How to Buy Sustainable Outdoor Gear

Shop more sustainably by keeping these tricks in mind.

We need gear to explore and enjoy the outdoors, but that doesn’t mean just any product will do. The best gear today should perform well and be good for the planet. Sustainable shopping is one way outdoor adventurers can show our love for the environment. After all, the purchasing choices we make have direct impacts on the places we play. When you buy a jacket made with a lot of chemical coatings, you contribute to the pollution affecting our rivers. When you purchase a backpack made with virgin nylon, that adds carbon to the atmosphere. 

But the solution isn’t to stop buying gear altogether. After all, good gear is critical to getting outdoors safely and comfortably. Not only is getting outdoors good for mind, body, and spirit, it’s one of the best ways to get to know our natural environment and understand the protections it needs to thrive. Instead, the solution is to buy more sustainable outdoor gear. To help you make thoughtful choices the next time you shop, we’ve put together this guide. We’ll cover:     

  • The dangers of greenwashing 
  • Your sustainable shopping cheat sheet
  • 5 ways to shop more sustainably
  • How Public Lands is supporting sustainable outfitting 

The Dangers of Greenwashing 

Sustainability has become a hot topic in recent years. So hot that many brands are eager to take advantage of the buzz without actually investing in the systems and materials required to meaningfully reduce their environmental footprints. Many falsely advertise products as “green,” “sustainable,” or “eco-friendly,” solely for marketing purposes, a phenomenon called “greenwashing.” 

When you’re looking to buy sustainable outdoor gear, try to look past these obvious catchwords and search for hard evidence instead. Is the product’s eco-cred verified by a third party like bluesign or Fair Trade USA? If the product has recycled content, what kind? Is it the gold standard of “post-consumer” recycled content, or just “post-industrial recycled content?” (The latter refers to industrial scraps, which many factories would have reused anyway.) Now, how much of the product is recycled? Items made out of 100-percent recycled materials are great for the planet. Products made with just 10 percent recycled content? Not so much.

Sustainable shopping can be tricky, but reading labels and visiting brand websites can help you weed out the fake claims and zero in on the products that will actually reduce impact on the environment. 

Your Sustainable Shopping Cheat Sheet

When it comes to buying sustainable outdoor gear, there are tons of materials and certifications to look for. These are the ones you’ll see most often. (For an even deeper dive into certifications and standards to look for, check this glossary.)

Organic Cotton 

Conventional cotton production uses a ton of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. All these things have a huge adverse environmental impact. Organic cotton is grown without these chemicals, which makes it a healthier option for the planet’s water and soil. Also look for cotton certified by the Better Cotton initiative, which helps small farmers produce cotton with environmental and humanitarian issues in mind.    

Recycled Materials 

A lot of outdoor gear is made from plastics like polyester or nylon, which are derived from fossil fuels. Anytime you can buy gear with recycled polyester or nylon, you’re both using less oil and keeping plastics out of the landfill. Recycled content should be certified to either the Recycled Claim Standard or Global Recycled Standard.

These days, you can even find recycled down and wool, which helps keep even more material out of landfills. (When buying “virgin,” or unrecycled, wool or down products, always look for Responsible Wool Standard and Responsible Down Standard certifications to ensure humane treatment of the source animals.).

PFC-Free DWRs

PFCs, or “perfluorinated chemicals,” are most commonly found in durable water repellent (DWR) coatings, which are applied to jackets, shells, backpacks, and a variety of other outdoor gear to prevent water from seeping into fabrics. Over time, these coatings rub off and leach into the environment, where PFCs can have toxic effects. Most outdoor brands have switched from “long-chain” or “C8” versions of DWR to “short-chain” or “C6” versions, which still contain PFCs but are less toxic than long-chain chemicals. If you want a toxin-free product, though, look for those labeled “PFC-free” or “C0,” which indicates bio-based coatings or those that are more biodegradable.

Bluesign-Certified Fabrics 

To get bluesign’s seal of approval, fabrics have to meet rigorous environmental and human safety criteria. Each product is screened along every step of the manufacturing process to ensure they’re created without hazardous chemicals and without producing toxic pollutants. Always check for a “bluesign” label when you’re comparing products. 

Fair Trade Certified Products 

Fair Trade Certified items are produced by fairly paid employees in safe working conditions. The certification also indicates that the product meets certain standards for environmental protection and local community development. You’ll most commonly see Fair Trade Certified logos on clothing.

Leather Working Group-rated Leathers

When shopping for boots or other products containing leather, keep an eye out for a rating from the Leather Working Group (LWG). LWG assesses tanneries, leather traders, and other businesses on the eco-friendliness of their practices. A gold rating is the highest level of certification, while silver and bronze ratings indicate decent adherence to practices like safe working conditions, responsible waste management, and efficient energy and water use. 

5 Ways to Shop More Sustainably 

Looking to buy sustainable outdoor gear? Here are the best ways to get what you need while reducing impact on the planet.   

Rent or Borrow

Need a tent, pack, or a pair of skis? Unless you’re using your big-ticket items every weekend, consider taking out a rental or demo from your local gear shop, or borrowing from a friend. Both are better than buying new: In terms of the energy, materials, and chemicals required to produce a product, it’s better to have one item getting used by 10 people than 10 items that barely get used. 

Buy Second-Hand 

Even products made of the most eco-friendly materials take fossil fuels, water, and energy to produce. The best way to limit your impact on the planet is to keep existing gear in circulation. Look on brand websites (some, like Patagonia, have their own used gear shops), online reselling platforms, and outdoor consignment shops and gear exchanges near you. 

Get Stuff that Lasts

Whenever a piece of gear gets thrown out, it ends up in the landfill, where it can leach chemicals and microplastics into the environment. The solution? Buy stuff that will last a long, long time. More durable materials tend to be slightly heavier, so in many cases you have to balance longevity with weight. That might mean buying a slightly heavier tent, coat, or pack, but those ounces can pay dividends when it comes to sustainability. Plus, you’ll save money by replacing gear less often (or never). 

Buy Less

It can be tempting to buy a sleek new jacket or a stylish new pair of hiking boots. But before you purchase anything new, ask yourself: Do you really need it? This is especially pertinent with regards to apparel: In the U.S., the average American throws away up to 80 pounds of clothing per year, clogging landfills with synthetic materials. While it’s critical that you have the right gear to stay safe and comfortable in the outdoors, always make sure you’re buying what you need—and nothing more. 

Maintain Gear

OK this comes after shopping, but it’s also a critical part of creating a sustainable gear ecosystem. After all, well-maintained gear doesn’t have to be replaced often—which means fewer items end up in the landfill. Be sure to clean your outdoor products regularly (over time, dirt and grime can damage coatings and materials). Make sure tents, shoes, sleeping bags, and other gear are completely dry before storing them to prevent mold and mildew. Also keep in mind that some gear, like waterproof/breathable apparel and leather boots, needs to be retreated occasionally to maintain performance.    

How Public Lands is Supporting Sustainability

From the products that stock our shelves to the gear we rent and repair and the materials used to build our stores, we are conscious about our impact on the earth and our community. That’s why we prioritize sustainability in all parts of our business. Here are some of the ways we do that.

Supporting Public Lands Advocates

Public Lands is a member of 1% for the Planet, a global community of businesses that commit to donating 1% of sales to environmental organizations each year. Public Lands donates 1% of sales to the Public Lands Fund, which supports organizations that are protecting public lands and/or increasing access and equity in the outdoors.

Sustainable Store Operations

We look at every aspect of the in-store for opportunities to reduce impact. Here are some of the things we’re doing now, and we’ll continue to seek out new ways in the future.     

  • 100% recyclable, FSC certified receipts
  • 100% recyclable, FSC Certified, 60% recycled materials paper bags offered at checkout
  • Water bottle refill stations in stores
  • Plastic film/bag recycling drop of locations in stores
  • Recycling is offered in our stores

Sustainable Packaging and Mailing

We are committed to reducing the impact of our shipping operations, both for products and mailings. That includes: 

  • 100% recyclable, water-based tape used on our shipping boxes
  • 100% recyclable and 90% recycled material mailers

Sustainable Construction

In the construction of our buildings, wherever possible, materials are sourced sustainably and responsibly. That means such things as FSC certifications, LED lighting, and non-toxic, low VOC materials. 

Sustainable Shopping

We’ve created a guide to certifications and materials to help consumers shop more sustainably in our stores and on our website. 

Sustainable Events

Public Lands organizes and participates in volunteer efforts with local nonprofit partner organizations in our markets. Where applicable, we use solar and biodiesel power and offer composting and recycling options.

Sustainable Future

We know that there’s still much work to do and will continue to push ourselves to achieve greater sustainability. 

  • Public Lands is a member of the Outdoor Industry Association’s Climate Action Corps, which includes commitments around measuring, reducing, and offsetting emissions.
  • Public Lands collaborates with Patagonia in support of the federal 30x30 initiative to conserve 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.