I was recently sitting in an airplane flying above one humongous Asian city, staring at the infinite steely blue veil of smog below us. It took us half an hour to get away from the smog covered area. In light of this spectacular scene I made a rough calculation and it occurred to me that by now we would've planted around 10,000 trees. That's perhaps a forest the size of Central Park or Hyde Park. So I started feeling like a cool guy and a bit big headed.
But then I thought - how are our tents really made? Where do the raw materials come from? What is the whole process and real impact from our manufacturing? So I did a bit of digging and here it is. The honest life story of a Tentsile tent:
From The Middle East, via China to America, Europe and into Africa.
It all starts in a big old Saudi oil well. Crude oil gets shipped to refineries that turn it into precursors (the raw materials) for the production of polymers. This then gets shipped across the Indian Ocean and into China. There it travels by truck to reach factories that process it into plastic pellets. These are giant monster factories - that's where most of the world's plastic is made.
The pellets then get to other factories that produce the polyester fabric, webbing and mesh. The fabric gets coated with polyurethane in a small nearby factory and gets sent to us in a small truck. Then we cut, print logos, seam together and pack everything. The ready tents travel by sea to our partner warehouse near the customer. When an order is placed it travels another few miles to get to the it's end destination. Then we pay a third party company to plant 3 trees on our behalf along the southern edge of the Sahara.
Of course, the first part of this process is completely out of our control or observation. I simply researched the processes and made an informed guess.
The second part however we have a say on. I have visited those factories and found that the most polluting of all was the one that does our PU coating. Put it this way: it's hard to breathe there. Ever since I saw that I've been searching for an alternative to the PU coating but so far it looks like the only viable alternative to PU is silicone. However, silicone isn't as waterproof. So here is our dilemma - do we become more green and help the planet and in the process let our customers become wet occasionally or do we stick to proven and tested materials that pollute? ...
We are still searching for viable alternative technologies.
The other bummer is that in order to pass the USA and Canadian fireproofing standards we have to apply fire retardant. It gets mixed into the polyurethane at the coating factory. And it's bad. Apparently all your furniture and carpets is soaked in this. But it's the law.
One good thing is that pretty much all the waste from our factory is recycled. We didn't have to put any pressure to our workers in order to adopt this process. It turns out that they like to sell the off cuts to small recycling companies. Their sole motivation is the small profit that they get from this but despite that it all works well with our green(ish) mantra.
So what is the future?
We are already looking at end-of-the-line seatbelts to use instead of new ones, we are hot on the heels of company's like Northface and Patagonia which claim to have green credentials ( although we have not yet found any proof that their materials don't use either Silicon or PU ) and we have plans to reclaim used tent materials which have been abandoned in places like the Glastonbury festival, etc. Short of introducing a cotton version ( which will be 3 x the weight and need 5 x the drying time ), it is a real conundrum. Customers dictate their needs and top of the list is to be lightweight and waterproof!
All suggestions welcome as we try and drill into the ways to be as green as possible....