Sustainability in the outdoor industry

The outdoors is green and good for us, so it’s easy to presume the outdoor industry is more environmentally friendly than say, the fashion industry, the transport industry or perhaps the hospitality industry.

But we engage with all of these when we access the outdoors.

Sustainable practices don’t come easily or cheaply, and outdoor lifestyles have become big business. Sadly not all those associated with the outdoors put looking after the planet on an equal footing as looking after profit.

We take a look at sustainability as part of an outdoor lifestyle, and how our choices can have a positive influence on the businesses that make up the outdoor industry.

What is sustainability?

Dartmoor wild camping – ‘leave no trace’ approach

Green, ecological, environmentally-friendly, eco-friendly, non-polluting…

The list of sustainable synonyms is long.

If I asked you, ‘What does sustainability mean?’ you’d probably give me a sensible answer about looking after the planet and averting climate change.

We all have our own ideas about sustainable living but finding a simple, workable sustainability definition in the midst of all the eco-noise can be tricky.

It’s a wide topic that can be broadly defined by the three pillars of sustainability.

Three pillars of sustainability

  1. Environment – reducing carbon emissions and protecting the natural environment. Examples include – reducing packaging, reducing water consumption, using local materials.
  2. Social – ensuring equality and respect for individual’s rights. Examples include – supporting racial and gender equality, ensuring fair pay for all, creating safe workplaces.
  3. Economic – improving the standard of living of all stakeholders and employees. Examples include – reducing total greenhouse gas emissions, considering water security for future generations, saving and preserving natural energy.

In other words, if we make our outdoor lifestyle choices with regard to these three pillars (and the add-on fourth pillar of culture), we’ll be having a positive effect.

Our personal choices matter but, although leisure activity makes up a high proportion of outdoor activity in the UK, it’s important to remember the outdoors is  big business.

So perhaps a more pertinent question might be, ‘What is sustainability in business?’

Business sustainability

The Greenbank Hotel Falmouth

The list of organisations we interact with when we access the outdoors is surprisingly long.

  • Outdoor gear manufacturers
  • Transport organisations
  • App creators
  • Mapping tool suppliers
  • Accommodation providers
  • Food and beverage retailers
  • Social media companies
  • Outdoor and local authorities
  • Car manufacturers

All of these businesses need to make money to survive.

Most organisations now have sustainability pages on their websites. If you want to make informed choices, it’s worth taking a look at these but beware of underperformance and greenwashing.

The best way to make sure you’re getting the best deal for the planet is to shop around and understand what you’re reading.

WWF have a really helpful guide to greenwashing, it’s a quick and simple read, and explains some of the key sustainability ‘buzzwords’. For example, did you know there are two types of ‘compostable’? Or that one of these won’t break down in your home compost?

Why is sustainability important?

Night sky, Fi Darby

Our planet has boundaries, and if humanity and the creatures and plants we share it with are to survive into the future, we need to keep within those boundaries. That means we need to reduce our depletion of important resources and those of our actions that are leading to decline.

That’s the long term importance of sustainability but I believe there are shorter term goals too.

By looking after our planet, we are learning how better to look after each other as well as the ecosystems that support us.

  • Less plastic packaging – less litter
  • Less cars on the road – less pollution
  • Less fast fashion – less human exploitation

And, as an added bonus, all that ‘less’ often means we save money. Money that, if we choose, we can use to support the outdoor places and causes we love.

In recent years, I’ve tried to align my thinking with Sir David Attenborough’s famous quote on saving the planet.

“You can do more and more and more the longer you live, but the best motto to think about is not waste things. Don’t waste electricity, don’t waste paper, don’t waste food. Live the way you want to live but just don’t waste.”

Outdoor industry news should be sustainability news

You only have to look at the OIA news page (Outdoor Industries Association) to see how important demonstrating sustainability has become to outdoor businesses. Current (Jan 2024) topics include, the commitment of members of the European Outdoor Group to a Race To Zero, zero-carbon initiative, and the release of the OIA’s (and collaborating organisations) Outdoors For All initiative.

But how do we know when our favourite brands are paying lip service to sustainability but still putting profit ahead of the planet? Here’s a list of five sustainability-check ideas you might like to try.

  1. Beware of buzzwords that don’t explain what they mean or show evidence of truthfulness. If a business’s website doesn’t answer your questions, the chances are they’re not making enough eco-effort. Seek out a different provider.
  2. Look out for social responsibility and product lifetime awareness (via repairs and re-use options) as well as recycled or less polluting manufacturing and packaging materials.
  3. Read online news pages and blogs to find out more about where brands are placing their emphasis. Do they over promote their products? Do they demonstrate where they have made positive change? Do they support charities?
  4. Check for longevity in sustainability. Organisations that have been talking about their green credentials for a long time are perhaps more likely to be serious about looking after the planet than those that have recently jumped on the eco bandwagon.
  5. Learn more about your topic. As a start, begin to understand the chemicals used in outdoor gear manufacture, find out how using public transport can reduce your carbon footprint and investigate low-packaging options for your expedition food.

How to be sustainable in outdoor life

There are plenty of ways we can make our outdoor lifestyles more sustainable. We’ve broken the topic down into two of the most important (but intertwined) strands.

  1. What we do.
  2. How we spend our money.

Making environment-friendly personal choices

Lifestyle changes are often easier to implement slowly so I wouldn’t recommend trying all of these at once. Pick a couple that might work for you and add to your successes as you go along.

  1. Choose destinations that are closer to home.
  2. Take greener travel options.
  3. Only buy outdoor gear when you need it.
  4. Look after your existing outdoor gear.
  5. Reduce your travel and expedition packaging.
  6. Support local businesses instead of big chains.
  7. Check the eco-credentials of businesses before you buy.

For more tips, check out my sustainable resolutions for outdoor adventurers post.

How to find sustainable outdoor businesses

Finisterre jumper, Fi Darby

Before I start this section, I’d like to give a big, ‘Well done!’ to the outdoor gear, accommodation, travel, and experience businesses who are already taking great steps towards sustainability.

We can support them by spending our money wisely.

Here’s a list of questions to ask yourself (and the business) as you make your sustainable purchase choices.

Instead of getting into the outdoor nitty-gritty like lifestyle brands and ultralight gear, I’ve taken a general approach we can apply to most businesses.

  1. What has this business done so far to reduce their carbon footprint?
  2. Have they outlined what they intend to do in the future?
  3. Do they make clear their approach to packaging and waste?
  4. How much information do they give about suppliers and ethical supply chains?
  5. Do they encourage buy, buy, buy or reuse, repair and recyle?

Sustainability report Fi Darby Freelance

Adventures by train, Fi Darby

One thing many bigger businesses offer is access to their sustainability or impact report. These are usually comprehensive and generally refer to specific standards like those of the GRI (Global Reporting Initiative).

That doesn’t work for my tiny enterprise so I’ve used the three pillars of sustainability I listed above to report on the sustainability of my own freelance writing business and my role as an outdoor instructor.

Here we go… You’ll be able to see for yourself where the gaps are.

Fi Darby Freelance – positive impact Report

At Fi Darby Freelance we believe small business can be good business, and that small changes matter.

Our work centres around our beautiful outdoor spaces, and we want to look after them. We are small so can’t have a huge impact but we do have a voice to which people listen. We work hard to make sure we promote the sustainability messages that matter.

Respecting our environment

  • We aim to suggest and promote sustainable practices both in our writing and when working with people in the outdoors. Examples include, public transport information, promotion of the Countryside Code, a leave no trace approach and ideas for local travel.
  • When promoting outdoor gear we prefer to promote items that have demonstrated longevity, can meet multiple uses and use natural and/or local materials.
  • When working with brands, we make a point of understanding and promoting the steps they have taken to look after the environment, and whether or not they have taken a whole-lifetime approach to their products.

Access for all

  • Through our ‘Adventures by Train’ initiative, our ongoing promotion of public transport aims to help people without vehicles to access some of our beautiful green spaces, especially our National Parks
  • Through our map reading and route-finding tips, we work hard to help other people find ways to access green space near them
  • We take a stance against ageism and promote a healthy outdoor lifestyle into older age

Economic fairness

When you work for yourself, from your own home, personal fairness is the same thing as business fairness.

  • To support UK farmers and help promote the important Get Fair about Farming agenda, we gave up supermarket shopping for the whole of 2023 and intend to continue to support and promote fair buying practices between big food companies and our hardworking farmers and growers
  • Wherever possible we seek to support local and small businesses, particularly when we travel
  • We prefer to buy from businesses who support the people involved in their supply chain

As you can see, here at Fi Darby Freelance, we’ve still got plenty to aim for when it comes to sustainability but in some ways I think that might be our strength.

Change can be hard to make but by demonstrating the power of small adjustments, we hope we will continue to influence other people to join in the march towards environmental fairness.

Here’s to a great future!