How Sustainable Is Columbia? All You Need to Know

How Sustainable Is Columbia? All You Need to Know

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Dennis Kamprad

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Active people like you are taking a serious look at your athletic wear since the apparel industry contributes 10% of global emissions and is the second biggest polluter of our environment. You want to know if your favorite hiking gear was made sustainably and is durable so it lasts. Columbia is a brand that comes to mind when we think of durable sportswear. So we had to ask: How sustainable is Columbia?

Columbia Sportswear may sound sustainable and their recent efforts to reduce emission and promote apparel recycling sound promising. However, based on the data available, it would be hard to call Columbia a sustainable sportswear company. Yet, we are hopeful that they’ll get there soon.

What Columbia doesn’t tell us about their sustainability practices is more revealing than what they do tell us. Let’s get started with the big picture first.

Here’s How Sustainable Columbia Is

Founded in 1937 in Portland, Oregon by the Boyle family it was originally called the Columbia Hat Company. They eventually moved beyond making hats and grew into a wholesale sportswear brand in the 1960’s and the company was renamed as the Columbia Sportswear Company (CSC).

Today, Columbia Sportswear offers a full range of sports apparel from shoes and boots, to clothes and outerwear sold through retailers and online stores.

Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

To know if Columbia really is sustainable we need to look at their manufacturing practices and determine if they are effectively reducing their impact on the planet. To do that we need to look at:

  • The information they share,
  • data they report to third parties for external review, 
  • their ratings and reviews, and 
  • what sustainable organizations they belong to. 

And to understand the sustainability of Columbia, we must assess their products’ life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s have a look at the LCA of Columbia!

The product life-cycle stages Each stage’s sustainability
Production Materials: While Columbia purposefully shares the use of organic cotton, the majority of their product content is polyester and nylon.
Manufacturing: While not well rated for their sustainable manufacturing, Columbia is getting better at reducing carbon emissions and water waste. Some of their energy now comes from renewables and they are using a program to help monitor and reduce water waste.
Packaging: Columbia says they use recycled cardboard packaging and boxes. More importantly, their prAna brand is the driving force behind the Responsible Packaging Movement working to eliminate plastic packaging in the apparel industry.
Usage Lifespan: Columbia’s apparel is not considered fast fashion and, in general, is considered to be a durable brand that is made to last.
Quality reviews: Though we don’t know how long consumers keep Columbia products, reviews show they consider them durable – though there is some recent disappointment in the quality.
End-of-life Circularity: Columbia needs to support recycling of their products and use those recycled materials when they make more if their products are to become circular.
Recycling: Encouraging customers to recycle old clothes does not mean Columbia products are actually being recycled or that they are using those recycled materials for creating new products.
Waste: Manufacturers like Columbia need to build recycling processes for their textiles so these materials are available to make new products.

How Sustainable Is the Production of Columbia Products

To determine if Colombia’s products are sustainable we have to look at how they are made. Are factory emissions monitored and actions taken to reduce them? Does Colombia keep material waste at a minimum? Do they use non-toxic chemicals that don’t damage the environment? These are all things we need to know to determine if Columbia is sustainable.

While Columbia appears to be working on becoming sustainable, these efforts have only been within recent years. They have a long way to go before we can say that all of their brands are made sustainably.

As a publicly-traded company, Columbia is expected to share their strategies for reducing their environmental impact, especially with sustainability now being so important to many investors. So let’s look at how they are rated based on the information they share.

  • Columbia doesn’t score well with the 2021 Fashion Transparency Index that rates apparel companies on how good they are at sharing their data. Columbia has a decent rating in the area of policy, commitment, and governance, but their scores for traceability and fixing environmental issues are low. Earning them an overall ranking of 20 – 30% transparency.
  • In sustainable ratings published by Shop Ethical, Columbia Sportswear scored an “F” as to how ethical, transparent, and sustainable their production is.
  • Of the four Columbia Sportswear brands prAna provides the most information on the sustainability of their manufacturing. A Going Zero Waste article on 9 Ethical and Sustainable Athletic Wear Brands praised prAna for their efforts to use organic and recycled materials, and reduce packaging. 

Looking at the product websites for the four brands and Columbia’s reporting verifies that prAna is the only one that appears to be focused on sustainable production. Next, let’s have a look at the materials Colombia uses to make their products.

How Sustainable Are the Materials That Columbia Uses for Their Products

Most athletic and outdoor wear contain cotton, polyester, vinyl, rubber, and plastic. Cotton is the only one of these that doesn’t come from fossil fuels. This is why it is important that Columbia be using recycled materials for their products if they are calling them eco-friendly or sustainable.

While Columbia purposefully shares the use of organic cotton, the majority of their product content is polyester and nylon. Only the prAna brand reports using recycled polyester in their products.

What types of materials does Columbia use for their products?

Columbia doesn’t provide a list of all the materials they use, but their 2020 CR Report does give us data on emissions associated with their use of the following:

  • Polyester
  • Nylon
  • Cotton
  • Rubber
  • Leather
  • EVA (Ethylene-vinyl acetate)
  • Other

Considering they attribute over 75% of their emissions to polyester and nylon, it appears these are the materials they use the most to make their products.

Are the materials used by Columbia virgin (new) or non-virgin (recycled)?

In their 2020 CR Report, the only Columbia brand reported to be sourcing from recycled materials is prAna, using 69% recycled polyester. No information could be found on recycled materials used by any of their other brands.

Is Columbia part of any organizations to “prove” their sustainability?

Membership in sustainability organizations is a first step in building a brand’s sustainable credibility, not the last. This means a company can have initiatives in place, like policies, then join organizations that will support them on their journey to become sustainable.

However, none of the Columbia Sportswear brands participate in OEKO-TEX, which uses 18 independent institutes to test, teach, and report on sustainable practices in the textile industry, like leather standards and chemical management. 

Since these memberships appear to be recent, we have to wait to see if Columbia follows through and leverages these relationships before we can call their products sustainable.

How Sustainable Are the Manufacturing Processes of Columbia

In the apparel industry, manufacturing is the biggest cause of climate change inducing waste and emissions. From wasted fabric on the cutting floor, to the chemicals used on materials and the carbon output from operations, making apparel – these all have a huge impact on the environment.

While not well rated for their sustainable manufacturing, Columbia is getting better at reducing carbon emissions and water waste. Some of their energy now comes from renewables and they are using a program to help monitor and reduce water waste.

Where does Columbia produce their products?

Columbia publishes a Transparency Map that allows customers to see where products were made. According to the data provided, they source from 348 factories in 22 countries that employ a total of 403,034 people.

The following countries have five or more Columbia factories.

Country # of factories
China 113 factories
Vietnam 107 factories
India 30 factories
Bangladesh 19 factories
Indonesia 19 factories
USA 10 factories
Taiwan 8 factories
South Korea 7 factories
Sri Lanka 7 factories
Mexico 5 factories

The map provides locations, with addresses, for each factory so customers can find where their product was made by searching the unique factory ID number on the label. However, there is no way to find out where a product was made before you buy it.

Fair labor practices also reflect the sustainability of a company. Human rights are as important as the materials and the manufacturing process. Columbia doesn’t share a lot of their labor data, but FashionChecker.org found information that showed some of their manufacturers have wages as low as 51% below the cost of living. They also are not WRAP (World Responsible Accredited Production) certified which rates how ethical and responsible their business standards are.

It’s not all grim news for Columbia’s labor practices. WikiRates.org gave them a 7.5 out of 10 for their living wage action plans, which are better than average for the apparel industry. The prAna does best in this area with 11 factories Fair Trade CertifiedTM and they are a participant in the Fair Labor Association.

What does Columbia do to reduce their CO2 emissions?

Columbia participates in the Carbon Leadership Project, which focuses on the increased use of renewable energy. Both Columbia and prAna report data to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition which measures carbon emissions of the industries supply chain.

From 2019 to 2020 Columbia reported a 12% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as a result of a 36% increase in renewable energy use. They have set a target of an additional 18% reduction by 2030. We did not find Columbia to be certified by independent organizations like Climate Neutral, which helps companies measure, offset, and reduce emissions as part of the certification process.

What does Columbia do to reduce their water consumption?

In their 2020 CR Report Columbia presented a case study on the Clean by Design program run by the Apparel Impact Institute that helped reduce energy and water use at three of their manufacturing facilities. The program, which was started in 2007 by Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), helps manufacturers to improve production in order to reduce waste. They reported an annual reduction of 556,325 cubic meters of water use as a result of participating in the program. Columbia states that 19% of their manufacturing facilities use recycled water. 

What does Columbia do to reduce their chemical usage?

We found that Columbia doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to chemical use in their products.

In 2014 they settled a lawsuit with the U.S. EPA when they were charged with using insecticides on their materials and not properly disclosing it on product labels. When Ethical Consumer evaluated Columbia’s reporting they gave them a “Worst Ethical rating” for their environmental reporting and toxic policies. Ethical Consumer scored the Columbia and Mountain Hardwear brands 5 out of 30 on the environmental friendliness of their waterproof and insulated jackets.

Columbia is also known to have used tariff engineering, which is a practice of adding extra materials to products for no reason other than to lower tariff costs.

While Columbia shares their policies regarding chemical use, there is limited information on the results of these practices. They use the Higg Facility Environmental Module (HIGG FEM), a facilities tool for assessing environmental performance provided by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, to compare to industry standards. The 2019 data showed Columbia’s chemical use to be below the median score for the industry.

Which organizations has Columbia joined to showcase their social sustainability?

It is important to note that no Columbia brands are B Corp Certified, which requires companies to have the highest standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability

Even so, Colombia have joined organizations that could help them reach this status:

Materials and production are not the only way Columbia products contribute to climate change. The type and amount of packaging they use also has a big impact. So we were curious if they are making efforts to make their packaging more sustainable.

How Sustainable Is the Packaging Used for Columbia Products

Nearly half of the plastics made are for product packaging. While some packaging is necessary or is required by law, some of it isn’t needed. Since plastics are made with fossil fuels, can’t be easily recycled, and take hundreds of years to break down, they are a huge contributor to the carbon footprint and waste caused by product manufacturing.

Columbia says they use recycled cardboard packaging and boxes. More importantly, their prAna brand is the driving force behind the Responsible Packaging Movement working to eliminate plastic packaging in the apparel industry.

How much packaging do Columbia use?

While we could not find information on the amount of packaging used by Columbia, the prAna brand has been involved in responsible packaging programs for over ten years and has set goals to eliminate plastic packaging for their products, as well as packaging materials made from endangered and at-risk forests.

How sustainable is the packaging of Columbia products?

Columbia states that they use 90-98% recycled content for shipping and shoeboxes, and they use 50% recycled content for shoebox tissue and hang tags. Still, there is no indication if these recycled materials are made of content that can be recycled again which would promote circular packaging. 

In 2020, prAna started the Responsible Packaging Movement with the goal to eliminate plastic packaging and provide tools to help businesses and individuals learn how to make it happen.

This use of recycled materials in their packaging tells us that Columbia brands are being responsible and making an effort to support circularity in their packaging, but what about their products? 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Columbia Products

Having sustainable products also means making them durable so they last. It is estimated that 64% of garments made end up being disposed of in landfills within a year after purchase. So it’s important to know if Columbia makes their products to last so people keep using them for a long time.

When compared to similar brands in recent reviews, Columbia products aren’t ranked for their durability as much as we thought they would be.

What Is the Lifespan of Columbia’s Products

The lifespan of a product is the period of time from when a product leaves the manufacturer to the moment it becomes obsolete or cannot be used anymore and is thrown out.

Columbia’s apparel is not considered fast fashion and, in general, is considered to be a durable brand that is made to last.

Are Columbia’s products designed to last?

Columbia products have a reputation for being durable, but we wanted to see if the latest reviews tell us this. We found a Bustle review in 2020 of the six most popular Columbia jackets that lists them as “built to last.” However, reviewed.com evaluated six winter jackets for women which included a Columbia jacket and didn’t rank it as being “durable and high quality,” like other jackets reviewed.

Can Columbia’s products be considered fast fashion?

Fast fashion is made to be disposable and is not made to be durable. We do not find any evidence that Columbia brands are made this way, so we do not consider their products to be fast fashion. 

Just because Columbia products aren’t considered fast fashion doesn’t mean that they are made to have a long lifespan.

How Is the Quality of Columbia’s Products Rated

When a product is rated as being high-quality it reflects on it’s durability and lifespan potential. If it is made poorly or from inferior materials, it is not likely to last or be rated very well by consumers.

Though we don’t know how long consumers keep Columbia products, reviews show they consider them durable – though there is some recent disappointment in the quality.

How do users rate the quality of Columbia’s products? 

When customers talk about Columbia products, they often refer to them as long-lasting, but not always.

  • Reviews on Influenster regarding the durability of their products were all positive. 
  • However, more recent reviews on Trustpilot showed a number of people have been unhappy with the quality.
  • The product review site Comparably ranked Columbia low in Global Best Brands, though some customers said it is the quality of the Columbia brand that they like the most.

Making their products durable means that Columbia products can be kept longer by consumers. Still, we found no specific information on their general lifespan.

How Sustainable Is the End-of-life of Columbia Products

Being at its end-of-life means a product no longer has value on the market and the company discontinues selling it.

Encouraging the recycling of apparel and using those materials to make more contributes to the circularity of a product.

How Circular Are Columbia’s Products

Circularity means that when the product wears out or is no longer useful it can be reused to make something else, hopefully, a similar product. 

It’s not easy making products circular; very few things we buy these days are. Columbia needs to support recycling of their products and use those recycled materials when they make more if their products are to become circular. 

Circular economy: A circular economy within the textiles industry refers to the practice of clothes and fibers continually being recycled, to re-enter the economy as much as possible rather than ending up as waste. | A circular textiles economy is in response to the current linear model of the fashion industry, in which raw materials are extracted, manufactured into commercial goods and then bought, used, and eventually discarded by consumers.”

Wikipedia

Since we know that one Columbia brand is using some recycled materials we can say they are making an effort to support the circularity of textiles, but this doesn’t mean we can call their products circular. 

The prAna’s website provides information on how they use recycled nylon, polyester, and cotton, and they avoid certain materials that can’t be recycled like rayon. This is a good start toward making apparel circular.

It is also important for apparel manufacturers to make sure their products get recycled.

Are Columbia’s Products Made for Recycling

Natural fibers, like cotton, are usually the easiest to recycle as they can be taken apart and reused as thread or yarn to make more material. Synthetics, on the other hand, aren’t easy to take apart for reuse. So, the types of materials Columbia’s products are made from make a difference as to how easily they can be recycled.

Encouraging customers to recycle old clothes does not mean Columbia products are actually being recycled or that they are using those recycled materials for creating new products.

In 2017, Columbia launched their Rethreads program working with I:CO, a company that runs a take-back program to give textile products new life through reuse or recycling. The program website offers a way for customers to search for a store drop-off near them where they can take unwanted clothing and shoes. 

Recapturing materials is the first thing apparel manufacturers need to do. But, the most important step is actually using those recaptured materials to make new garments.

Will Columbia’s Products Go to Waste at Their End-of-life

No matter how durable a product is, it will one day no longer be useful. When it comes down to apparel it is becoming critical to avoid having it end up in landfills, which reports say is where nearly 80% of our clothing eventually goes, meaning that only about 20% ever gets recycled.

Manufacturers like Columbia need to build recycling processes for their textiles so these materials are available to make new products. 

Synthetics, like polyester, can’t be pulled apart to create more materials, they have to be processed into pellets in order to be used again. This means the more synthetic materials used in a product the more difficult it is to recycle.

Looking at Columbia products we see they use a lot of synthetic materials, so it’s important for them to support efforts to reuse the materials and build processes for recycling those synthetic materials.

Circular apparel happens when a manufacturer takes responsibility for the materials they use and have a plan for how to recover them and use them again.

Is Columbia Involved in Any Charities Promoting Sustainability

The one sustainable charity we found Columbia to be involved in is the Rethreads program. It works to get usable clothes to people in need and repurposes garments and shoes that are no longer usable into insulation, carpet padding, stuffing for toys and even new fabrics.

Here’s How Sustainable Columbia Says They Are

Founded in 1937 in Portland, Oregon by the Boyle family it was originally called the Columbia Hat Company. They eventually moved beyond making hats and grew into a wholesale sportswear brand in the 1960’s and the company was renamed as the Columbia Sportswear Company (CSC).

  • In 1986, Columbia revolutionized a parka for alpine skiers, which led them to become a popular outdoor apparel brand. 
  • In 1998, Colombia became publicly traded (NASDAQ: COLM), providing them an influx of money for growth.
  • Columbia Sportswear expanded and solidified their position as a leading producer of athletic apparel and equipment with a few key acquisitions:
    • In 2000, they acquired Sorel, a footwear manufacturer.
    • In 2003 they bought Mountain Hardwear, an apparel and outdoor equipment brand.
    • In 2006, they purchased the Pacific Trail and Montrail brands.
  • In 2014, their efforts to become sustainable appear to have started, when they bought prAna, a company making sustainable clothing (since it was started in 1992).
  • In 2017, Columbia announced the launch of their eco-conscious gear.

Columbia now has operations in the United States, Latin America, Europe, Middle East, Asia Pacific, Africa, and Canada. They list the following four brands as being part of Columbia Sportswear: 

Today, Columbia Sportswear offers a full range of sports apparel from shoes and boots, to clothes and outerwear sold through retailers and online stores.

Columbia sprinkles sustainable messaging in their product descriptions. Their reports say they use some recycled and organic materials and are working to reduce emissions, and they have had ad campaigns promoting jackets made from 100% recycled materials.

What Is the Sustainability Strategy of Columbia

In Columbia’s 2020 Corporate Responsibility (CR) Report, they state their sustainability efforts focus on the following:

  • Climate Management
  • Preferred Materials
  • Sustainable Manufacturing
  • Chemical Management

The report tells us their sustainable policies, but offers limited details on the results of these efforts. While they report some carbon emissions reduction and use of organic and recycled materials, there is no data showing effective use of these practices across all of their brands.

What Sustainability Marketing Messages Does Columbia Share

While Columbia’s website mentions sustainability in a few places, their homepage makes no reference to it nor do they highlight their eco collection. 

  • When we search their site for sustainability we reach a Responsibility page touting Sustaining Places and Responsible Practices. However, none of these links work.
  • Columbia’s Corporate Responsibility, a link found at the bottom of their homepage, talks about their eco collection which they say has “minimum environmental impact.” They do not offer supporting data as to what this means.
  • In Columbia’s CR Report they state the use of certified organic cotton and recycled polyester in some of their products. They also share information on recent efforts to reduce carbon emissions, wastewater, and chemical contamination. 
  • Columbia advertises their eco collection as having apparel made with 100% recycled materials. But their 2020 CR Report only shows the use of some recycled materials

Greenwashing: behavior or activities that make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is”

Cambridge Dictionary

Neither Columbia’s CR Report or their website say they have a sustainability strategy. They report the use of preferred materials, like 100% organic cotton and recycled polyester, but only a few of their products say they contain these.

How Does Columbia Compare to Their Competitors

Outdoor brands that are considered competitors to Columbia in product line and quality are Adidas, Nike, Timberland, The North Face, and Patagonia. When we search for sustainable sportswear brands we frequently see Patagonia listed, like on The Good Trade, which calls it an ethical and sustainable apparel brand. 

How Can You Buy More Sustainable Sports Products

As a consumer, you’d want to verify what the company says on its website about their sustainable practices. Yet, you have to watch out for the companies that use marketing buzzwords to sound good but don’t stand behind those claims.

Here are some organizations that certify companies as sustainable and provide ways to search for them:

With all these resources and a few minutes of your time, you can quickly find check before you next purchase how the respective company might be.

Final Thoughts

Though Columbia may be starting to take sustainability seriously with efforts like bringing prAna into their family of products and using industry tools to monitor and report on waste reduction efforts, they aren’t doing enough for us to call them sustainable. 

The fact that they make product claims, like saying they have an eco collection but not providing details, makes us leary of the intent behind their efforts. Their steps to become sustainably certified have been minimal and most of the responsible sourcing they do is only traceable back to their prAna brand. 

With all that said, it would be hard to call Columbia a sustainable sportswear company.

Stay impactful,



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Dennis Kamprad

Dennis is the founder of Impactful Ninja and passionate about enabling you to make a positive impact on the world & society. He started his professional career as a Sustainability Consultant and has worked on several social projects around the world. Outside of work, he is a passionate salsa dancer, fast runner, and multiple Ironman finisher.

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