You follow the three R’s, ride your bike to work, value wild places and you never litter. You probably feel like you’re doing your part to make the world a better place. But there’s a dirty secret hanging in your closet, stuffed in the gear shed and hanging off your waist right now.

“Next to petroleum, fashion is probably the most polluting industry,” says Mark Angelo, a clean water advocate based in British Columbia. “As an individual, the clothing we wear is one of the biggest ways we contribute to water waste and pollution, but is the least recognized.”

For us outdoorsy people we can extrapolate this truth to technical jackets, packs, sleeping bags and tents. All these products are full of plastics, fibres, feathers and textiles that require huge amounts of energy and water to manufacture and are treated with chemicals so they’ll bead water, resist odour or won’t light on fire. And just as Angelo discovered with the clothes we wear, the production of these products often has huge environmental costs.

He documented the impact of the fashion industry on the world’s rivers in the film River Blue, which is making rounds in the festival circuit now. Where he saw fisherman making a living in China or Indonesia 20 years ago, effluent from the textile industry has created a lifeless black soup in the same waters today. Leather and denim are especially hard on water consumption and quality. But the message of the film, says Angelo, is not one of despair but one of inspiring change.

The outdoor industry is already pushing for improvements. A recent step was the transition from nasty long-chain PFCs, used in water-repellant treatments, to shorter-chain less noxious alternatives. Recycled and organic fabrics are more and more common. Fair trade and ethical factory conditions are standards upheld by a growing list of companies.

Of course, some companies and products are leading and others lagging. Knowing the difference is up to you.

“It can be challenging and confusing for consumers to obtain specific information about the chemical production process, as well as understanding it,” says Claire Germanas, MEC’s director of sourcing. She recommends digging into the company’s website—try the “About,” “Mission” or “Values” section—and look for a commitment to sustainability and ethical work practises.

Or just look for the Bluesign label. The Swiss company works with suppliers, factories and manufacturers to audit their environmental and worker standards. Like an organic or fair trade label, it’s an audited measure that testifies to the product’s sustainability.

It’s one more choice we can all make to do our part. “Consumers demanded organic produce and now we have it in every grocery store,” points out Angelo. “If we all demand more sustainable apparel options, we’ll get them too.” 

The Good Ones

Many brands are innovating to reduce their environmental impact. Here are a few leaders:

Columbia Sportswear: Developed the first waterproof-breathable jacket without any PFCs (OutDry ECO). It’s also made from recycled plastic.

Patagonia: Cleaning up denim, one of the most polluting textiles, by using organic cotton, fair labour and less water.

Adidas: With Parley for the Ocean, they’re pioneering the use of recycled fishing nets in clothing and footwear.

MEC: Eighty-three per cent of their apparel and sleeping bags is made with Bluesign approved materials.

Burton: Uses only PFC-free DWR on all apparel and 84 per cent of their Performance outerwear is Bluesign certified.

Oboz & TenTree: Every purchase leads to trees planted.

Cotopaxi: Every product they make is tied to a project that improves lives in developing countries around the world.