Trail Running Gear Going Green

Installment four in iRunFar’s Earth Week series focuses on trail runners’ gear consumption and the greening of the gear industry. Below we consider the amount of gear we use, the life span of that gear, the environmental consequences of individual pieces of gear, and industry action.

Buy Less Gear
The first and most effective way to reduce the environmental harm from the gear us trail runners use is to buy less of it. No, that’s not what the outdoor retailer industry wants to hear, but it’s true. Unlike, say a 35 year old furnace or 15 year old refrigerator, it’s almost impossible for a new piece of trail gear to lessen energy use or environmental degradation enough to offset the energy used and toxins released in producing the new gear. That’s not to say that trail runners need to give up the sport or lead a minimalist, acetic life in which you make rain jackets out of used trash bags. Instead, think about ways you can buy less gear, such as:

  • Carefully consider continuing to use the gear you already have;
  • Purchase, swap for, or accept previously used gear (and, conversely, find a new home for your used gear);
  • Purchase gear with long life spans;
  • Share infrequently used items, such as fastpacking gear; and
  • Diligently research gear before you purchase anything.*

Once you decide you do need to purchase some new gear, it’s time to consider the environmental impact of the products that best meet your needs and the environmental practices of the companies that products those products.

Corporate Sustainability Programs
Many outdoor gear companies have implemented corporate responsibility or sustainability practices. (See, e.g, La Sportiva’s sustainability program, Patagonia’s values, Inov-8’s environment statement.) Purchasing products from companies that are committed to responsible environmental practices should be complimented. Our purchase of such companies’ products not only support their efforts, but also signals to other companies that consumers value a company’s commitment to green efforts. That said, you should carefully look at the details a company’s sustainability program, as not all green aspects or corporate sustainability programs are created equal. Try to separate real action and commitment from hollow marketing hype. Likewise, don’t base your purchase decision based on a company’s commitment to donation 1% of its profits to an environmental cause. Make sure that the company isn’t just buying a pretty corporate facade to cover over ugly environmental practices and, if the donation isn’t just window dressing, go for it! Put another way, applaud companies that commit themselves to preferable environmental practices, but be sure to take a careful, critical look to see what a company’s true commitment to the environment is.

The Greening of Products
On the individual product side of things, companies are trying to green their products in many different ways, including:

  1. Using less toxic materials;
  2. Using recycled materials;
  3. Making products more easily recyclable;
  4. Creating less waste in the manufacturing process;
  5. Using biodegradable materials; and
  6. Reducing product packaging.

Here’s iRunfar’s take on each of those attempts to green products:

  1. Using less toxic materials is great. Generally, these attempts include using less toxic materials in the production of the final products. This is great, too, as some industrial solvents are nasty, nasty things. So are pesticides and fertilizers used in growing non-organic cotton. In our view, this is the most laudable of product greening attempts.
  2. As long as the recycling process uses less energy and other resources than making the material from scratch (which it almost invariably should), this is a winner.
  3. So is making it even easier to recycle outdoor gear into something else in the future. (Can someone please find a way make gel packets that can be recycled! Note: Clif bar and related wrappers CAN be recycled!)
  4. Less is often more. It is here, too.
  5. Can someone explain the benefit of biodegradable shoes? What’s the difference is a product buried 100′ underground takes 20 years or 2000 years to biodegrade when most everything around it won’t have degraded?
  6. Minimization of product packaging should be a given at this point. Shoe companies, please stop stuffing your shoes with paper. Also, the tags on the shoes – we don’t read them. Educate us another way. Retailers and manufacturers, check out Backpacking Light’s comprehensive article Green Waste? Trends in Retail Packaging for Outdoor Industry Products.

Some products try to incorporate many of these aspects. While not exactly peformance wear, a good example is Simple‘s Eco-Sneak EcoS, which has a recycled car tire sole, hemp upper, organic cotton lining, recycled plastic bottle laces, and recycled post-consumer paper foot forms. Cool.

Carbon Footprints
Companies are also rightfully concerned about the carbon footprint of their products. However, you might be surprised to learn that a shoe company’s corporate travel may account for many times the carbon emissions of the freight of it’s products. (Inov-8 statement to that effect.) Consumers, hold companies accountable for their entire corporate carbon footprint. Companies, hold more teleconferences. ;-)

Product Lifespan
As previously mentioned, trail runners should consider and compare the likely longevity of gear before buying anything. Likewise, where relevant, outdoor gear companies should strive to construct gear in a way and with materials that will stand the test of time.

Many companies already provide proper care instructions. Those companies that don’t already provide such instructions should. Of course, consumers must then follow those instructions, as a well cared for product will last much longer than one that is not.

Bringing It All Together
Many outdoor gear companies have long considered their, their users, or everyone’s impact on the environment. In fact, it’s likely that as far as product-based companies go, it’s a reasonable guess that those that cater to trail runners and their outdoor-loving brethren are at the far end of the bell curve when if comes to environmentally sounds practices. That said, with increasing global awareness of environmental issues and a corresponding increase in consumer demand for environmental responsibly products, outdoor gear companies have been and will continue to
be pushed to incorporate more and more green aspects into their design, manufacturing, and overall corporate policy/philosophy in coming years.

At this point, it’s hard to get a handle on what are the best and most effective corporate actions and policies with regard to the environment. One thing that should be encouraged is transparency. It’s great to know where a product’s raw materials are extracted, where and how intermediate materials are produced, where the assembly is done, and how far the product ultimately travels before it show up at your local outdoor rec co-op or favorite online retailer’s warehouse. It might not be long before Europe’s proposals to put carbon labels on food are adopted and expanded to other countries and industries. In the outdoor retailer industry, Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles are a great example of the type of comprehensive product information we could see in coming years… and with the internet there’s no need for companies to distribute that information directly with products.

Of late, entire companies have even been formed on the basis of creating more sustainable, environmentally friendly products. While it’s yet to put out any products, such is the thinking behind END (Environmentally Neutral Design) Outdoor. It will be interesting to see what a company that based itself on a commitment to sustainability before ever designing a single product can come up with.

In closing, we’ll sharing a couple of our favorite sources on the subject of sustainable gear trends.

  • Believe it or not, the best discussion we’ve read on the sustainability of gear comes from Footwear News article Breaking the Cycle.
  • Rocky Mountain Sports recently asked some major outdoor retail purchasers their thoughts on gear trends with the “green movement” and “green trends” noted as significant. [Broken links removed]
  • Outside Magazine’s annual Green Issue. The 2008 issue is at newsstands now. The 2007 issue is online now with the 2008 issue to follow. OM has already posted an article from this year’s Green Issue regarding new green gear. The article claims to cut through “the green-product spin”… we’re not completely buying it.
  • [Added 4/28] A GreenBiz article, CO2 Comes Out of the Closet, that discusses gear’s carbon footprint over its entire lifecycle and makes useful recommendations to manufacturers.

What are your thoughts on the environmental impact of gear? Still awake? Know any companies greening up their act, taking innovative steps to do so, or sweet new environmentally friendly gear? Do tell!

* Here at iRunFar we realize that we have more gear than necessary. However, we attempt to provide you with in-depth reviews based on real world experiences for all the gear we receive rather than simply regurgitating a marketing department’s promotion materials and fancy component naming schemes. It’s our hope that iRunFar’s product reviews, commentors’ sharing of experiences with these products, and our attempts to answer all questions about the products helps you to buy the most appropriate product for your needs.

There are 11 comments

  1. Trail Goat

    Meredith,Thanks for sharing the Brooks link. I'd noticed they have adopted some good practices in many of the articles I read. My favorite is that they work with independent third parties and certifiers on environmental issues. While I hate being the skeptic, I prefer it when companies bring in an independent outsider to hold them accountable or give them tough love. It's just to easy for companies to say "We're green" otherwise. Well done, Brooks.Brooks also did a good job with the stats on its Green Room page that you pointed out. During my research for this week's series, I came across a company or race that claimed it had saved enough electricity to power so many hundreds of thousands of homes with precision down to an individual home. What that group failed to do is say for how long it could power those homes!I can't say I get the BioMoGo – it was the unnamed target of my compostable gear statement. Why is this an issue. It's not like it reduces landfill space (which really isn't an issue) unless folks bury the shoes deep under their backyards. However, it is nice that the BioMoGo is less toxic that traditional midsoles.One the other hand, hooray for Brooks' shoe lifecycle page (now gone). It's a good reminder of how to reuse running shoes after their running careers are over. It might not mean buying fewer running shoes, but it might mean buying fewer non-running shoes. I've certainly taken some sweet old trail shoes through most of the lifecycle stages Brooks layouts.

  2. Sara

    Goat, Re: gels – what do you think of Gu's Stash Your Trash program? [Broken link removed.] Not sure what they actually do with all those sticky used packets they collect, but better than them ending up on the trails. And cool they give a nice incentive. I guess until someone comes up with a better idea, the best thing to do is to fill a gel flask from the bigger containers? Not always handy while racing though.Good to hear your ankle is improving. Take care!

  3. Trail Goat

    Wow, Sara, I can't believe I hadn't heard of Gu's Stash Your Trash program. Other than the info on the page you noted, there's little information available on the program.I was shocked to learn that the program has been around in at least some form since 1997… I'm shocked that it's been around so long and that I hadn't heard of it! :-D Also, from what I can gather, this is trail trash reduction program rather than a recycling program. The only problem with that is it takes energy to ship spent gel packets to a far away place where they are just going to be thrown out. I'll look into that further. One nice thing about the program is that it appears one can send in any brand of gel packet as part of the program.Thanks for sharing, Sara! It's nuggets like this that make we want to keep posting. I've been shocked at how much less time folks have spent at iRunFar on average during the Earth Week series. To tell you the truth, I was a bit disenheartened until you and Meredith chimed in this morning.

  4. Sara

    Well, if it's any consolation, I've been spending a lot MORE time on the site during your green week! I'm really looking forward today's diet installment.

  5. Trail Goat

    Sara,That does actually make me feel better. :-) I'm typing away on the diet post during my lunch break in between bites of lentils and rice.

  6. olga

    Bryon, loved this thread and this particular post the most. When I was coming back from Florida, I picked a new for me magazine to read "Body and Soul", and there were many articles about Earth Day/week/month. I don't think I paid much attention to day before, although I consider myself relatively Earth-consious (due to thinking about impact thanks to my more educated friends and due to lack of finances as well, goes very handy). I reuse my foil from sandwiches and use packages from store items (like sour cream) for lunch, recycle to the point of obsession, and do run to work and back once a week – wish I could do more (and save on gas too), but taking care of the kid means I need to be at certain places at certain times. I carpool to races, use bottles and not cups at AS, started using this year bigger flask for pouring a gel vs small single gu, containers of powder and not single packages (also goes for a race I co-RD), never leave trace on a trail and pick up when I see it, and definitely use my running gear for a very very long time (I don't remember last time I bought running clothes…you're right, the shirts we get at races can easily last me till the end of my running days, and thanks for pointing out here and in another post, I will do a "add on" shirt to my new race next year instead of obligation). When I do buy something – it is second hand (where I take my used cloths as well). One day I may even search the Carbon footprint of the companies I buy from…but that's another gear for me right now:)Thanks for wonderful posts that make us think. I was planning to make a post of my own back when I read that magazine during this week, but other things hit me greatly and I have to turn my attention to them. I appreciate you writing it.

  7. Anonymous

    Goat,I can hardly keep up with your postings! I sure don't see the behavior of someone who is in a priority crises in their life. I think it is fairly self evident that your not thinking about shutting down iRunFar, which you should not. In my experience, you definitely have one of the best running blogs around. The metro-sexual magazine "Outside" (Unfortunately there isn't some dude on the cover with a shaved chest and no shirt this month.)has listed Itinerant Blogger on their "Best Jobs" list. Maybe this is a future option for you? Anyway, This is supposed to be about "Earth Week" and "Green" and all that kind of stuff.Here are my individual opinions, observations,general rants, and my actions. Unlike you, I enjoy being skeptical in this arena, as I am a skeptic about life in general and pretty much take everything at face value. This goes for the "Green" thing as well.As an American I know ultimately, like pretty much anything else, it's about the $. As a country, you sure have to be rich enough to buy enough crap to recycle in the first place, don't you? I wonder what the recycling and/or "green" program is like in Mexico? Not!The feel that the waste concerning running shoes A-Z is most problematic. I agree that the packaging is overkill at its best. The only company I know that doesn't "stuff" the toes is Montrail. As you know, they stopped this a couple of years ago.But,in general,it's a big issue concerning other companies, with all the wrappings, tags and big boxes.Example. La Sportiva says on the back of their shoe catalog that their company is 100% wind powered. I also heard that their building in Colorado is on land that isn't filled, or they use hay for insulation or something trendy like that. But,a problem is that every time I have ordered shoes from them, the paper stuffed shoes in the extra large shoe box(thank God they wrapped the shoes individually in paper in case any UV rays might fade the colors!)have included a thick color catalog of all their products. And I don't think these are cheap to print, as they look to be great quality. I've had to call them and say, "DON"T SEND ME ANOTHER DAMN CATALOG". So the question becomes, what is being 100% wind powered accomplishing. Well it sounds good doesn't it?I used to participate in Nike's Re-grind" program until they stopped doing it in this area. Unfortunately, I have been living with the guilt of throwing away my trashed shoes for several years now. I just can't see paying for and shipping shoes to Oregon to have them recycled. It seems about as useless as sending back gel wrappers. If we really cared, wouldn't we only buy Hammer Gel jugs and use gel flask's only? And if the companies really cared, they would use recyclable packaging or "jugs" only. Well, no, it's not convenient and probably costs more. Having you send them back wrapping looks good.On the plus side, I take all my worn out or outdated Patagonia clothing back to them and it is recycled. They even take my wool socks back. Although they are unable to solve the problem of how to recycle wool/nylon blends, they will keep them until they are able to solve this problem. It also helps that I am only a dozen miles away from their U.S. distribution center!I pick up my orders in person, and only when I'm on that side of town. I am trying to get the warehouse "pickers" to not put my orders in boxes or bags. What's the point! At least I use the plastic bags to collect my recycled zip lock bags I save at home. Yes I recycle zip lock bags!. Yes, I do rinse them out first! All my other used clothing, running or not, is donated to charity.There are a lot of people in need in this town with race sweatshirts and T's walking around!Used watter bottles are recycled also.I purchase PEDROS bike products only, for my lube, tool bags, etc. As they are made of recycled materials or biodegradable product. These are just some examples, and I don't mean to single out any one company as bad or good. I think we just need to take this all for what it is worth and at face value. Al Gore has really been a catalyst for a movement that really took off several years before his book came out. Since then, things have really taken off in this area. Probably for the better? Time will tell. It's better then doing nothing. I think that like a lot of other things in life, the bottom line is $. And if we want to send a message to these companies, as consumers, we need to show what we are willing to tolerate. It's a matter of action. Do we buy there product or not! How much are we, as individuals, willing to sacrifice? Unfortunately, as American's, probably not much. It's really something each individual needs to really think about!Like the buying carbon off sets thing, which I can't seem to really get.Why don't we just cut down on the number of races we drive to or fly to each year? That's what I'm doing this year instead of buying some carbon credit or whatever it is. If you downhill ski, shouldn't you "skin-up" to get to the top instead of using the engine powered lifts. But aren't skins petroleum based products? It's all about personal sacrifice, "playing the game" and the all-mighty dollar my friend!Well, tomorrow I drive 20 minutes to my long trail run. Hum, how much carbon is that? I guess I could stay at home and run around the neighborhood?Where am I going with this, I don't know?See what you did! Now I'm tense, I need to go run!;) – Grae

  8. Trail Goat

    Some many good thoughts – more later. Grae,For now, I'll share an apropos quote I read tonight from David Allen of Getting Things Done. "The people who take to [Allen's organizational system] are the most organized people, but they self-assess as the least organized, because they are well-enough organized to know that they are fucking up." I may be in a similar situation with simplifying my life. ;-) More later.

  9. Trail Goat

    Olga,That's great that you will reconsider giving away shirts to all runners. It's very thoughtful that you use the gel flasks rather than the individual foil packets. The foil packets are one convenience that I do indulge myself with. I tried the flask deal at one point and just didn't like it. More importantly, I did not end up finishing the big gel container before it expired, so I wasted far too much gel.

  10. Trail Goat

    Grae,Thanks for the compliment re my blog. :-) I have decided that blogging will be one of my priorities, so I'll be sticking with iRunFar for a while longer at least. Good things are coming of it and I hope more will going forward. If I could make a living as an intenerant blogger, it wouldn't be long intil my bar memberships lapsed. ;-) You certainly would see many more reports of crazy adventures coming from me, as well. Oh yeah, back to "green." I couldn't agree with you more about shoe packaging – companies need to cut it ASAP. I will have to disagree on one point, though – I am quite skeptical and don't mind it all that much. Outdoor retailers should make it as easy as possible to opt out of paper mailings. I use Catalog Choice to opt out of many catalogs, but there aren't as many outdoor retailers in the CC directory as I would like. Companies – just cause we don't want your catalog doesn't mean we don't want your product. As for other environmental actions by outdoor retailer companies, I see many of there actions falling into the something is better than nothing category. Is buying wind power better than using less power? No, of course not. However, companies have independent financial incentive to reduce power consumption regardless of source, so when they do use power, it's better that they source it more responsibly. Regarding hay bale construction and other fringe activities… ya gotta have someone try the marginal ideas to see which should be adapted en masse and which should considered among the "been there, tried that, moving on to something else" ideas.I, too, am skeptical about the Nike regrind and the Gel stash your trash programs. I can't see the petroleum usage for shipping shoes being made into surfaces as being worth while. I still need to find out about the end usage of the stash your trash program. If the packets are only being thrown out, I can't see the environmental benefit of the program. ON the other hand, if Patagonia's (relatively light) clothing an be used as a resource to make a finished consumer product (more clothing) that's a worthwhile program… particularly if you drop it off at a store that you would otherwise be visiting.Grae, I like hope you finish your comment – considering the consequences of possible actions. Without a doubt, less travel to run is beneficial. No need to never step into a car to run (I bought my car in 2004 so that I could drive to the mountains to train for my first 100), but consider the frequency of such trips, the availability of carpooling, and the applicability to your training … oh, and how much more you'll enjoy it than driving closer to home. I think that it's an easy call with lifts vs. skins. It's the calculus of repetitive consumption versus reusable product. If you are going to use the skins frequently, it's the way to go.

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