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The Fair Cottage recently teamed up with Clean Climber Foundation, becoming an official partner and supporter of the organisation, which looks to bring the sport of climbing in balance with nature. CCF not only entrusts climbers with personal responsibility for preserving the places of natural beauty on which their sport thrives, but also coordinates collective efforts to reduce the amount of waste climbing generates. In light of this new relationship and our shared values, TFC arranged to meet with with Gerard van Laar, a Dutch climber and self proclaimed dirtbag (in a good way, we promise), who was inspired to founder CCF after realising how greatly his sport depends on nature. In our wide ranging conversation, we discuss how the sport of climbing strives to be more eco-friendly, in which ways our climbing gear can play a role in the effort for sustainability and circularity and how to get from climbing spot A to B on a CO2 shoestring.
Origins of Clean Climber Foundation
Rich Catty: Tell me about how you got into climbing?
Gerard van Laar: I grew up in a small village called Dedemsvaart in the Netherlands. I first tried my hand at climbing in the gym in 2007. After moving to San Francisco back in 2010 I started to boulder outdoors. I was sold! I loved the exploration in nature and the dirtbag lifestyle that goes with it.
RC: How was Clean Climber born, where are you now and what are you aiming for?
GvL: While working at The Ocean Cleanup, it dawned on me that we’re creating massive amounts of pollution. Ettringen is a beautiful crag close to the Netherlands, but sees a lot of trash, so it made sense to start a cleanup there. After some cleanups in 2018, we became a registered organisation in 2019 and have launched many other programs since: climbing gear re-use, climbing shoe recycling and a climbing industry meetups. The last two programs are new for 2020 and are in the pilot phase, with the aim of going European in the coming years.
Clean Climbing and Conservation
RC: Are there any organisations that you work closely with in the area of conservation?
GvL: We work together with the UIAA (International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation), who are also a CCF partner. They have a program called ‘protect the mountains’ and work in many ways to protect the environment.
RC: How do you think climbers can go beyond the 'leave no trace' ethic to have a positive influence on the places they visit?
GvL: Often we don’t know much about the rules and guidelines of particular climbing places. Plaques at the entrance of climbing areas can tell you an awful lot about the do’s and don’ts for respecting nature and the community. Besides that, it’s cool to pick up trash that was probably unknowingly dropped by others. Tell fellow climbers, who are perhaps less aware, to follow the rules and clean up after themselves. This will help prevent closure of an area. Rather than being perceived negatively, more often this creates a bond with fellow climbers. A “we’re in this together” kind of mentality.
Rich, how is the 'leave no trace’ ethic perceived by Berliners?
RC: Berlin is a city with a strange mix of ambivalence and activism in relation to environmental issues. Many organisations and individuals work and campaign in the area of environmentalism, yet throughout the city you find cigarette butts, bottles caps and all kinds of litter strewn around the place. One way we tried to help with the litter problem was by organising a clean up of The Rain Water collection basin in Kreuzberg, a small nature reserve cut off from the busy back and forth of the city.
GvL: Which outdoor sports communities are best at embracing the ‘leave no trace’ ethic, in your opinion?
RC: Surfers are right up there. There are many well known organisations such as Parley and Surfrider Foundation, who promote healthier oceans and arrange huge numbers of beach clean ups. Perhaps it’s because surfers have a vested and genuine interest in preserving beaches and oceans. We try to go one step further by promoting gear that has a reduced impact on the health of our seas, such as track pads made from biodegradable cork or wooden surfboards that can still break down if the ocean claims them. Because if a person spends their whole life always recycling and never littering, meanwhile purchasing products that cannot be recycled by man nor nature, have they really left no trace?
GvL: It’s great that the surf community is well aware of its impact. Just like with surfing, there are always inevitable damages you do to nature. We break rock, tape falls from our fingers, we disturb animals. But likewise, the community wants to do better! Quite a few climbers are smokers for example, but most of them take their butts away with them.
Clean Climbing Gear
RC: Focusing on gear now, you promote the re-use and recycling of climbing equipment, particularly shoes. Which do you think is better?
GvL: For sure, we should repair and reuse before recycling. From best to worst it goes like this; reduce, reuse, recycle, trash. Re-use by repairing (preferably locally to reduce shipment emissions) requires less energy than the recycling process. Do you know of any other climbing gear that can be re-used or repaired?
RC: There are of course La Sportiva’s Mythos ECO climbing shoes, which are manufactured from 95% recycled material. There is also EDELRID, who’s Parrot rope uses recycled yarn from their own production line. However, in terms of repair, the options are limited for climbing, as far as we know. While the concept of sustainable surf has been around for a long time, sustainable climbing is still in its relative infancy. That said, we expect this to change fairly quickly as the demand for sustainable products, which can be repaired instead of being replaced steadily increases. Through our blog and online shop, The Fair Cottage wants to be a catalyst for this kind of change.
GvL: Both are a great step forward, but they don’t use post-consumer recycled material, which is very hard to recycle. Climbing still has a long way to go to achieve circularity.
RC: Can you tell us some more about how Clean Climber Foundation helps extend the product life cycle of donated gear? Who are the beneficiaries of the equipment and what are their options regarding product end-of-life?
GvL: We get really excited by the simplicity of our lost&found program! While climbing gyms previously stockpiled loads of perfectly good gear for months on end until they could do nothing other than chuck it all in the bin, now it can be sent to people who simply could not afford to buy it new. We started out working with a climbing club in Banja Luka, and from there, I asked them to put me in touch with other gyms which they trusted. Each gym signs a waiver stating that they won’t sell on lost&found gear, promising to give it away to needy climbers instead. Sadly though, the end-of-life options are much the same: in the bin and to the incinerators or landfills. But we’re working on that with our new climbing shoe recycling program.
RC: A climbing shoe recycling programme... that sounds awesome! In fact, something similar would be great for all kinds of shoes, considering how many pairs are thrown away year on year. Or perhaps it’s just as important that we use them for longer. One of the problems with athletic and outdoor gear is that the technology and trends change so fast that some people tend to replace things before they are worn out. Do you feel that this is also a problem in the fairly conscious sport of climbing? And does it differ between people who climb indoors and outdoors?
GvL: Yeah, I see that trend in the climbing gyms, where people wear more and more of the fanciest gear, which of course doesn’t change their climbing performance at all. Personally, I love dirtbag climbers and I wish they would become the new heroes, even for the more trendy gym climbers. A dirtbag climber knows that they might be good, but not a pro, so there’s no need for the latest and greatest. If your gear works, wear it out, repair it, patch it, until it falls apart or is no longer safe. And if you do need new gear, invest in the most sustainable and durable stuff available. Tommy Caldwell spoke in an interview for Climbing Magazine about it. He’s a dirtbag climber and a pro athlete. It would be great if pro climbers, who we all look up to, would unite and bring the same message as Tommy does.
RC: What are your thoughts on climbers travelling long distances to visit the best climbing spots?
GvL: I think that there is a world to explore close to home. The Frankenjura has got a lifetime worth of climbing in it, so why fly to Thailand? Ok, I get that when winter hits Northern Europe, Thailand can be hard to beat. But there are still alternatives. Taking the train to the south of Spain and renting a car there with a group of climbers has got a much lower impact on the environment than flying to Thailand. Keep your eyes open for train and bus opportunities, ride together to the crags or hitch-hike for some fun. Slow travel ads to my travel experience, seeing the countryside, people and culture slowly fade into your final destination.
Rich, how do you decide how to travel? Do you have any tips on how to enjoy traveling without feeling guilty for creating pollution?
RC: Travelling slow and locally is definitely something The Fair Cottage advocates. Personally, I like to cycle whenever I can, whether that be for work or pleasure. At some point I am planning to embark on a long cycle trip around Europe. In December, I was climbing in Colombia, but that was part of a bigger trip around the country. Wherever possible, I think it’s best to roll smaller excursions into one longer trip to minimise the amount of time you spend in the air. Carbon offset donations to rewilding projects and planting trees yourself are also environmentally beneficial steps you can take to ease the sense of guilt from extended travel. Though, it should be noted that it can take many years before the positive effects of such actions are felt. This is because trees and forests take a long time to mature before becoming significant carbon sinks. it’s always best to combine carbon offsetting with carbon reduction measures, to ensure your decisions have both an immediate and long lasting impact.
Gerard, what recommendations will you give to the attendees of your planned climbing industry meetup to ensure that carbon emissions are kept to a minimum?
GvL: I would love to pick them up from the train station! Trains are really the best way to travel, they’re comfortable, eco-friendly and sometimes you meet nice people aboard. I am also a seasoned cyclist, last year me and my girlfriend rode for 3 months through Russia and Mongolia, so I would love to recommend people cycle to the event too.
RC: Wow! That sounds like an amazing bike trip. I have been thinking recently, how the sport could be more sustainable. There are already some good quality tyres from German brand Schwalbe that make use of recycled rubber in their puncture protection and Outdoor Brand Vaude have some really cool waterproof panniers made using their Green Shape climate neutral manufacturing processes. Do you know of any other sustainable gear for cycling? And were there any methods you employed on your tour to reduce your impact on the environment, other than only using the energy from your own two legs to propel yourself along!?
GvL: I don’t know of any specific sustainable cycling gear. But quite frankly, to me it comes down mostly to buying quality gear and taking good care of it. I’ve had my second-hand Nazca recumbent bike for ten years already. It was slightly used when I got it, but since then it has traveled through the deserts of the Middle-East, mountains of the USA and more, yet is still going strong. I’ve repaired my bike bags many times, had frame bits welded, and replaced worn items before they were going to wear other parts down.
On an extended bike trip, your environmental impact is naturally low thanks to all travel being on a bike, local produce being consumed and food being cooked with a small burner. I think we used a maximum of 3 liters of fuel on our 2.5 month bike trip. We took clothes with us that we already owned and slept in a tent which we kept using after the trip. It really was a dirtbag style of traveling and we loved every single second of it. Long live the dirtbags! On that note, I can really recommend the podcast Dirtbag Diaries, about all things outdoor related; the achievements and the failures, all communicated in a very humble way.
RC: Thanks for sharing all your inspiring insights, and long live the dirtbags! Any final note you would like to leave on?
GvL: We hope that our climbing community supports us in reaching our goals. We are doing what we can with a limited budget. Let’s all go for it without the cynicism of saying that small actions cannot fix the planet. If communities make sure they clean up after themselves, we’ll have a much cleaner world. Being critical of industry and politics is important too, but it shouldn’t stop us pointing a finger at ourselves.