On the surface it might seem like running has little or no negative impact, hey it doesn't even need a car. But Runner's World magazine found it wasn't necessarily so, "because running shoes aren't so green, not today at least. Production is energy- and toxin-intensive..." They took a tour of some production facilities in China and visited many of the key American brands to get the inside scoop. Then they devoted their November 2008 issue to the topic. Some of what they found caused journalist Florence Williams to remark:
"I feel like I never want to buy anything ever again".
We pick out a few highlights of her investigation below.China
Much of the running industry's product is made in China's Guangdong Province, which Runner's World discovered to be one of the most polluted regions of the world, with estimates that air pollution from factories and cars was causing 10,000 premature deaths and 11 million doctor visits a year in South China, costing the economy $964 million a year.
Amidst this pollution are the shoe factories, some with an astonishing 70,000 workers. Brands like Brooks, Nike, Saucony and New Balance are often made under the same factory roof, with some 180 pairs of shoes being produced per hour. But footwear is complex construction not overly suited to automation. Florence Williams estimates that as many 200 workers are required to bring together the often 50 pieces that make up a single pair of running shoes. END Footwear believe that by crafting simpler shoes they have reduced this down to about 75 workers.
Runner's World write that some switched-on companies are trying to do the right thing, but are finding it challenging to blend athletic performance with environmental responsibility. She notes the prototype Asics shoe with a 100 percent rice-husk outsole that has superior traction, comes from a renewable resource, and fully biodegrades. But then promptly burst the balloon by pointing out the outsole only lasts for 50 miles.
Brooks have not gone the full natural material route, but reckon that their "BioMoGo midsoles will decompose 50 times faster, in 20 years instead of 1,000, saving 29.9 million pounds of landfill waste over 20 years."
A similar quandary is exposed with the simple shoe box. Waste paper used to make recycled content boxes is often shipping from the US to China for processing, as are the vegetable-based printing inks. Yet, even up against this hurdle, Brooks reckon they'll shave 34 grams off the weight of their old box design. Doesn't sound much, but its enough to reduce the weight of shipping by "500 pounds per container leaving China. In one year, it'll save 14,285 trees and 5.9 million gallons of water, and result in 50,000 fewer tons of air pollution."
And that's just the box. Nike estimates "the average pair of running shoes embodies 42 kilowatt hours of energy-the equivalent of running a microwave for 40 hours straight." On the plus side they observe that the level of stinky Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in the shoes has dropped to 15.3 grams per pair, down from 340 grams a decade ago.
It's not the companies alone that should be re-evaluating how they operate, it's also the runners themselves. Runner's World have calculated that the average American runner generates 5,449 lbs of CO2 in pursuit of their passion. And that they buy 3.1 pairs of shoes each year, yet by one estimate only 1 in 100 of them donate their old shoes for recycling into the likes of running track surfaces.
We recommend reading the full article, which can be found online at Runner's World. If you want to see all the photos and side boxes you can download a rather hefty 5.5 MB PDF from the END Footwear website.
Green Runners directory
To help runners be as eco as they can, Runner's World have compiled a much needed and comprehensive Green Runners directory of apparel, races, shoe recycling, and the like. They even have tips for race organisers so they learn to make their events more benign.