Environmental photographic activist Chris Parkes documents the unique ways people across the globe are making sustainable problem-solving a part of their daily lives. He inspires others to keep the faith by showing how these daily choices — no matter how big or small — are essential in addressing the growing effects of climate change.
As Chris puts it, "If you don't give people solutions they can grapple with, you're not going to get anywhere."
Reflecting on the impetus for a recent sojourn to Iceland, the UK-based photographer further muses: "The narrative (around climate change) is really frightening, and quite rightly so… It gets to the point where people are either completely in, or they get so frightened they just put their blinders on and (say to themselves) 'I don't want to think about this, I just want to focus on my day-to-day life."
To challenge this mindset head-on, Chris planned his expedition in the Land of Ice and Fire to learn firsthand how Icelanders were facing down the overwhelming task of turning back the tide on climate change.
Recognizing our shared values and the urgency of his message, we sponsored the journey and outfitted his three-person team with gear from Iceland's own 66˚North.
"You have a cultural narrative where people are like, 'If it's not a perfect solution, just get rid of it. It has to comply completely with these principles or it's no good," Chris says. "I'm more of the mind that in order to get people on board, you have to give them solutions they can understand."
His crew set out to document their insightful chats with locals and the breathtaking scenery as they explored the southern coast of Iceland. Through photography, blog posts, and a trove of Instagram Stories, Chris returned from his trip with mounds of evidence as to how Icelanders were making simple, sustainable solutions a part of their everyday lives on the frontlines of climate change.
Inspired by documentarians and portrait masters like Don McCullin, Mary Ellen Mark, Annie Leibovitz, and Robert Frank, Chris became a photographer to tell stories that bring light to issues near to his heart. He cut his teeth on odd jobs like wedding photography and forensic imaging but didn't get to explore his own voice fully until a volunteer trip to Sierra Leone in 2015. It was an epiphany for the young photog.
"That was very much a moment of 'I'm not really doing what I want to be doing…' So I completely shifted my focus, and I now use my photography to highlight stories — mainly through portraiture but also through documentary work — to help take people into complex issues, take them into the gray areas, using dynamic images."
Luckily, Iceland is nearly 40,000 square miles of gray areas and home to many resourceful problem-solvers who share Chris' commitment to sustainability. Beckoned by the 2019 funeral for the Okjökull glacier and a non-proselytizing vegan himself, Chris was particularly interested in seeing a glacier firsthand (while he still can) and documenting greenhouse farming practices in the island's infamously unforgiving climate.
Chris wanted to show how Icelanders were putting the "Do What You Can" ethos to work in their daily lives against the backdrop of undeniably encroaching climate change. He planned to report his findings to spark solutions-centered conversations with his social media following. By demonstrating what can be done at the local level, even against seemingly insurmountable challenges, Chris hoped to show that the burden of facing down climate change isn't so daunting after all.
After a few roster changes necessitated by scheduling conflicts, government-imposed travel restrictions, and the typical dose of bureaucratic red-tape, Chris ultimately enlisted two kindred spirits to join him in the expedition.
First up — Kimmi Vo wrote her thesis on the intersection of gender and climate change, so she had plenty of relevant academic context for the journey. She also worked with UN Women in the Asia Pacific on mapping more than 1,700 gender and environment indicators to illustrate how the gendered impacts of climate change are currently not robustly measured.
Rounding out the trio is Luke Fazakerley, a Conscious Mindset Coach who is "closely connected to issues of wellbeing in an open, accepting way." Chris expressed how crucial Luke's perspective was in maintaining the sense of purpose for the trip.
The power pair would act as de facto production crew, artistic muses, and product models throughout the adventure.
The team's first big stop was at Friðheimar, Iceland's largest tomato producer and a major source of ongoing inspiration for Chris. In every detail, he reports, the farm leverages natural solutions and technological ingenuity to find the most environmentally friendly solution possible.
Proprietors Helena and Knútur Friðheimar — Chris calls them "mom" and "dad" of the tomato farm — have been horticulturalists for about 25 years. Their family lives and breathes tomatoes and have found remarkably resourceful solutions to grow the finicky crop in a challenging climate. Critically, they use geothermal energy to power the greenhouse, negating the carbon emissions typically necessary to run such an operation. In lieu of pesticides, they combat aphids and other pests with a predatory mirid bug Macrolophus pygmaeus instead.
They've even worked out how to more efficiently pollinate their crops. Using imported cardboard beehives from the Dutch company Koppert, they house bumblebees rather than the traditional honey bees. Due to honey bees' natural drive to migrate, bumblebees are a more reliable pollinator in their greenhouse's limited space.
Chris enumerates these innovations as if he left Friðheimar just hours ago, explaining that he's found a new obsession in a crop no one would ever associate with the Land of Ice and Fire. Keeping with Chris' original thesis, the family's generational commitment to these sustainable farming techniques was so much a part of their everyday problem-solving not because it was the "right thing to do" but because it was the "best way to do it."
Kötlujökull is a tongue of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier — the fourth largest in Iceland at 1,480 meters tall — and home to the Katla Ice Cave, Chris' easternmost stop on his journey. The team arrived on a sunny day, one of only 20 the area sees on average in a year, a portent of the positive experience to come.
Glaciers have become flashpoints for climate change, a symbol for the compounding effects of continued inaction. The team's tour guide, Silas, informed them that Iceland's glaciers are receding at a rate of 50 meters a year, releasing greenhouse gases at an exponential rate. This sharpened Chris' sense that this may be his last chance to see such an immense glacier, let alone tour an ice cave in one of them.
As Silas led them through Katla, they were impressed by the rock-hard, crystalline ice, dimpled like a golf ball that surrounded them in every direction. The otherworldly effect was compounded by layers of black that could be seen upon closer inspection of the ice walls. These bands of ash were left behind by volcanic eruptions — like the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull that famously blocked transatlantic airline traffic for days — leaving a natural historic record, much like forest fires do in the rings of trees.
Unfortunately, that ash traps heat, increasing the rate of glacial decay. Still, the team's Icelandic tour guide, who's worked in these caves for years, offered some perspective. "Silas had a nice philosophy about it," Chris says. "(He told me,) 'I understand people's concerns, but I've worked in these caves for so long and they are always changing. This is the cycle of nature working.' He thinks that if we can get into that rhythm, can tune into that cycle a bit more, (the negative effects of climate change on the caves) are something we can bring a halt to."
When asked if there was an "aha" moment for him on the trip, one that illuminated his reason for being there either professionally, spiritually, or otherwise, Chris responds:
"The whole trip felt like that. There was a point where I realized that no one's going to ask you to do these things. The New York Times isn't going to give you a ring and say, 'Hey, we saw your website. Please come work with us.' You've got to go out and show people you can do it.
"(I'm thinking to myself,) 'This might be a crazy idea…' but it felt right. Logistically, it was incredibly tough. Every single day (in the run up to the trip had me wondering) 'Is this trip really going to happen or not?' It was just about trusting (that) it's going to happen…"
As evidence of this sense of destiny, he points to Kimmi's difficulty traveling from the US to Iceland due to Covid travel restrictions. To make sure the trip could go off without a hitch, Icelandair personally emailed Kimmi to make her aware of exemptions she qualified for. The Icelandic embassy also intervened to ensure the team could help their government tell the world not only about their beautiful, unassuming island-nation but also the very real peril they face from climate change.
Iceland is, after all, on the very frontlines of climate disaster, given that its proximity to the Arctic Circle necessarily means they are the first to experience the exponentially growing effects of the warming polar regions as they creep incessantly southward.
"...The trip felt very aligned with that, and it all felt like everything fell into place the way it was meant to," Chris says, partly due to the freedom they were afforded to travel around and make their own connections and partly to the support and synchronous spirit of Polartec.
"Having Polartec on board was amazing. That was a sign of trust and a sign that what we were doing was aligned with people who had the same goals. It all felt much more aligned in a way that my work hasn't before."
And Polartec was integral in maintaining that synchronicity. Having worked with other brands before, Chris is familiar with that awkward feeling of being expected to serve as a mouthpiece for a brand whose actions don't really match up with their rhetoric.
What makes working with Polartec different? "First of all, it's taking accountability. It's not (just) paying lip service to what it means to be sustainable, what it means to actually commit to a goal, what it means to implement that not only in your design but also in your practice, in your values, in your people."
When he received the 66˚North garments made from our fabrics that we seeded for the trip, he felt confident in the fact that these were coming from people who genuinely shared his vision for where he wants the world to be heading. For Chris, "That's actually walking the talk."
- Tindur technical shearling jacket
- Grettir Women's Zip Neck
- Snaefell jacket
- Snaefell pants
- Vik Windproof gloves
On a typical day of exploring Iceland, the team expected conditions to fluctuate quickly and dramatically: "(One such day) it was raining, and then it was sunny, and then it was rainy again. The fact that we were dry and comfortable was fantastic."
The seeded garments were capable of keeping the crew protected from the elements in addition to maintaining their photogenic visages after carrying 20-30 kilos of equipment for an hour or more.
"I always warn people that my shoots are physically very tough. If you're in a very windy environment and you have a light that's 1000 lbs. and it's got, essentially, a giant sail modifier attached to it to shade the light, and you're fighting with the wind — you want to be comfortable when you're doing that. And the fact that we're doing a lot of physical work, and we're not getting sweaty and uncomfortable. We can then sit in the car comfortably, as well… It just made a big difference to be able to do that work comfortably."
That that comfort came from clothing Chris knew was produced with sustainability as a top priority echoed the synchronicity he felt between our values at Polartec and his purpose for putting the trip together.
"(We didn't) have to fake what we were there to talk about... We were able to use (Polartec) as an example of a company that is actually doing the work, going above and beyond what's required."
Chris says the Tindur jacket was a standout. "... Just the amount of comfort and warmth… I like photographing in the cold weather, (but) I don't actually enjoy being cold, I must say."
As you scroll through the beautiful images Chris brought back from his expedition to Iceland, it's easy to dread what's at stake if we don't act immediately on still-rampant carbon emissions. But Chris reiterates the need to keep fighting the good fight in the small ways we can without judgment for the actions of others or self-punishment for our own failures to meet impossibly strict standards of consumption.
"If you don't give people solutions they can grapple with, you're not going to get anywhere."
This daily decision-making should be an empowering exercise, not stressful box-checking. Chris believes we have to change the conversation from one of moral superiority and perfectionism to one of thoughtfulness. If you're being thoughtful — like Chris was in planning his trip, the tomato farm is in their clever use of geothermal energy and sustainable farming practices, and Polartec's consideration of every fiber — you're doing the best you can and that's as much as anyone can ask.
Years ago, we introduced the world to fabrics knit from recycled plastic bottles. This innovation radically changed how people viewed the effects their clothing has on the environment and raised expectations around production methods. "Sustainability" went from aspirational buzzword to assumed practice, particularly in the Outdoor category. After all, if we're to continue enjoying the trails, slopes, rivers, and all the other natural spaces that make our favorite sports and activities possible, we must do everything we can to protect them from the creeping consequences of climate change.
As an ingredient brand, partnerships are our bread and butter. We work with brands who share our values of sustainability, social responsibility, and education. These relationships challenge us to go further, to do more to hone our manufacturing techniques and design solutions to realize a cleaner, healthier environment for all to live and play in. The collaborations we're most proud of are those that yield innovations that move us all closer to that common goal.
We look forward to working with more folks like Chris to turn the tide on climate change by taking the lessons from Friðheimar and Kavla and putting them to work in our everyday lives.