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Lifecycle of a Jacket – Uncommon Path – An REI Co-op Publication

We love our gear—our sleeping bags keep us cozy; our tents shield us from the elements; and our hiking boots take us on exciting adventures, both near and far. But the process of making and disposing of that gear has an impact on the planet, and it starts long before that item ever joins us outside. That’s because manufacturing our favorite stuff—from producing raw materials to shipping the finished product—carries its own carbon footprint. And, well, it adds up. 

The good news is that many outdoor companies are finding better ways to produce gear and apparel while reducing carbon emissions through practices like using recycled materials and designing products that last. But consumers too have the power to embrace these lower-impact production methods by purchasing from environmentally conscious brands. They can also minimize their own footprint by taking actions like keeping gear in use longer and buying used items. Of course, it’s easier to make these choices when we understand how brands approach their social and environmental costs.  

“We all need products, but every product has an environmental impact,” says Greg Gausewitz, senior manager of product sustainability at REI. “To minimize that impact, it’s a matter of being thoughtful when choosing what to buy.” 

Here, follow us as we break down the impacts of producing a popular jacket, the REI Co-op 650 Down Jacket 2.0, from dyeing materials to the final stitching. Though impacts can vary from product to product, this provides a general idea of what goes into making a new item. We detail how outdoor brands are working to lessen planet-warming emissions at each stage and, importantly, what consumers may want to consider when researching and buying gear with a lighter environmental toll.

After all, reducing our product footprint is one of many ways we can be better stewards of the environment.

Illustration of a tractor tilling land.

Producing and Processing Raw Materials

What happens at these stages? Producing raw materials like cotton, hemp or synthetic fibers used to make your garment is where everything begins. For the 650 Down Jacket, for instance, this step involves the extraction of natural resources, like petroleum, to later make the jacket’s nylon exterior. It also includes sourcing metals like aluminum to make zippers.

Processing the materials, meanwhile, involves steps that include turning raw materials into fibers. For other jackets, this could include processes like spinning cotton into yarn, prepping the yarn for weaving and, in most cases, dyeing it.

What’s the environmental impact? The process of extracting or growing each material has its own cost to the planet. For example, cotton grown on a farm has many different impacts: Tractors emit pollution into the air, tilled soil can release planet-warming carbon, creating farmable land could require cutting down trees. Another example is the extraction of petroleum to make nylon, a synthetic fiber. Petroleum is a nonrenewable resource taken from the planet’s limited fossil fuel stock. And these are just a few of many ways producing raw materials could harm the environment.

During the processing stage, materials may be washed and dried, which requires significant amounts of water and energy. This phase can contribute carbon emissions and air and water pollution, among other impacts.  

For the down jacket, REI designers opted to use recycled nylon, which keeps waste materials out of landfills and requires less energy to make than conventional nylon. Some brands manufacture items using repurposed materials like used fishing nets and yarn left over from other manufacturing processes. Reusing materials also reduces the need to grow or extract new ones.

How can consumers help? Pay attention to sustainability attributes of the products you buy. By purchasing items that meet certain environmental standards, you’re supporting brands that are working to minimize their harm to the planet. Look for third-party certifications like the bluesign® certification, which helps ensure leading practices are in place at key steps of the supply chain to prevent harmful substances from entering the manufacturing process. Read more on how to choose sustainable clothing and gear.

So how do you know which products are made with these attributes? Often, a brand will have it printed somewhere on the item or listed on their website. A couple places you can look: in the product specs online, on a garment’s hangtag or, if it’s a jacket or shirt, inside the collar near where a size might be listed. Another thing to look for when buying is whether the product is made with recycled materials.

Illustration of person sewing a garment

Finishing the Material

What happens at this stage? In the case of the down jacket, this would include processes like weaving and knitting the fabric and adding details such as the jacket’s zippers.  

What’s the environmental impact? This stage often accounts for the largest impacts to the environment. That’s mainly because a lot of water, energy, and chemicals are used during this phase to wash and dye the fabric of the jacket.

“You’re heating up huge amounts of water, and that heat requires a lot of resources and energy,” Gausewitz says.

What can be done to mitigate impacts? This is where you really see the benefits of using certified materials, like bluesign®, Gausewitz said. Factories approved by bluesign® must meet stringent standards for water and energy use, so they end up using fewer resources at this traditionally energy-intensive stage. Working with factories that use clean electricity coming from solar or wind could also decarbonize the process.

How can consumers help? At the risk of sounding redundant – prioritize purchasing from brands that are certified bluesign®, Fair Trade or use recycled materials. It really makes a difference.

Illustration of jackets on a rack.

Finished Product

What happens at this stage? Now that the fabrics are dyed, it’s time to cut and stitch the down jacket’s fabrics together before the garment hits the shelves and, ultimately, joins you on your next adventure. By the end of this phase, the garment looks pretty much like what you end up seeing at the store and is ready to be shipped.

What’s the environmental impact? The environmental harm is minimal in this part of production. The machinery that’s cutting and stitching the fabric is typically powered by electricity and is fairly efficient. And there’s very little drying or washing.

What can be done to mitigate impact? Brands have significant influence at this stage. As we mentioned, it’s important for brands to consider using recycled materials. But they can also decide which factories to work with to create the finished product. One factor for choosing a factory is the Higg Index, which is a set of tools used for measuring sustainability within the supply chain. Gausewitz says brands and retailers, including REI, can look at how a factory has scored on the index and use it to compare various factories or fabric mills. This doesn’t necessarily mean factories perform perfectly on all sustainability criteria. But brands and retailers can choose factories approaching sustainability well and work with them over time to improve. For instance, leaders at the co-op have conversations with suppliers about the importance of sustainability. They set goals and measure progress.

Illustration of used clothing.

What about the lifecycle of a used garment?

Good question. Used garments sometimes undergo processing or cleaning before they’re ready for sale, and those can vary considerably from item to item. For instance, some products, like sleeping bags, require a more rigorous wash than non-bedding items. And a bike may require a more carbon-intensive shipping process. But overall, a used product has a lesser environmental impact compared to a new one because there’s no need to produce or process raw materials or wash or dye fabrics (both of which use up a lot of energy and resources).

One caveat: Buying used is only a more sustainable decision when you’re purchasing something you need instead of purchasing something new. If, for instance, you’re in the market for a rain jacket and decide to purchase a used one, that’s an environmentally conscious choice. If, however, you already own two functional rain jackets and buy a third one on impulse, you’re ultimately consuming more of something you don’t need.

Sustainable Upkeep

You can also minimize your environmental footprint while you enjoy your gear. Here are a few ideas:

Avoid buying more than you need. We love good gear as much as you do, but do you really need that third jacket or a fourth pair of hiking boots? Enjoy the gear you have and be judicious about how often you replace it.

Take care of your stuff. The longer you use your gear and apparel before replacing it, the better. To get the most out of your stuff, wash your garments according to their instructions and repair ripped clothing or damaged gear. It also helps to keep your items clean and dry and to store them correctly.

Consider a microfiber washing bag. Did you know that when you wash your clothes, your washing machine sends hundreds of thousands of microfibers into our waterways? These fibers are actually tiny strands of fabric and come from all types of materials like cotton, hemp, polyester and nylon. The best way to minimize your microplastic pollution is to wash your clothes less often, use a front-loading washer or invest in a microfiber washing bag.

Trade in your gear. You may outgrow your gear before it’s truly ready to be retired. That’s OK. Instead of sending it to a landfill, consider trading it in for a digital REI gift card. You get credit for your next pursuit, and your well-loved gear gets to adventure on with someone else. It’s a win-win.

Rent instead of buying. Whether you’re considering a lifelong hobby or just want to try something new, renting gives you the option of feeling out the sport while also testing the gear. Plus, it’s more affordable than overhauling your gear closet. REI is among many retailers who offer rentals, from camping gear to snowshoes.

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