Outdoor Brands Get Serious About the Carbon Footprint of Adventure

The North Face and Protect Our Winters unveil an activism-oriented CO2 calculator

By Jennifer Oldham

March 24, 2020


Photo by Solovyova/iStock

When mountaineer Hilaree Nelson traveled to the nation’s capital last September to protest oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, she offset the 1,300 pounds of carbon generated by her trip by donating $4 to help restore a hardwood forest in Kansas. Nelson, who’s skied the third-highest peak in the refuge’s Brooks Range, posted her use of a carbon calculator designed by the North Face and Protect Our Winters on Instagram, where it earned 940 likes. 

The company and the nonprofit hope that everyday outdoor enthusiasts will replicate the elite athlete’s experience. Nelson is among scores of ambassador athletes the North Face and Protect Our Winters have enlisted to amplify a message: that reversing climate change is urgent and requires outdoors lovers to act as one. 

“The average American creates 34,000 pounds of carbon a year,” says Samantha Killgore, communications manager for Protect Our Winters, a Boulder-based nonprofit advocating carbon neutrality by 2050. “We don’t want people to think that by offsetting their footprint with the calculator, they are done—we want them to get involved in advocacy work.” 

Carbon footprint calculators are nothing new, and there are a slew of them on the Internet. But while the typical calculator offers only a sort of one-click climate change indulgence, the new calculator from the North Face and Protect Our Winters encourages eco-minded travelers to go a step further by engaging in political advocacy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It urges users to lobby for legislation at the state and federal level that would lead to carbon pollution reductions. 

The tool was created by the North Face and has been used in-house since 2017 to offset emissions from helicopters, bush planes, snowmobiles, and other machines that ferry athletes to and from death-defying expeditions. Protect Our Winters released the calculator for public use in January.

The $887 billion outdoor industry is uniquely at risk from drought, flooding, low snowpack, fires, and other extreme-weather-related phenomena linked to global warming. Association members agree that individual actions will not put a dent in global emissions, so makers of outdoor clothing and equipment for skiing, camping, hunting, fishing, and other activities are now collaborating on a large scale. 

The Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) announced a Climate Action Corps in January to help members more quickly and cheaply measure their carbon footprints and implement science-based plans with specific greenhouse gas reduction targets. Members will post sustainability road maps online annually to ensure accountability. Fifty-four of the association’s more than 1,000 members voluntarily joined the corps as of mid-March. 

In the past, outdoor recreation firms worked individually to address environmental sustainability issues, yet the industry lagged in its overall response to climate change. 

“It’s fair to say we’ve been reactive—we’ve done work around animal welfare, and we’ve made progress in eliminating harmful chemicals,” says Amy Horton, senior director of sustainable business innovation at the Outdoor Industry Association. “We haven’t done a lot on climate.” 

The OIA is compiling a guidebook, expected to be issued in the next month, based on targets in line with what climate scientists say is necessary to meet the goals of the Paris agreement to limit global warming to below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (or 2 degrees Celsius). OIA will recommend firms obtain third-party validation of their emissions reduction plans. 

Horton will use company plans to create maps showing overlap in supply chains to pinpoint where brands can collaborate to reduce emissions. This will allow the industry to make energy efficiency improvements at factories and mills in China, for example, and increase its use of recycled content.  

Some outdoor firms lag behind the more than 8,400 companies, representing 50 percent of global market capitalization, whose investors or customers demand they file voluminous reports detailing their environmental footprint each year with nonprofit CDP Global. VF Corporation, the parent company of the North Face, participates in this effort, tying executive bonuses to measurable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Its sustainability effort features a circular business model that requires making less stuff, recycling more, and sourcing from sheep ranches that strive for a net negative carbon impact. 

“We’re working on carbon positive production by working with some ranches to innovate regenerative ranching practices,” says Eric Raymond, director of social impact for the North Face. “We’re producing wool with suppliers who use rotational grazing, wind breaks, and other methods where they are pulling more carbon into the soil.”

Columbia Sportswear is conducting a “rather complicated endeavor” to measure greenhouse gas emissions from factories it works with across 26 countries, relying in part on the Higg Index—a tool that allows its suppliers to measure emissions, water use, wastewater, and chemical use. The firm is creating a plan to “strategically mitigate these impacts,” says Guru Larson, the company’s senior manager for sustainability. “We know in which countries our emissions are the highest and what sources are contributing to the highest intensity level within our material portfolio,” she says. “Seven key materials account for 90 percent of our emissions.” 

Compiling reports like the one VF Corp released in December is a Herculean effort for smaller businesses that lack resources to survey emissions across supply chains that extend across the globe. 

“To actually lower our carbon footprint means a whole new business model,” says Cam Brensinger, founder and chief executive of NEMO Equipment Inc., which relies on some 80 suppliers to manufacture a tent. “And a whole new way of building things and transporting things—there is some game-changing creative work that’s going to need to be done.”

The outdoor industry is trailing other industry associations that are pushing members to use science-based targets to reduce emissions, says Kevin Moss, global director of the Center for Sustainable Business at the World Resources Institute, which collaborated on the science-based target initiative with CDP and others. “We need this industry to have a very strong voice on climate—they should have the strongest voice on climate,” he says. “On their web site where it says, 'Read OIA’s official climate statement,' you push the button and there’s nothing there.”

A particular challenge for the outdoor industry is travel, given that nature enthusiasts often must use some type of transportation—which is responsible for about a third of global emissions—to reach mountains, forests, beaches, or deserts. One way outdoor businesses can work to reduce such environmental impacts is by using their brand to change their customers’ behavior to be more carbon efficient, Moss says. 

Professional athletes like ski mountaineer Nelson are helping brands like the North Face do just that by promoting the Cost of Carbon tool. 

The calculator—which allows users to offset not only transportation emissions but also those incurred through lodging, shipping, and fuel—also helps nature enthusiasts counter allegations that they’re hypocrites for traveling if they’re worried about global warming. “In our own ways, we are all striving for perfection,” Nelson wrote on her December Instagram post urging her followers to use the tool. “But that’s just it—we are striving and along that path we are not perfect.”