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10 suggestions to make more ethical field gear choices in ecology projects

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

Nancy Bunbury, Director of Science and Conservation for the Seychelles Islands Foundation

There is so much discussion and information about making more ethical, environmental and eco-conscious choices in our purchases. It can be overwhelming and time-consuming to do the research needed to consider the huge range of choices and the trade-offs between organic, fair-trade, vegan, local, minimal carbon footprint, plastic-free and/or chemical-free products. We all find a personal balance in how we make these choices and how we live our principles, but as conservation scientists could we be making more conscious decisions in gear for supporting our field work?

I think we could. When we write project and funding application budgets, we research items of field gear and equipment, usually seeking for the cheapest option to fit the budget. I’ve done this dozens of times and often tried to squeeze the equipment budget to fit other items in and to make it appear as good a ‘deal’ as possible, seeking for cost-efficiency, and ease of purchasing. How much attention do we give to investing in higher quality items that will last, or borrowing equipment from other projects or researchers? Do we consider whether something is made of natural or plastic fibres, or the carbon management or overall ethics of the companies behind the products we purchase with our grant money?

There may be many scientists and project managers who already do this, but I’ve met very few of them. As field ecologists and conservation scientists, shouldn’t we be leading by example in our choice of field gear, especially as this is often purchased with project funding, rather than personal money, and we have the chance to consider these options when we write our budgets?

Although all the issues are important, as conservation scientists, the overriding concern is surely climate change and carbon management, plus environmental reporting of companies and their record on pollution, plastics and palm oil.

Here are 10 ideas for improving the ethics of field gear purchase. By ethics, I mean mainly environmental issues which so many of us work on, but also animal and workers’ rights. By ‘field gear’ I mean outdoor gear (boots, field clothes, rucksacks, torches, thermoses, first aid kits, climbing gear), and camping gear. It’s not an exhaustive list and some of it is obvious, but it would be great to see some more ideas and discussion of this in the comments.

1. Establish need – is new equipment needed or can you use existing gear from a current or former project within your working group? Many get excited about the prospect of new outdoor gear, and it’s always an attractive option to include more on a budget but is it actually needed?

Do we need so much gear?

2. Borrow – Find out whether you can borrow equipment, if feasible, rather than buying new, from within your working group or from other colleagues or companies.

3. Set up an ‘Equipment Library’ or ‘Library of Things’ – There are already Libraries of Things’, although not many yet established in Cornwall. Universities or academic departments should consider establishing a field/technical gear ‘library’ to encourage sharing, longevity of use and avoid the painfully inefficient duplication of the same items purchased by different researchers. A huge amount of ecological equipment and gear ends up sitting in cupboards unused, or broken and not repaired. If this was centralised, with researchers dedicating a portion of their budget to upkeep and invest in such a library (or renting equipment rather than buying), much wastage could be avoided, money saved and far more use made of each item. The library could also include tech items (like transmitters, data loggers, VHF receivers, GPS units, camera traps, electronic data collection units like PDAs, drones, underwater equipment, scientific monitoring equipment, animal handling/measuring equipment, etc,) with specialist support staff running the library to ensure upkeep. Researchers could donate equipment to the library once projects end. With the money saved, the library could invest in more ethical items. The library could also offer a repair service and replacement parts for outdoor gear. Maybe this is already done? I’d love to know more if so.

4. Look into hiring or buying used equipment – Another option for sharing is via one of several equipment hire websites (e.g. this UK-based outdoor gear rental company, or this one for bat detectors) or buying used equipment (e.g. used North Face gear, used Arc’Teryx gear, here for some more ideas or here for preloved everything) which can be used for expeditions. See this post by Cornwall-based blogger and other good advice.

5. Research what you buy – If you have to buy new gear, do your research into ethics of the companies providing the gear you need. The ever-useful Ethical Consumer magazine features a review of the ethics of outdoor gear companies in its Mar/Apr 2022 issue, rating companies on environmental issues (climate change, pollution, use of PFCs, synthetic microfibers and palm oil), animal rights (use of leather, support of bird and game hunting), workers’ rights and politics. They have a list of brands which are considered ‘best buys’ (Paramo, Vaude, Alpkit and Patagonia), recommended (Rab and Lowe Alpine), and those that should be avoided (Tresoass, Gelert, Karrimor, JD Sports brands including Peter Storm, Brasher, Eurohike and Hi-Gear, Columbia – including Mountain Hardwear, and Decathlon brands including Quechua and Simond). They also rate outdoor gear shops and didn’t recommend any of the companies they researched, so advise the best option to be your local independent store. The lowest ratings were received by Sports Direct, Field & Trek, Decathlon, Millets, Go Outdoors and Blacks.

6. Justify budget choices with ethics and sustainability – Don’t go for the cheapest option when writing project or expedition budgets – use sustainability, ethics and longevity as budget justification points.

7. Maintain equipment – Obvious point but we need to look after equipment to extend its life. WRAP, a waste charity, estimates that even an extra 9 months of active use can decrease a garment’s carbon, water and waste footprint by 30%.

8. Consider donating equipment If you do your fieldwork in countries where these resources and especially the ethical choices are not readily available, consider leaving/donating at least some parts of your gear for use by local conservation staff and NGOs, if this is an option and if the equipment is needed and will be used. Another option is to donate appropriate equipment to schools, forest schools or children’s groups, who often lack measuring/scientific/pond-dipping/sampling or camping equipment to do more of the things kids love and to give them a more educational experience outside, because the funding is lacking.

One idea is to donate to schools or children’s groups and help nurture a new generation of ecologists

9. Support from funders – A point for funders is to allow scope in equipment budgets, for applicants to make more ethical gear choices, and to even offer some form of incentive, e.g. sustainability points, to applicants who have clearly considered this, and taken steps to borrow, rent or re-use equipment, or set a limit for new items purchased under project funding.

10. Introduce more flexibility between budget lines – And a final point for funders and a nudge for system change is that there’s an indefensible flaw in academic funding in that it’s relatively easy to secure funding for ‘things’; new gear, technology, lab equipment, consumables, etc, but more difficult to recruit people or space to maintain, organise and look after previously purchased equipment at a group or departmental level and it is often impossible to shift funding between budget lines to do this (e.g. between amounts allocated for staff and equipment). The system is designed to encourage and support consumerism, including a lack of flexibility to shift money between equipment and human resources budget lines. More freedom in budget management would generate more flexible thinking and support more ethical decisions.

Please share more thoughts and useful links below.

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Unknown member
Jun 30, 2022

Great blog and ideas, perhaps we can start a sharing forum on the Conscience website!

I have leftover equipment I don't need, so if anyone has use for a dictaphone, tweezers, scalpels, and some sample tubes with 99% ethanol in them, let me know!

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Thanks April, very happy to do this.

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