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The science is crystal clear. We’re running out of natural resources, ecosystems are collapsing, entire species going extinct, and the Earth is getting dangerously close to approaching the 1.5-degree Celsius warmer future. And that hotter future won’t bode well for running.
But what does our running stuff have to do with it? Ultimately, the clothes, shoes, and other gear we purchase comes from the planet in the form of raw materials, and it goes back into the planet and atmosphere in the form of CO2 emissions created by the production and transportation process, and material waste in landfills after we are done using those products.
A study conducted in 2013 by researchers at MIT found that a typical pair of running shoes generates an astounding 30 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions — most of which comes from the manufacturing process. RunRepeat Research Director Danny McLoughlin has calculated that if the sneaker industry were a country it would be the 17th largest polluter in the world each year.
So we all have a stake in understanding what the running brands we support with our dollars are doing to counter the impacts they are having on the environment. We looked into a few ways running brands are trying to reduce their footprint.
Sustainable Products and Waste Reduction
Fortunately, one major trend we’ve seen in recent years is running shoe companies engineering more sustainable running shoes from recycled or plant-based materials. One of the companies pioneering this front is On Running, who recently announced plans to release the recyclable, bio-based Cyclon shoe in the fall of 2021. The shoe would use a subscription model in which the consumer pays $30 per month for a shoe subscription. The idea behind the unique subscription model is to ensure that the shoes will actually be returned to the company so they can be recycled.
“One of the problems with recyclable products is that people are not going to give them back,” On Co-Founder Casper Coppetti told PodiumRunner last November. “The thought of actually sending them back to the store is not something that is ingrained in our consumer habits. Basically, the thought was if you don’t own it, you have to give it back.”
Other brands that have recently come out with their own “eco shoes” include Reebok (Forever Floatride Grow), Salomon (the Index.01), and adidas (Made To Be Remade Ultraboost). Adidas also recently announced its plan to release a sneaker made partially from mycelium — a fiber found in mushrooms.
A few running brands are also aiming to make other products out of more sustainable materials. Reebok, for example, claims that it is committed to reducing virgin polyester from its material mix with a goal of total elimination by 2024. On is currently working on a shirt made of recycled materials to match its Cyclon shoe concept. “So you can actually have a shirt that turns into a shoe or a shoe that turns into a shirt. And actually, the material has pretty good performance and metrics,” Coppetti told PodiumRunner.
In addition to leading the pack on innovative eco-shoes, On Running has set clear sustainability goals for reducing waste. Because a large amount of waste comes from inefficient packaging of products, On has plans to redo its packaging for this upcoming fall season. It’s goal is to use only recycled cardboard and poison-free, water-based inks. Additionally, the company will be making their boxes reusable and their plastics biodegradable.
After decades of criticism for its lack of environmental ethics, the shoe giant Nike is also making plans on this front. According to the company’s 2025 Targets Summary, Nike plans to divert 100% of waste from landfills in the company’s extended supply chain with at least 80% recycled back into its own products and other goods. Nike is also aiming to reduce the amount of waste it generates through producing by 10% per unit in manufacturing, distribution, headquarters, and packing through improving design and efficiency of its operations.
Since 2017, Salomon has been working toward including circular economy principles in their processes through first creating less environmentally-harmful products through better choices of material, improved product construction, refining the production process, and better supply chain management. Coupled to that is creating recyclable products and driving up the recycling process in order to, “loop the material usage and keep the material as pure as possible so that is can be used several times in new products,” their production team told PodiumRunner.
As of now, when recycling a product, material families are often mixed together into a concoction that is nearly impossible to reuse later. Salomon’s research and development team was able to overcome this problem for the Index.01.
“More Salomon recyclable products and less impactful products will be coming in the future, as well as more durable products that are made of more sustainable materials,” the production team told PodiumRunner last fall. “These are exciting times and we are eager to charge forward.”
Lowering CO2 Emissions
The number one impact that most athletic companies — indeed, all fashion brands — have on the environment is their CO2 emissions.
Nike, PUMA, and On are some of the companies who have joined Science Based Targets — a gold standard in sustainability for organizations — underscoring its commitment to efforts that will help keep global temperature increases limited to the 1.5°C mark above pre-industrial levels set in the Paris Agreement. On’s buildings are already relatively energy efficient given that the company is based in Switzerland, which has high energy standards for its buildings as compared to the United States. The company has said that it is committed to replacing every car that needs to be replaced with an electric car.
In order to meet their 2030 Science-Based Target, Nike acknowledges that it will have to reduce its carbon footprint by 65% in their owned or operated spaces, and by 30% across their extended supply chain. By the year 2025, Nike aims to make a 70% absolute reduction of its greenhouse gas emissions in its owned or operated facilities through 100% renewable electricity and fleet electrification. By 2025, the company plans to reduce .5M tons of GHG emissions by increasing its use of environmentally preferred materials to 50% of all key materials. For its part, PUMA has committed to reducing its emissions in its own facilities by 35% by 2030, and the emissions of its supply chain by 60%.
Adidas and New Balance have both signed on to the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, both companies having committed to reducing their respective greenhouse gas emissions by 30% compared to 2017, and achieve climate neutrality by 2050.
Becoming a Conscious Consumer
So what does this mean for us runners? Where we put our money sends a message about what brands, what products, and ultimately what corporate policies we support. Our dollars can be transformative in shaping what the future running economy will look like: one that continues to strip the planet of precious resources and pump greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, or one that invests in circular economic principles by acting on innovative sustainable ideas like plant-based, biodegradable products and full lifecycle product planning.
Many running companies today — we’ve only highlighted a few — outline their environmental policies and goals on their websites. By simply doing a bit of internet research into a company’s environmental commitments — how sustainable their products are, what they are doing to eliminate pollution, their CO2 targets, and third-party certifications like RE100 and Science Based Targets — as part of your process of selecting running gear, we can make a huge impact.