Photo by janeandd.

As travelers, you’d think we would want to help preserve the environment and societies that we visit, marvel at, photograph and write about.

But a recent report by British sustainable living magazine Ethical Consumer has uncovered some nasty secrets behind the kit many of us buy before we set off round the world.

Fleeces

Fleece might sound fluffy and natural, but it’s actually plastic, and made from petrochemicals. The oil industry comes in for plenty of flak since the Gulf of Mexico spill, but day-to-day operations have huge environmental and human rights impacts too – from destroying gray whale habitats around Sakhalin to conflict between oil multinationals and communities in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria.

So for low-impact fleeces? A number of companies – pioneers Patagonia, and now several other brands – offer recycled plastic fleeces. Make sure you opt for ‘100% post-consumer waste’, so that it’s genuinely recycled rather than a way for plastics factories to divert offcuts.

Walking Boots

Photo by Kevin Steinhardt.

Like fleece, leather sounds ‘natural’, but it takes huge amounts of water and feed (sometimes grown on land that used to be virgin rainforests…) to raise cattle for their skins.

The tanning process also uses a whole bunch of nasty chemicals, creating polluting effluent.

Sadly, in consumer tests leather-free boots often didn’t stand up to serious hill conditions. But some outdoor gear manufacturers, including the Mountain Equipment Co-op, Patagonia and North Face, are working with environmental standards organization, Bluesign to raise their game.

Rucksacks

We’re used to hearing about child labor and workers in sweatshop conditions making t-shirts and jeans, but the same issues apply to outdoor equipment.

Ethical Consumer found evidence of poor practices and policies at many big names, including Quechua.

Lowe Alpine and Patagonia came out much better in the workers’ rights rankings.

Cameras

Greenpeace – when they’re not getting in the way of whaling harpoons – produces a ‘Guide to Greener Electronics‘ which looks at whether major brands are cutting their climate change emissions and if your shiny new digital contains toxic chemicals like PVC and brominated flame retardants.

Big names like Samsung and Sharp scrape the bottom of the ranking; Philips, Sony and Panasonic score much better.

Photo by Morten Liebach.

Waterproof Jackets

The scientific jury is still out on whether nanotechnology is safe, as environmentalists and health campaigners are still concerned that microscopic nanoparticles may react differently to ordinary chemicals.

Despite this, some outdoor gear brands boast of the properties that nanotech coatings give their waterproofs – from water resistance to anti-wrinkle textures or stain or odor resistance.

Paramo, with its solid environmental policy, got the best score in Ethical Consumer‘s report, while names like Salomon and Arc’Teryx came bottom of the rankings.

Sleeping bags

Where do you think the cozy stuffing for that lovely warm down sleeping bag came from? A by-product of the meat industry, coming from an animal destined for roasting, perhaps?

Wrong.

The feathers used in down products often come from birds kept just for this purpose, which means they have their breasts plucked repeatedly while they are alive and conscious.

Animal welfare organization, Four Paws urges consumers to pick feather-free sleeping bags and down jackets.

Tents

Photo by Katie@!.

None of the 29 tent brands which Ethical Consumer magazine looked at had the kind of basic policies to protect workers from exploitation which any decent-sized firm can be expected to develop nowadays.

With little else to differentiate between company ethics, Vango‘s Eco range garnered some praise for containing recycled materials.

Laptops

Manufacturing laptops uses extraordinary amounts of resources – water, energy, plastic and rare metals such as the notorious coltan, mining of which has fueled bloody conflicts in the Congo and helped push species such as the mountain gorilla to the brink of extinction.

A reconditioned or remanufactured laptop from a solid brand such as IBM or Toshiba will often last longer, and cost less, than a cheap new machine.

Community Connection

Worried about production ethics behind some of your favorite brands? Check out the following articles:

Top 10 Adventure Gear Companies You Should Know And Why
12 Items That Will Make Your Travels Greener
10 Tested And True Green Companies
10 Brands That Don’t Deserve To Declare Themselves “Green”