Do you really *need* that new Puffy?
Brands weigh in on the costs of “newness”
Every year thousands of new products flood the gear market: puffies come out in new colors, shoes are released with new lacing systems, tents are redesigned, apparel is modified, water bottles are printed with new patterns. It can be tempting to toss out the old and buy the new—who doesn’t like to be in-season trendy, not to mention the new-gear endorphin rush?—but when the “old” is still functional, does “new” come at an environmental cost?
The short answer is: Yes. While there’s never been a legitimate environmental assessment of the “cost of newness,” common sense is still available to analyze the situation. If a puffy is meant to last for five years, tossing it aside before its performance has expired not only increases the industry’s demand for raw materials via new-gear production, it also increases the chances of apparel prematurely reaching a landfill—something that’s been happening more and more frequently, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In 2017, the EPA reported 11.2 million tons of textiles were dumped in landfills, as opposed to the 8.9 million tossed in 2010.
The long answer about the environmental cost of buying something new before your old piece of gear is totally worn-out is: It’s complicated. If you’re one who enjoys buying upgrades each year, there’s no need for shame—provided you responsibly pass your still-functioning-last-season gear on to new users via accessible marketplaces, like Geartrade, or as donations, for example. But, in this industry, which seems to depend on recurring new-season releases just as much as it depends on a healthy planet, are brands aware of the environmental implications that constantly promoting new products can engender? Is it hypocritical to constantly urge people to buy new things, while also advocating for sustainable societies? We asked several brands in a variety of industry sectors to weigh in on the matter.
How long is gear supposed to last, anyhow?
The lifespan of a piece of gear depends, of course, on the type of gear it is, says Ross Herr, sales and marketing director for Oberalp North America, which owns many brands including Dynafit, Salewa, Wildcounty, and Pomoca. A pair of Salewa trail running shoes will need to be replaced before a pair of Dynafit ski bindings, for example. A good way to set expectations is to check a product’s warranty, which you can consider the company’s guarantee of performance duration.
Overall, Herr explains, on a design level, “you don’t really proactively create or calculate product lifespans.” How long a certain product ends up lasting is usually “the appropriate engineering and use of the product. If a product has a short lifespan, then a bunch of other things went wrong, or bad decisions were made before the product failed.” In that sense, quality is of paramount importance, some brands will hit the mark better than others.
Most products are certainly built to function beyond one season, Herr says, though there’s also “a big range in the final consumer” that makes it hard to advertise exactly how long a product is meant to last; a 100-day-a-year skier will wear out her hardshell faster than a fair-weather winter hiker, for example.
“There’s no magic formula that applies to every product we make, so we are constantly listening to feedback from our community and monitoring data internally,” Mike McQueeney, president of the performance hat and burgeoning apparel company Headsweats, says. Community feedback lets them know what’s working and what’s not, so they can implement changes that enhance user experiences and lengthen the life of their products. Headsweats wants their hats to last for seasons. “Our goal,” McQueeney says, “is always to make a highly functional and high-quality piece of headwear or apparel that will outperform expectations.”
“Newness,” in the form of innovation, can help bring more sustainability to the market.
Still, McQueeney says, people can get excited about new-season goods, especially if they signal an upgrade in sustainable materials. This can help spread the word about eco-friendly innovation and encourage “We are continually updating our products and making small tweaks and changes based on feedback from previous versions. We introduce fresh designs and continue to innovate with each iteration of a product.”
The brand’s new REPREVE fabric, made from recycled plastic water bottles, is one example: hats made with REPREVE “give consumers a more sustainable option,” he says, which works well when the company is confident that past-season products are being properly managed. “We know most old, but still functional, gear is being donated to nonprofits or made available to a less privileged group,” McQueeney says.
Maintenance to the rescue: Repair programs extend the life of old gear.
Kristina Casey (“KC”), Title Nine‘s director of product development design and merchandising, explains the company’s 365-day return policy is designed to give consumers a chance to really put their apparel’s longevity to the test. “After a year you can get a sense if something is going to last a long time or not,” she says, as durability is a core value at Title Nine.
“We don’t want to greenwash,” she explains. Their model of sustainability is built right into their manufacturing standards, using materials, fabrics, and sewing techniques that are both eco-friendly and able to last a long time. “Our goal has always been to make really great, versatile products for women, by women. At the heart of what we’ve done is products that don’t go out of style the next season, or that are at least durable and will last multiple seasons of wear and tear. All of us are hard on our clothes.”
Ren Barrus, Cotopaxi’s customer experience manager, says, communication about performance expectations with consumers is key to maximizing use of a piece of gear. “The biggest thing we’re trying to do is educate our customers on the reality that their product will most likely experience some sort of damage over the years. It warrants some time and attention for sure, however, it doesn’t always warrant a replacement because the overall function of the piece is still intact,” he says. “Having a desire to make something last as long as possible is a great source of positive pride, and our customers are slowly but surely starting to adopt it.”
Cotopaxi’s warranty language “first and foremost recommends the road to repair, whether that’s a step by step DIY job, or they send it in to our team,” Barrus explains. “After a repair, even if it doesn’t look flawless (which it likely won’t), the principle we’re trying to instill in our customers is that their piece of gear even after the damage, the repair, etc. still works the exact same, plus we’re not creating unnecessary waste. That’s what’s important.”
Of course how you care for gear is a big factor in how long it functions. Peter Arlein, founder and CEO of mountainFLOW eco-wax, says maintenance with gear like skis, snowboards, and bikes is paramount to their performance longevity and maximization.
“Oldness” can be reconstructed as “timeless.”
KC with explains the Title Nine design team intentionally creates timeless pieces of apparel, so that women, when buying their clothes, can be confident that the pieces will not only be functional for a long time, but also perfectly palatable for years to come. “We’re careful to pick colors and prints that aren’t a flash in the pan,” she says.
Title Nine’s new “Round Trip” collection highlights this brand philosophy, and contains four pieces that can be combined into “40 different outfits using recycled fabrics, laser-cut clean lines, and tons of innovative elements that re-imagine versatility.” Their new jumpsuit, for example, is adjustable everywhere from the neckline, to the ankle flare and waist cinch.
In a couple months, mountainFLOW is about to begin its fifth winter selling its plant-based ski and snowboard wax (which competes with traditional petroleum-based waxes that are known to pollute the environment), and Arlein says their secret to success as a growing business has been consistency. They haven’t updated or changed their wax since they first sold it to shops. This helps gear shops balance inventory. “For us, it’s more important to provide a sustainable product that the shop doesn’t have to discount than having this constant revolving cycle of new products.”
It also builds customer and brand loyalty. The wax never expires, and once customers test it out, they’ll know what to expect in terms of performance. Too, it gives their research and development process more breathing room to focus on other projects. “Instead of reinventing old products, we’re trying to expand and come up with new products, like race wax this year, we’ve never before done that.” They’ll also be debuting a line of plant-based bike lubricants in September. This way, Arlein says, they can expand their reach of sustainable alternatives and, in doing so, hope to influence a wider range of the industry.
The used gear industry is playing an important role in the future of the outdoor industry.
It can be a real boon for brands to see their products listed for resale by former users. “Because we’re focused on the longevity and life of our apparel,” KC adds, “it’s really important for people to see our brand on used-gear sites or in consignment shops, thinking, ‘Wow this thing still looks new, even though it’s used or an older model.” Being resold almost acts as another level of assurance that an investment in purchasing their apparel will certainly pay off over time.
From an environmental point of view, McQueeney, from Headsweats, thinks the second-hand gear industry will be playing a big part in the future of big-picture environmentalism within the industry. “As more brands make sustainability a central focus, there will be an effort to reduce the amount of functional apparel and gear that is discarded.” McQueeney says.
“Eventually, we may also see bins for used outdoor gear at outdoor outlets that encourage people to recycle their functional gear rather than toss it,” he adds. “Collecting used gear could eventually help companies repurpose items and minimize waste that goes into the landfill.”
Herr from Oberalp North America points out the benefits of reselling gear can be extended to veteran and prospective outdoorists alike: “Used gear is huge from an environmental standpoint and wanting to keep clutter out of your garage. You need to pass those products on, and used gear sales are a super important part in passing them on,” he says. And, because second-hand gear is more affordable than new gear, “selling used gear helps new groups gain access to the outdoors. Used gear helps break down the barriers to participating in the sport.”
We couldn’t agree more. Geartrade has been an important part of the recommerce movement since our launch in 1999, when we pioneered the online marketplace for pre-owned, reusable, repaired and returned outdoor gear and apparel. We’ve continued to lead for the twenty years since. We strive to be a large part in the industry’s effort to improve holistic and long-term approaches to sustainability while also reducing accessibility issues that have historically deterred certain folks from participating in outdoor recreation. If you’re interested in how to sell your gear effectively, we’ve got you covered.
Emma Athena is an award-winning journalist and fresh-air lover. She writes about adventure and the environment, where humans and nature intersect at their most impactful moments. When she’s not glued to her keyboard or curled up with a book, she’s running in the mountains with her dog or camping with people she loves. To read more of her work and get in contact, visit emmaathena.com.