What good are you?

portraits by Charlotta Janssen www.charlottajanssen.com

In recent days environmental activist Tim DeChristopher began serving a two-year sentence in federal prison. Back in March the Utah economics student was convicted on two felony charges: making a false statement and violating laws on oil and gas leasing. He was also fined $10,000. Having disrupted a controversial auction to sell off the mining rights to public lands near two National Parks, DeChristopher committed in his words an act of civil disobedience in the hopes of doing good on behalf of the environment and future generations on this fragile planet.

In 2008 shortly after his arrest but long before his trial I met Tim during the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Salt Lake City. We spoke at length in an interview and spent some time walking the trade show floor. Frankly I was curious to know what he thought about the event and the outdoor recreation industry. I recall being surprised by his response.

“It’s seems like there’s a lot of waste and consumption around here,” Tim said. “I don’t think being outside means you have to buy all this stuff.”

At the time Tim’s words really resonated with me. This man who was prepared to sacrifice so much in order to protect the natural environment looked upon our industry with a degree contempt, maybe even pity, as if to say, “You guys just don’t get it.” And in the months since, especially now that he’ll spend the next two years of his life behind bars I have to wonder. In the business of outdoor recreation exactly what good are we doing to protect the land, air and water that make our industry possible?

When the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market opens this week I’m personally going to have my eye out for those companies, organizations and individuals that are blending their business with environmental protection and/or working to encourage more people to become stewards of nature. In these days of shrinking wilderness, melting glaciers and oceans littered with plastic waste it’s not enough to make excellent clothing, equipment and footwear. I believe we each must do our part in the good work of natural resource preservation. And through the week’s event I will continually ask of myself and others following question: What Good are you?

I really want to know.  I believe that just as the automobile industry is now judged most stringently upon vehicle fuel economy, the outdoor industry will be judged upon the value each consumer product brings to the cause of conservation. Specific items like clothing made of organic cotton or recycled polyester fabrics, for example, deprive landfills of non-biodegradable waste materials that add to our growing pollution problem.

Patagonia, a company that supports this blog, has offered the industry a great example of a closed-loop production cycle through its Common Threads program. Not only does the company make new garments from recycled materials Patagonia also takes in used polyester clothing to make new fabric, a portion of which will become the next generation of new products.

Fabric manufacturer Polartec is partnering with fiber-maker Unifi to follow Patagonia’s example by introducing a new line of recycled fibers under the name Repreve. In a new “take-back” program the companies plan to repurpose supply-chain waste fabrics and post-consumer fabrics that have reached their end of life.

“In typical garment manufacturing, 8 to 15 percent of all fabric produced becomes cut-waste left over after panels are cut,” says Andy Vecchione, president and CEO of Polartec in a press release. “This fabric has historically been down cycled into batting or simply sent to the landfill. We can now use this waste stream to create new, first-quality performance Polartec fabrics.”

Innovations like these will soon be factored into the purchasing decisions of most consumers of outdoor industry products. In addition to price and quality retail shoppers with an interest in wilderness protection will also start to look for those items and companies that pose the least impact to the environment and do the most good to protect it. So as I’m walking the floor this week, looking at the new products for 2012 I’m going to have my eye out for those companies who are going the extra mile, those manufacturers who make exceptional products but also work to make the world a better place.

I hope that when Tim DeChristopher is released from prison two years from now he’ll return to OR and perhaps find the industry a bit less wasteful and more focused on conservation. As the movement to protect wild places continues we have to recognize that our business of outdoor recreation for many is the initial point of access to nature. We have a unique opportunity to convey with our products a message of stewardship that our customers will carry with them into wilderness. And those companies that lead the way in doing good I believe will be rewarded with increased sales and unquestionable brand loyalty. These are the companies I’m looking for. I’m open to suggestions and if you’d like for me to pay your booth a visit during the show drop me a note and tell me now. What good are you? ~ JEM

Joy Trip Project coverage of The Outdoor Retailer Summer Market is supported in part by Knupp, Watson & Wallman

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I’m a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.