The Runner’s Eco-Footprint

Thought running was only high impact on your joints? Think again.

There’s something so simplistic and pure about the sport of running; you can run practically anywhere any time; beyond shoes, strong legs and lungs all you need; and for me, my runs provide the ultimate combination of time to reflect and push my limits. And with this sense of simplicity I’ve never taken the time to consider the environmental impact of my sport… how could it be very big?

But the other night I was given a wake-up call. At the end of a workout with my track club, I was chatting about running shoes with a good friend. (Quick aside: I love than men will talk shoes excitedly when it comes to running shoes!) He pointed to my beloved natural motion, fast-looking shoes and said “So much for your environmentalism… something tells me yak leather shoes are far from sustainable.”

Seriously, this hit me like a ton of bricks. I’m on a mission to make more eco-conscious choices when I shop, yet somewhere this never translated to running gear. And while my yak leather shoes (ECCO’s Bioms if you’re wondering) may be among the worst of my offenses, it got me asking just how green running really is.

After a bit of research later that night I found that Runner’s World has attempted to measure the average runner’s CO2footprint… turns out it’s bigger than you might think.

They found that in one year the average runner purchases:

  • 3 pairs of synthetic socks: 89lbs of CO2
  • 3 pairs of running shoes: 430lbs of CO2
  • 2 pairs of shorts: 99lbs CO2
  • 1 pair of running tights: 79lbs CO2
  • 1 technical shirt: 48lbs CO2
  • Washing and drying running gear, 1 load per
    week: 225 lbs CO2

That’s a whopping 970lbs of CO2 per year (to put this into context, the average American who commutes 580 miles to work by SUV emits 700lbs per month), and I’m sure my shoes would top that up even further. What’s more, when I looked through my running gear I realized the list is even longer – heart rate monitor, GPS watch, MP3 player, hat, sunglasses, sports bras, glide, water bottles, gloves, arm warmers, tuque, and snow treads. Plus if you race, add race kits, bibs, paper cups and travel to the list. Suddenly my low maintenance sport isn’t looking so low maintenance anymore.

While running is not a habit I’m willing to break, there are some changes I’m going to adopt from here on out to help shrink my footprint.

Carrying Water:
Most runners are really good about carrying water, either by fuel belt or camel back when out for a training run. But when we get to races, most of us ditch the fuel belt for paper cups. A quick tally of the my last race: 2,500 people (assume 80% didn’t carry water) x 8 aid stations tells me that in less than 2 hours over 15,000 paper cups were used. I’ll be saying no to the paper cups and carry my own water from here on out.

Low-Impact Gear:
While gear will always come with an eco-toll, there are some brands that are making great strides to use more sustainable inputs and processes. My new favs:

  • When my current shoes bite the dust, I plan to give Brooks’ Green Silence, made from recycled components and with a biodegradable mid-sole a shot.
  • There is a lot of great high performance gear made from sustainable fabrics. In anticipation of fall I just bought my first pair of Eucalyptex Leggings by Modrobes made from eucalyptus.

Don’t Trash Shoes:
Only 1% of runners donate their shoes when they’re done with them, meaning 99% are ending up in landfills.
Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe Program puts your old shoes to good use by turning them into sports surfaces like tracks. So far they’ve collected 25,056,778 pairs of shoes for the program.

Green Races:
More  and more races are going green. Join
Runner’s World’s Green Team to find green races near you.

What ideas do you have?

Brenna Donoghue is the President of Marketing and Sales for Ethical Ocean (, a North American retailer of eco-friendly, organic, vegan and fairly-traded products. Previously Brenna headed up marketing and fundraising for Engineers Without Borders, the opportunity that got her hyped about the possibilities of fair trade.

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