Columbia OutDry Extreme ECOGear
Written by Tom Hill
Head down, hood up, one foot in front of the other. My world has shrunk to the metre in front of my feet as I climb tortuous alpine switchbacks. Climbing into the cloud, and taking a moment to raise my head, I am aware that giants loom behind their current veil. Occasionally, there are glimpses of rocky pinnacles, impossibly high up to eyes used to the more modest peaks of the UK. Keeping moving, rain drums against the hood of my waterproof, staccato rhythms tap away into white noise, enhancing the feeling of solitude.
Pausing at the top, both feet post-holed into soft old snow, I reach into my pack for a French chocolate bar, and hurriedly scoff it down. With cold finger tips I carefully tuck the wrapper into my white-as-the-snow jacket pocket, zipping it away. Leave no trace.
Leave no trace. It’s a simple maxim that all who love the outdoors hold true. An honest respect for the landscapes and environment we love; a recognition that part of what makes the ‘wild’ outdoors feel wild, and different to our cities is that absence of human touch. This is of course a compromise. The very act of getting to, and moving in, our chosen playgrounds leaves some trace. Human touch surrounds us, whether it be the faintest of trods, a footprint in the mud, a signpost, mountain hut, or managed forests and estates. The singular effect of a footprint is negligible. Thousands upon thousands every season slowly erodes that grassy path. The emissions of a single car journey or flight to the mountains pale into insignificance compared to the daily commutes of millions. Yet still, they add up.
As our cities grow fuller, more and more of us are seeking time away from concrete and tarmac. We want our piece of untouched ground, and will go to greater lengths to find it in increasing numbers; the obvious irony being that as we do so, we collectively leave our trace. Those who love the outdoors are aware of this, and are increasingly taking greater responsibility for the impact that their passion has on the environment. Whether that be offsetting air miles, car sharing, or simply thinking twice before walking around a puddle, widening the trail.
There is also an increasing awareness that the clothing and equipment we use to enjoy the outdoors has an impact on our environment too. From steel to build bike frames to air miles transporting consumables around the globe. Many outdoor companies have stepped up and pledged to minimise their impact. The likes of Patagonia, The North Face and Columbia amongst others have strong sustainability policies.
Clothing manufacture itself has seen environmentally friendly innovations, like fleeces made from recycled pop-bottles. The industry still has a problem, though: PFCs. Perflourinated Chemicals, to give them their full name have been used as the DWR (durable water repellent) coating on all waterproof jackets since the invention of breathable membranes. They are what makes water bead on the outside of any of the waterproofs and softshells currently hanging up in your gear closet. Unfortunately PFCs aren’t very nice, to the extent that Greenpeace has commissioned and published a report into the damage they are causing. In short, PFCs gradually wear off our garments, and accumulate in the environment. They have been found in remote mountain lakes and accumulating in living organisms. To make matters worse, PFCs can harm animal reproduction, promote the growth of tumours and affect the hormone system. Not pretty.
Until recently, there has been little option either for manufacturers or consumers who wanted a high performance waterproof, without the environmental impact. In Spring 2016 Columbia developed OutDry Extreme. Its technology completely removed the need for DWR coating. This had a number of performance benefits – no ‘wetting out’ after prolonged use, no special washes and reproofing, just long lasting performance. As a result it also removed the need for many PFCs in the manufacturing process. It would have been easy to stop there, but Columbia have continued to develop the fabric, and this summer launched OutDry Extreme ECO. The company sought to remove all other PFCs from the jacket manufacturing process*, and take the most environmentally friendly approach possible. This included cutting out the dying process, saving 51 litres of water per jacket. The fabric contains 21 recycled plastic bottles. The hang tag is smaller and made of recycled materials. Even small changes add up; the collective effect works both ways.
Does one jacket from one manufacturer change the world? Of course not, but it does highlight what is possible, if we persevere. None of us would drop a chocolate bar wrapper on the top of the mountain. Maybe in the future, we won’t leave microscopic traces of plastics there either.
As I finish the chocolate, hard from the cold, the clouds finally part more fully, giving a direct sight down the valley, across snowfields, rock terraces, hanging meadows in full flower and down into Alpine villages far, far below. I pull my hood back, take a few steps until momentum and gravity takes over, legs wheeling, flailing, charging over snow… down, down, down, leaving only footsteps as I go.
* No PFCs are intentionally used in this product but may contain trace amounts. For more information on the Columbia OutDry Extreme Eco then watch this film.
Columbia OutDry Extreme Eco jackets will be available from Spring 2017. Thank you to Columbia Sportswear Company for hosting Sidetracked in Chamonix and Courmayeur to showcase their new technology.