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Paper beer bottles and waterless dye: Here’s how outdoor companies are getting creative to reduce their environmental impact

Gearmakers and retailers large and small are rethinking every aspect of their operation, from water and energy use to packaging and production strategies

Shelves lined with Chaco footwear at the Outdoor Retailer trade show. The company is among the first in the outdoor industry to use e.dye’s waterless process to color fabric. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)
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This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Existing members, click here to learn how to upgrade)

Just about every business in the outdoor realm today is exploring ways to reduce its impact on the climate and environment. 

Spend an hour strolling the Outdoor Retailer trade show and it’s impossible to miss the frenzied focus on “sustainability.”

Gearmakers and retailers large and small are rethinking every aspect of their operation, from water and energy use to packaging and production strategies. 

Here are three of my favorite examples of outdoor-centric companies taking on sustainability as a pillar of their work:

E.DYE

Jim Chi and Carol Little with e.dye at the Outdoor Retailer trade show. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

“Everyone is putting out some effort right now to improve their position in terms of sustainability,” said Jim Chi, the head of sales for e.dye, a company that has created a new fabric-dyeing process that drastically reduces the use of water and chemicals. “The novelty has worn off because this is the new norm.”

It takes about 3 gallons of water to dye a yard of fabric. The new e.dye process slashes water use and energy consumption by injecting pigments into the polyester that makes yarn, instead of dyeing the finished fabric.

“We are eliminating entire factories from the process by cutting out dyeing,” said Chi, noting that Chaco has created an entire line of its sandals using e.dyed straps. 

CLIMATE NEUTRAL

The Climate Neutral certification program unveiled at last week’s Outdoor Retailer show is enlisting brands that want to share — warts and all — their carbon footprint. 

The idea is to corral companies and consumers in a movement where products labeled with carbon-tracking and carbon offsets are as common as stuff tagged organic or “Made in the USA.” 

The nonprofit program helps companies track how much energy it takes to design, build, ship and sell products, and how much of that energy results in carbon that clogs our atmosphere. Then the certification plan has those companies purchase carbon credits that help restore forests or capture methane and ultimately negate the carbon used in their business. 

Lastly, the companies that sign up for climate-neutral certification form a plan for reducing their carbon footprint. 

The idea is to get more companies buying carbon offsets, which Conservation International’s Agustin Silvani describes as “the currency that supports sustainable development in developing countries.” (Silvani helps create new financial incentives to projects such as supporting sustainable fisheries and helping farmers so they don’t raze a forest to grow crops.)

Hana Kajimura, the sustainability manager for direct-to-consumer shoemaker Allbirds, said her company has a built-in carbon tax of about 10 cents on every pair of shoes it sells.

“For us, this is about a sense of urgency,” she said.

Peter Dering, the founder and chief of the Bay Area’s Peak Design, hopes the climate-neutral certification program he developed with Jonathan Cedar — the creator of the BioLite’s solar-powered lamps and electricity-generating, wood-burning camp stoves — moves well beyond the outdoor industry. 

“We are removing the friction to act on climate and get carbon-neutral certified,” Dering said. 

Dering in 2017 rounded up all the impacts from Peak Designs, determining his production, operations and sales — basically everything involved in making and selling 300 shipping containers’ worth of plastic, metal and fabric packs. It amounted to adding about 20,000 metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere. He was able to offset that impact with $60,000. That’s about one-fifth of 1% of Peak Designs’ net revenue for the year, he said. 

“This is affordable,” Dering said. “If everybody does this, it will make a serious impact. It is not free to remove carbon from the atmosphere. So we need to see the price of carbon rise. The price of carbon should be exactly the price it costs to remove carbon from the environment.”

Cedar’s has been offsetting BioLite’s impact since he shipped his first stove in 2012. This certification program makes it easier for brands to build trust with consumers who are keen to buy products that stir a smaller impact on the world. 

“Enough of waiting for someone else to take action,” he told a packed audience of gearmakers and retailers at the trade show. “This is a recipe for action you can take today.”

BILLERUDKORSNӒS

Reps from the don’t-even-try-to-pronounce-it Swedish packaging company were all over the Outdoor Retailer show, interviewing dozens of companies eager to explore ways to upend timeworn packaging processes that put plastic-wrapped products in boxes that slip into more boxes before reaching stores or consumers.

BillerudKorsnӓs — born from companies with long histories in both the forestry and paper industries — uses paper-based, recyclable materials that help brands reduce waste. The company, for example, is working on a recyclable paper bottle for beer and soda.

The company works with hundreds of brands and is developing new relationships in the outdoor industry. 

“This industry is so youthful and they are really valuing the planet,” said Robert Testa, who heads sales for the BillerudKorsnӓs’ U.S. office in Portland, Oregon. “There are so many B-Corps here. The outdoor industry is more sustainable than any other industry on the planet. Are they willing to pay more money? That is still being determined, but we are both committed to sustainability, and ultimately that will pay off.” 

Rising Sun