The Rise and Fall (and Rise?) of Durability
Estimated reading time: 7 min
Doubling the lifespan of a product reduces its impact by 50% – a sustainability silver bullet if there ever was one. Repair and re-commerce, sure, but why are so few talking about durability?
When it comes to product durability and potential for longevity, most would agree that the outdoor industry starts at a pretty sweet spot. This is especially true when one compares to its embarrassing cousin, the apparel industry and its fast fashion.
“The outdoor industry is built on longevity and durability as a matter of course,” explains Katy Stevens, Head of CSR and Sustainability at the European Outdoor Group.
“Many outdoor brands were started by ‘users’, climbers, mountaineers who were not happy with the gear that was available and so decided to make their own. This user-centered design approach results in products that fit better, perform better and are innately more durable.”
Today, other product longevity efforts like repair and second-hand marketplaces are rampant in the outdoor industry. For either of these to work, the product must first be made to last. Yet Katy Stevens and other observers are concerned that durability is in decline and as a sustainability strategy, it is far eclipsed by a focus on production stage impacts. The same believe there’s a strong case for why this ought to be the other way around.
The LCA case for longevity
“We know that about 80% of the climate impact, and in principle 100% of the water and toxicity impacts of a garment is caused by the production,” explains Sandra Roos, apparel LCA researcher from Mistra Future Fashion, a research program by the The Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research in Sweden.
At first glance, these figures can be seen to justify why many industry actors are fixated on chipping off a percentage point here and a ton of carbon there during the production phase – this represents the vast majority of a product’s impact.
But Sandra Roos is quick to point out that there’s another way of looking at this: “use” only accounts for 2.9% of a product’s life-cycle impact, making the sustainability implications of product longevity crystal clear:
“This means that a garment will have a lower ‘environmental cost per use’ per time it is used. Therefore, a doubled lifetime of garments would in theory mean that only half the amount of garments would need to be produced, and the impacts in the production phase would be reduced by half.”
Product durability a strategic choice
If this is the case, product longevity beats many other sustainability efforts in orders of magnitude. Yet just a handful of outdoor brands have banked their sustainability strategies on just this.
Perhaps no other North American outdoor company has managed to make its label as synonymous with durability as the Canadian brand Arc’teryx. Katie Wilson, Product Compliance and Sustainability Manager at Arc’teryx, explains how they’ve earned this reputation thanks to their focus on the user:
“At the heart of our designs is the desire to build products that our users can depend on – tough enough to endure relentless mountain environments and the rigors of the activities they pursue there. The construction and materials are specifically chosen to last, which means our users don’t need to go find a replacement every season or two.”
Aside from user implications, product durability is also tantamount to product sustainability at Arc’teryx. Indeed, “durability” is the very first word on their CSR landing page titled Sustainability: Designed for the Long Run.
Keys to long-lasting gear
On the other side of the Atlantic, the Norwegian brand Norrøna has also placed product durability at the forefront for nearly a century to become somewhat of a national icon. Indeed, it’s not uncommon to see people sporting their grandmother’s Norrøna coat on the ski slopes and city streets.
Norrøna operates its own, fully-equipped in-house production facility at its headquarters just outside of Oslo. When Suston visits the company in December, Brad Boren, Director of Innovation and Sustainability, provides a tour of their production, testing and repair facilities. When asked what part of the tour the average brand lacks that results in Norrøna’s superior durability, Brad Boren replied:
“Well…” he pauses briefly, “all of it.” He then continues to explain that while it used to be the industry norm, most brands no longer have their own in-house production department for prototyping products, but instead outsource this to other, out of country facilities. Nor do they have long product development times or significant field testing. In his view, these were critical mistakes in terms of product durability:
“Without these steps, you don’t really know what’s going into your product and how it will do in real-world conditions.”
Supporting this explanation, Arc’teryx is also one of a shrinking number of brands that still has its own local production facilities, ARC’One in Vancouver, whose designers thoroughly test their creations in the rugged Coastal Mountains. But if this type of product development and testing used to be the norm – what happened?
It’s the economy, stupid
Katy Stevens believes part of the explanation lies in that as many small brands grew up from selling products to climbing buddies and stepped into a fiercely competitive global marketplace, the forces here incrementally changed the way many of them operated:
“Ultimately, business is about making money, and not many businesses are driven with a ‘buy less’ attitude.”
It’s axiomatic that the most sustainable product is the one never made – unfortunately, this is a complete non-starter in today’s business context. Meanwhile, Sandra Roos notes that the financial arguments are overwhelmingly in favor of long-lived products. For the customer, not the business, that is:
“A garment that costs 100 euro and is used 10 times will have a cost per use of 10 euro, while the same garment if used 100 times will have a cost per use of 1 euro.”
While speaking of the customer, Sandra Roos also points out that a product can be made to survive until the next ice age, but this has no sustainability gains if it isn’t used. As Sandra Roos explains:
“People discard clothes because they change size, they happen to stain the garments, they get tired of the design, they wash and dry the garment the wrong way… etc. So, the relation between lifetime and sustainability is 1:1, while the relation between durability and sustainability also depends on other factors.”
Durability and sustainable production – can’t we have it all?
So, while durability has great impact reduction potential, much of its potential rests on a factor – the consumer – that cannot be controlled. How then it ought to be prioritized amongst other sustainability efforts remains an open question.
Arc’teryx is committed to improving the environmental performance along its production. But when it comes to sustainable materials, Katie Wilson says that they take a cautious approach, using them only if they strike a balance with durability requirements.
Back at Norrøna HQ, Brad Boren acknowledges how a bumpy start with sustainable materials also led them to put more resources into testing:
“We’ve had a few tough lessons along the way, and learned that when dealing with each new fiber…full testing is necessary to determine how it will hold up once it leaves the store. This has been especially true for sustainable fibers.”
To facilitate product development dilemmas, Norrøna requires all products meet four criteria – Quality (aka Durability), Function, Design and Sustainability – in that order. When Suston points out that not having a fifth criteria makes sustainability their last priority, Brad counters by explaining how this order actually makes logical sense from a sustainability perspective:
“Imagine we focused primarily on sustainability and reduced quality, functionality and attractiveness. This would result in a short-lived product. No matter how sustainably produced, the short use stage would negate any savings in the production phase. The way I see it, sustainable fibers only make sense if they meet these other criteria.”
Despite its measured approach, today Norrøna’s collection is packed with preferred fibers. Brad Boren is convinced it’s possible to have both a durable product with a sustainable production, but his conviction comes with a caveat:
“This only works after you’ve done your research.”
PHOTOS: NORRØNA, ARC’TERYX