of outdoor-oriented clothing uses one of three types of sustainable fabrics: recycled polyester from soda bottles, cotton from certified organic producers or the renewable corn-based plastic-alternative polylactic acid (PLA). The company's four retail outlets were designed from the ground up to make use of reclaimed timber, energy-efficient lighting and an innovative "ship-to-you" program that cuts down on the need for costly in-store storage space and energy use.

Shoemaker Timberland's new line of Greenscapes sneakers is crafted from vegetable-tanned leather and hand-sewn to avoid toxic adhesives. The laces are made from recycled polyester and the outsoles from recycled rubber.

According to Betsy Blaisdell, the company's manager of environmental stewardship, "Our broad, overarching goal is to measure our impact and to be transparent and accountable to our stakeholders." Timberland includes a "Green Index" with new shoes that details the products' environmental footprint. It is working with the Outdoor Industry Association to take this index industry-wide.

Along with Timberland, Seattle-based Recreational Equipment, Inc. is one of the founding members of OIA's new Eco-Working Group, composed of representatives from 75 different companies. REI recently announced its own "eco-sensitive" label to demarcate its own sustainable products. The company's designers released a new line with clothing made from organic cotton, bamboo, hemp, organic wool, recycled polyester and PLA.

"We are moving from a grassroots approach to a formalized commitment to environmental performance in our products," says Lee Fromson, the company's vice president of gear and apparel. "Many of our customers recognize that their purchase decisions have a direct impact on the natural world."

OIA considers such efforts key to its mission of working to raise the standards of the industry and supporting future innovation.

"One of the big strides many of our companies have taken is considering the entire life cycle of their products," says Ann Oben-chain, OIA vice president of member services. "Instead of just using recycled materials, they're thinking about the end of the product's life."

With so many technologically advanced and environmentally friendly options to choose from, outdoorsy types may need to restock their wardrobes. After wearing out their old clothes, of course.

This article first appeared in E/The Environmental Magazine.