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Responsible Consumerism In The Outdoor Industry

Hikers in the fores

The more time we spend in nature, the more we will care about the environment and take action in the climate crisis, right?

While this is a common notion to fall back on, it may not be as accurate as you think. Since the 1970s, there have been a few sociological studies looking at the correlation between participating in outdoor recreation and involvement in environmental movements. These often look at individual actions and involvement.

Across time it appears that we may talk about conservation and other environmental topics openly and often. But simply enjoying time in the mountains or on a hiking trail does not mean we know how to get involved (let alone if we ever will take action once we know how).

Being intrinsically motivated to preserve the areas in which we recreate only gets us so far.

Holistically, environmental implications are only a small part of the equation when it comes to the sustainability of our outdoor gear and apparel. What about the workers? What about product durability? What about product function and accessibility?

Being a responsible consumer takes time. It takes research, and it takes compassion. It may feel as if many decisions are beyond our control. It also might seem like the most fault lies within the companies producing, marketing, and selling us gear.

Yes, we are limited in our selection and can be manipulated by marketing. Still, the more educated we become regarding responsible consumerism, the better equipped we are to make better buying decisions.

Ethical consumerism vs. sustainable consumerism vs. conscious consumerism

There are a lot of terms that fly around, and they may not always mean the same thing. So, let’s define them.

  • Ethical consumerism: based on the concept of “dollar voting,” ethical consumerism is a form of consumer activism. The main focus is put on buying ethically and locally produced goods.
  • Sustainable consumerism: focused on environmental sustainability, sustainable consumerism (or consumption) look at the environmental impacts of products in terms of materials used, energy outputs, etc. It looks at preserving resources now and for future generations.
  • Conscious consumerism: making purchases based on positive political, social, economic, and environmental impacts.
  • Responsible consumerism: focused on environmental impacts, a responsible consumer looks at the entire product life cycle and its impacts. Often grouped with ethical consumerism, a responsible consumer looks at the social and ethical impacts of product production.

However you define it, they all have a similar goal: more awareness that leads to more educated product purchases.

For the sake of this conversation, we are going to use the term “responsible consumerism” as an all-encompassing phrase that reflects the roots of all of the definitions above.

Snow on trees and blue sky

Why responsible consumerism is important

Being a responsible consumer doesn’t always feel impactful or all that important. There may be some truth to these thoughts and feelings because as one single person among 7+ billion, your actions may not make much of a difference when you’re standing alone.

The difference comes into play when we look at individual action that becomes collective action. An example of this is boycotting certain companies, whether it is for ethical or environmental reasons.

If just one person boycotts them, it does not hurt their bottom line. If 90% of their consumer base boycotts them, they will notice because they’re losing economically. Then they are forced to either change or die out.

While we may know that making moves and making changes are important, what changes make the most difference in the outdoor industry?

While other industries (i.e., agriculture) have far more political clout and environmental impact, we are going to look at the outdoor industry only.

In my experience, most outdoor recreationists (and businesses in the industry) put a lot of attention on the impact we have when directly interacting with wild spaces. This would include Leave No Trace principles, overcrowding in National Parks, or requiring permits and reservations.

These are necessary and hold a lot of value when put into practice. However, responsible consumerism is also essential in the outdoor industry because when we produce products from finite and polluting materials, that process arguably has a more significant impact than the act of hiking or paddling as a hobby.

Think about your gear closet, including all of your outdoor clothes. What is the most common material? My guess is something synthetic and petrol-based like polyester or nylon or a blend of a few. Then, we have toxic coatings, solvents, and dyes that all pollute during production, use, and in their afterlife. Yet, these are sold to us as the best available option.

A lot of that production is far from our view with a large percentage being overseas. This creates an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality many of us are guilty of, myself included. Then where these products are produced and who is making them begs an ethical and social question as well.

Being responsible consumers, we have to look at the ethical and environmental impacts of the gear we buy. I can already see the hamster wheels turning in your heads because you’re right; it isn’t fair to put the brunt of this issue onto the consumer. After all, the businesses make these product decisions in design, sourcing, and production, not us.

Unfortunately, although sustainability is seemingly at the forefront of many outdoor industry businesses, they are still a business. They set out to make money by selling a product, whether or not it is solving a problem that exists. In some cases, that means cutting corners to cut costs, no matter the impact.

That’s where the consumer comes into play (as well as certifications and some regulations). Businesses need to be held accountable. Consumers can set a standard that requires transparency during every step of the production and marketing process.

Thrift store sign

How to be a responsible consumer in the outdoor industry

Here are a few actionable ways we can be more responsible consumers in the outdoor industry:

01Buy less

We are all likely familiar with the traditional three Rs: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Well, although recycling is often flaunted and remembered the most frequently, when these three Rs were pushed out as an environmental campaign, they were put in order of importance.

Yep. That means reducing consumption has long been recommended as the best approach to many environmental issues.

How can we reduce consumption?

First, understand your needs and evaluate your intended use when buying gear and clothing. While it can be tempting to go out and buy an entire backpacking set up as you enter this new hobby, take a step back and evaluate the necessity of those items.

List the items that you deem necessary for that activity. Being intentional with buying is essential, which means interrupting the temptation to purchase something impulsively.

Once you have a list, you can then begin your search. Before you jump to the second section about buying secondhand, see if there are items you can borrow from friends or rent. Especially when it comes to big-ticket gear items, it is helpful to have a few examples to try out. See how much you like the activity and the gear before investing.

02Buy secondhand

If you decide you need new gear. Consider buying secondhand. Buying secondhand gives a product a new life and extends its usefulness to a new person. Before going to a gear consignment store or buying from a place like REI’s “Good and Used,” search buy nothing groups online or ask friends if they have any gear they no longer want or use.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Many outdoor recreation generalists get involved in activities but lose interest leaving them with a closet full of unused gear items.

If you’ve expired those contacts, branch out to local gear consignment shops. These are great, especially if you are starting a new activity. Like other gear retail stores, most consignment store owners are very knowledgeable and work hard to point customers in the right direction.

Other options include online marketplaces that specialise in reselling used gear.

03Do your research

Whether you are buying new or used, do your research ahead of time. Many companies share comprehensive details about their products on their websites, and if they don’t appear to be transparent, move to the next option.

Transparency is essential in building trust with consumers and allows businesses to highlight sustainable and ethical practises.

Look at their about page, read the company mission and values, research their sustainability information, and see if they have any third-party certifications like 1% for the Planet and BCorp Certified.

Then, look at verified customer reviews for current and up-to-date information about quality, durability, and customer service.

04Repair, repurpose, and rehome

Once you have your gear, maintain it properly. Keep it clean, store it well, and use it as intended. Even if you buy used gear, you can often find care instructions for products online. Taking good care of your gear will help extend its life with you and potentially anyone else you may rehome it to down the line.

No matter how well you maintain gear, there is always the possibility of needing a repair. Some companies offer a lifetime repair policy. If that’s the case, utilise it! They will provide a higher quality repair than most of us can do at home, and sometimes if they can’t fix it, they may replace it and use the scrap material for new products.

Once the gear has reached the end of its life with you, consider repurposing it or rehoming it. Companies like CragDog, Green Guru, and Metamorphic Gear accept certain types of old gear and repurpose it into something new, like dog leashes or bike bags.

Lastly, if you can, recycle it. Most gear is very difficult to recycle, but if the company has a recycling program in place, use it. Recycling should be a last resort after repairing and rehoming as it uses more resources during the process.

05Use your voice

Finally, let your voice be heard! Write to companies about changes you’d like to see them make. Keep them accountable for areas they are not being completely transparent.

While comments on social media are quick and easy, they often are forgotten and can be deleted. Instead, write personalised emails and letters to the decision-makers in the company. State the issue as well as a potential solution. Businesses often take these inquiries seriously, and you never know, maybe you’re presenting an alternative they haven’t thought of yet.

We can also use our voices to reach out to lawmakers regarding conservation efforts, area regulations, and other policies.

Even these small changes make a difference, especially if we join together to take collective action.

About the author

Meg Carney Author

Meg Carney is an outdoor and environmental writer specializing in outdoor industry topics, trends, and gear. She is the author of the upcoming book Outdoor Minimalist: Waste Less Hiking, Camping, and Backpacking and the host of the Outdoor Minimalist Podcast. Learn more about her work at

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