I love running. And I want gear that’s decent quality and comfortable to wear. But does it have to come at a cost to the planet? It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.
So, I decided to do a quick comparison between two types of running kit. The first is gear I used to buy: big brands, bright colours and lots of synthetic textiles. The second is what I’ve been buying more recently. Stuff made by smaller companies with more natural textiles and less environmental impact.
This is how they compare:
Running kit 1
Jacket, shorts and base layer
These are all synthetic textiles. Synthetic means things like polyester, nylon, acrylic, pvc etc. Looking at the labels, these three items are mostly polyester.
Some positives first. Polyester has properties that make it great for sport. It’s strong, lasts ages, insulates, resists wear & tear and sometimes, looks pretty funky. And the most commonly used type of polyester is PET, the same material used to make plastic bottles. This means it can be recycled, and more companies are now using recycled polyester in their fabric.
So far so good. But it has a dark side too. It’s derived from crude oil. It takes ages to decompose. When you wash it, studies like this one have shown it releases tiny plastic microfibers into wastewater, which end up in our rivers, lakes and oceans. And if that’s not bad enough, the dyeing process is super thirsty for water and can pollute rivers and ecosystems (mostly India and China).
For years, I ran in bog standard cotton underwear. I didn’t know ‘performance underwear’ was a thing.
I’d assumed cotton was fine as it’s a natural textile. But non-organic cotton has issues. It’s very thirsty. The WWF reckon it takes about 20,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of cotton (equivalent to a single t-shirt and pair of jeans).
It’s also the most widespread non-food crop on the planet, contributing to the decline and loss of habitat. And the heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides damages local ecosystems, affecting workers and wildlife.
What about where and how this kit was made?
I know where it was made (China), but not much else. That’s because there’s a lack of transparency in supply chains, and it’s not easy finding information on it. To be fair, some clothing companies are improving their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) when it comes to responsible supply chains. But it’s a murky area.
Kit 1 overview
- Performs well and lasts ages
- Reasonably priced
- PET can be recycled, diverting waste from landfill
- Big cost to the planet at every stage
- Washing synthetic materials releases plastic microfibers into the water environment
- Lack of transparency in supply chains
Overall, this kit is great for running. But like that big part of the iceberg that lies below the water line, there’s just so much I don’t know.
Running kit 2
This Clearim jacket is made by Howies. It’s British made, PET/PFC free (the membrane contains no fluorocarbons), and waterproof, windproof and breathable. Good for me. Better for the environment.
The Rab base layer is made from merino wool. It’s an animal based natural textile that’s biodegradable, annually renewable and made from nature (merino sheep).
Before I bought it, I had doubts. I associated wool with golf jumpers and wooly hats. But turns out wool makes great performance gear. It’s super soft, breathable, odour-resistant, sweat-wicking, quick drying and great to run in.
Whilst Rab’s a British company, I realised (when writing this post) this top was made in China. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any information on the supply chain. Note to self: always check the small print.
These are made by Patagonia, the Led Zeppelin of environmental and social responsibility. They’re synthetic, but bluesign approved (made in a way which conserves resources and minimises impact on people and the environment) and includes recycled content.
Patagonia include a ‘View the Footprint Chronicles’ link next to their products where you can view supply chains. I clicked on the link next to my shorts when I bought them. They were manufactured in 3 factories with fair labour practices, safe working conditions and environmental responsibility. If only other companies were so forthcoming.
The Icebreaker underpants are made from ethically sourced, super fine merino wool. Icebreaker have a transparent supply chain, source responsibly, recycle heat and water in production, and use non-toxic dyes and recycled packaging. And they’re the best goddam underpants I’ve ever owned.
As for the socks, they’re Howies merino wool socks. Perfect for running, happily wicking moisture whilst I plod along so my feet stay dry and comfortable.
Kit 2 overview
- Great performance
- More natural materials
- Better for the planet
- Supports smaller companies striving to make a difference
- Transparent supply chains
- Less plastic microfibers in the water environment
- Generally more expensive
- Still the occasional compromise
What about running trainers?
A can of worms, so I’m going to look at trainers (and watches, rucksacks etc) in another post. What I will say is running trainers come with a hefty carbon footprint. And unless you run barefoot, low impact options are pretty limited.
The verdict and what I’m doing
Thanks to a small band of companies busting a gut to reduce their impact on the planet, it is possible to buy gear that’s good for the runner and the environment.
But I’d love to see more companies being up-front about the social/environmental footprint of their products. People could then make more informed choices.
Until that happens, I’m going to:
- Buy running and outdoor gear from companies who put environmental and social responsibility at the heart of what they do
- Use a Guppy Friend washbag (see pic below). The synthetic gear I have can be shoved in it when it’s washed, reducing the amount of microfibers leaving my washing machine. You can buy one here or here.
- Explore what the big brands are doing about their products, supply chains and CSR.
Here’s a list of companies I’ve bought from and trust:
And here’s a few more I’ve heard good things about:
B-Corp is a relatively new certification. If a company has this status, it’s been tested and certified to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency.
Of the companies I’ve mentioned above, Patagonia, Finisterre and Newton Running have B-Corp status. And with a growing band of companies achieving certification, I’m hopeful businesses can be a force for good in the world.