Q: Is my Gore-tex gear bad for the environment? And if so, what are the alternatives?
A: Heavy question. The answer is one that most outdoorsy eco heads don't really want to hear. Yes, this revolutionary high-tech fabric is perfect for trekking through the Himalayas, throwing yourself down a ski hill or just wandering across the great concrete plains of Toronto. Unfortunately, Gore-tex is made from the highly toxic, extremely persistent group of chemicals called perfluorochemicals (PFCs). Also used in Teflon, Stainmaster and Scotchgard, PFCs now thoroughly contaminate our air, water and bloodstreams.
W. L. Gore and Associates (the maker of Gore-tex fabric) says that PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene, the specific PFC chemical that makes Gore-tex so special) is so "stable" that your coat's membrane won't leach or off-gas in landfills. In fact, it won't even decompose. (Whether you see that as a good thing is another matter.) Sealed into your coat, we're guessing, the PFCs are probably safer for you (and your canary) than those in the Scotchgard you spray on your couch or the food you prepare in a burnt Teflon-coated pan.
So should you toss your Gore-tex jacket or boots as quickly as you should your Teflon pan? All the suspicious health findings to date have revolved around pans, so I'd wait on the coat front. In the meantime, at least make good use of it. When it's outlived its usefulness, then send your garment back to the address on your label, where it's recycled into frost-resistant switches for the auto industry. For a full list of products from sporting gear to household goods that contain PFCs, check out the Environmental Working Group report at www.ewg. org/reports/pfcworld/index.php.
Take note: some of the high-performance alternatives out there might be just as bad. Polyurethane resin, used to make comparable though cheaper jackets and shells, creates all kinds of hazardous by-products, including ozone-depleting methylene chloride during production and dioxins as a result of incineration. If you need a good warm technical coat, Patagonia says it has developed its own environmentally friendly polyester-based version of Gore-tex made with 100 per cent recycled fabrics. Patagonia's Inferno winter jacket is even lined with post-consumer recycled soda-bottle fleece ($450 at Higher Ground on Yonge).
Patagonia also makes all kinds of polar fleece liners from recycled pop bottles ($150 to $200 at Higher Ground). If you'd prefer natural fabrics, the company also makes organic wool sweaters, cardigans and ponchos (see www.patagonia.com). Organic wool can be more expensive, but it's worth it since it means the sheep have not been dipped in pesticides or had a square of their flesh near the tail cut away to avoid infection, a painful and common process called "mulesing." And feel good knowing that 1 per cent of all Patagonia's sales go to preserving the environment.
Sure, down-filled jackets are snug and toasty in blizzards, but they, too, come with their own animal welfare conundrum. Down is either purchased as a by-product of the meat industry (with which you may not want to be associated) or plucked from living birds, causing them serious distress. If you'd prefer to go synthetic in solidarity with the birdies of this world, MEC on King West and many stylie "street" brands like Spiewak use polyester-based polyfill or hypoallergenic Primaloft.
A truly dope coat option is made by Hemp Hoodlamb. It's a hooded all-element jacket that's half hemp, half organic cotton, with smooth vegan "lamb fur" lining and funky features like a cellphone pocket and patented paper dispenser (weed not included). It's available at Friendly Stranger on Queen and the Toronto Hemp Company on Yonge (from $299).
Still chilly? Stock up on hard-to-find organic cotton long underwear bottoms at Grassroots on Yonge or Bloor ($59.99). They also have organic cotton toques, scarves and hats. Get hemp gloves, scarves and hats at Toronto Hemp Company and Friendly Stranger. And, of course, recycled pop-bottle Patagonia fleece accessories can be had at Higher Ground.
We've covered footwear before in Ecoholic, but if you're looking for green ways to keep your feet warm, hemp winter boots made with recycled tire treads are worth mentioning (Roach-O-Rama on Baldwin from $60 to $80). And when it comes to waterproofing your footwear (or clothing) against the elements, you can be sure that all those sprays are bad, bad, bad for your health and the ozone layer, and waxes are often petroleum- and/or animal-based. Nikwax, on the other hand, makes water-based, petroleum- and PFC-free waterproofers that will keep the sleet or snow from seeping through your winter gear (from $9.99 at MEC and Europe Bound on King).
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