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.