Instead of feeling hopeless about the current state of the global environment, we as consumers, advocates and outdoor enthusiasts can take an empowered stance and make meaningful decisions that help preserve the planet and the places that we love.
“The scope of climate change is huge and it can feel overwhelming,” says Josie Kinney, communications manager for Rugged Thread, an outdoor gear repair company based in Bend, Oregon. “So having something you can do that has a real, tangible impact is important.”
That something, according to Kinney, can be as straightforward as taking better care of the items we own, and taking it upon ourselves to repair, recycle or repurpose our outdoor gear when it gets damaged — or well worn — instead of just throwing it ‘away’.
According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), the seemingly simple act of extending the life of a garment by 9 months can lower its environmental impact by 20 to 30 percent.
Stop and think about that for a moment. Repairing, repurposing or continuing to keep a garment in use instead of upgrading to this season's new colorway, for just nine months, allows you to palpably lower your overall footprint. Now, that’s something we can all do.
This is especially significant in a world where products made from petrochemicals, as is the case with a lot of our outdoor gear, have a cumulative, damaging effect on our atmosphere — both when sitting in landfills, and in the extraction and processing of raw materials to make new items.
But maybe you don’t know how to sew, or perhaps your local seamstress doesn’t have the proper equipment to fix your sacred, technical outdoor gear. Lucky for us, repair gurus, recommerce sites and a growing number of creative, innovative solutions for upcycling well-worn gear are on the rise.
“We can repair pretty much every single thing that comes through our door,” says Kim Kinney, founder of Rugged Thread, which fixes everything from tarps and tents, to backpacks, sleeping bags and waterproof gear, “and it leaves here beautiful and durable for a really fair price.”
Rugged Thread fixed more than 5,000 items in 2021, and this year they are on track to repair between 8,000 and 10,000 items.
As a small company of eight people, they’ve kept more than 40,000 pounds of textiles out of the landfill and drastically cut down on the CO2 emissions and resource depletion that would have resulted from making new, replacement gear.
The reality is that the majority of outdoor gear that we are throwing ‘away’ really only has minor damage, like a broken zipper, missing buckle or small tear. The bigger truth is, as Neza Peterca, gear repair technician and founder of What Happened Outdoors? points out, there really is no ‘away’.
“One of the biggest problems with our developed world is that if something isn’t happening right in front of our eyes, we don’t see the impact and we don’t take it as seriously,” says Neza, who has been repairing gear in Slovenia since 2017.
“If everything we threw ‘away’ ended up in a pile on our front lawn, we would think differently about how we end-of-life our gear,” she added.
Both Neza and Kim agree that there has been a resurgence in recent years of people (like you!) choosing to get their gear repaired instead of repurchasing, or being replaced by a brand’s warranty program. And, they say, the reasons are as individual as the people who send in their gear.
“There are those who grow emotionally attached to the things they own; there is the financial aspect of replacement; and then there are people who just want to do the right thing,” Kim said.
“As a repair company, we acknowledge the role we play in educating and influencing our clientele to make the best decision for themselves and the planet,” Kim added.
Over in Europe, repairs on an individual and corporate level have been a more commonplace practice for a longer period of time than in North America. Many companies have their own in-house repair technicians, or outsource their work to people like Neza.
“I’m a really good problem solver,” laughs Neza, who’s also renown for her sewing skills. Time and again, Neza discovers that damaged gear holds stories; scars of people’s adventures.
“One of my favorite things about gear repair is asking people ‘What Happened?’ and living vicariously through their stories,” she said. “You get a sense of who they are and how they live and you feel honored that they trust you to repair their important gear.”
If we took Neza’s mindset, and truly looked at our gear as extensions of ourselves, as important, or even sacred, would we make different decisions when it comes to purchases and maintenance?
Perhaps we would approach the initial acquisition of gear with more forethought. Do I really need this? Can I make do with what I already have? Can this garment be easily repaired? What will I do with it when I no longer want/ need it? Can it be repurposed? Does the company have a repair, recycling or recommerce program?
As the demand for transparency, repairability and closed-loop manufacturing from conscious consumers like you grows, it drives the trend from the ground up. Businesses and brands respond to public outcry, and it shifts the course of action.
“I care, you care, she cares, they care,” Kim said, “and then the brands have to care too, and then they do something about it.” More than lip service, they have to take action.
In addition to taking on repairs from individuals, companies like Rugged Thread and What Happened Outdoors? work with brands, both big and small, to fix warranty items, repurpose used gear, and get items ready for recommerce sites, like Trove.
These collaborations have led to progressive, inquisitive thinking in the design rooms of multinational companies. Called ‘Design For Repair’ or DFR, the idea is that gear and garments are designed from the get go to be easily fixed; something an individual with average sewing skills, or a local seamstress, could manage.
Which led me to wonder, how can we avoid needing repairs in the first place? Because, when people aren’t sure of best practices and maintenance and laundering, landfills often pay the price — with your wallet throwing a temper tantrum too.
“You can avoid needing repairs by buying a quality item that you know is made well and is going to last you a long time,” Josie said. “Then you can help it last, by taking care of your zippers and washing, drying and storing your items correctly so you can continue to keep them in use.”
Taking care of your zippers means washing them with mild soap and water, brushing the grit out of the teeth, closing them when you launder items, and not attaching things like ski passes or whistles to the zipper slider, which can damage them.
Neza adds that one of the things she most often repairs are poorly cared for 3L waterproof membrane jackets.
“It’s recommended that you wash your 3L jacket every 21 wears, or if it's heavily soiled, with regular, liquid detergent in a washing machine,” Neza said, “and then dry it on low, with the zippers closed so you don’t melt the teeth.”
The dryer step is important because it reinvigorates the DWR coating. If your waterproof layers start ‘wetting-out’, it’s time to reimpregnate them with a DWR treatment (directions are specific to each product).
Neza recommends using a wash-in treatment, like Grangers or Nikwax, and then doing a second wash cycle after the impregnation treatment, where you don’t add any soap or treatment, to fully flush the jacket, before putting it in the dryer, zippers done up, on low.
It’s up to us to take a keen interest in all the small things we can do to preserve and protect our gear … and, in turn, our planet. We have the agency to choose whether we repair, repurpose, recycle, donate or recommerce our damaged or no longer needed goods.
If we take a more conscious approach to how we select, maintain, build relationships with, and end-of-life our gear, we’ll be able to tangibly lower our negative impact. That’s something to feel good about.
Ali Becker is a freelance adventure writer and narrative storyteller who shares compelling conversations about personal transformations, overcoming limitations, wellness education and adventurous situations. You can follow her rambling adventures on social at @thisisalibecker or at her blog thisisalibecker.com.