Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Runner’s Footprint

On the heels, so to speak, of my previous installment, which features eco-fashion, this week’s focus is on the mighty running shoe. For those of you who have survived marathons, even half marathons and 10K runs like me, a shoe that effectively cushions the body from the punishing toil of long distance running deserves the highest props.

Except when it comes to the planet.

I’ve always appreciated the simplicity of running. Just slip on some shoes and go – preferably wearing clothes, outside and not on some treadmill. Clothing, treadmill and indoor energy needs aside, the following focuses on the shoe itself, based on the Runner’s World’s article, The Runner’s Footprint by Florence Williams. Thanks to my friend Kirk for passing on the link.

The Making of a Running Shoe
Your typical running shoe is highly complex. It’s made up of more than 50 parts, supplied from various regions around the world, pieced together by more than 100 assembly line workers – most likely from China’s Guangdong Province which pumps out 80 percent of the world’s running shoes.

Energy - If you are to look at the full energy consumption of your running shoes, keep in mind that more than half of it comes from processing and producing raw materials prior to assembly. What are the full energy requirements of your shoes? According to Nike, 42 Kilowatt hours of energy. What does that mean? Run a microwave for 40 hours, then you’ll get the picture. Keep in mind that this estimate doesn’t even factor in the energy required to bring the shoes to you.

Raw Material - And what about the raw material that morphs into that fancy polymer technology that helps us across the finish line? Why, it’s heavily processed crude oil (a.k.a. plastic), which takes a thousand years to break down. Added to the mix are chemicals that keep all those 50 parts together. These chemicals are hardly benign.

Waste –Every day at the Brooks plant, Chinese garbage collectors drive a couple of trucks full of running shoe waste to a landfill. Thanks to advances in waste reduction at Brooks, this amount is nothing compared to what it used to dump. Clearly, waste generated during manufacturing continues to be a big problem. And then there is the issue of the spent shoe after use. For the active runner, shoes go flat quickly. Runners need to change our shoes as frequently as every three months. Where do the vast majority of shoes end up? The landfill of course.

Greening the Industry
So what can we runners do?

Reduce & Recycle - First off, we can reuse our shoes – for walking and yard work, and recycle by dropping them off at The Running Room, which accepts old runners. Nike and Asics also have ‘take back’ programs. The soles of the shoes are melted and used for running tracks. Please recycle your runners. Currently only one in a hundred is recycled.

Consumer Choice – Ask your shoe salesperson about greener options. The more folks who ask, the more retailers will take note. Choose a shoe for function and not fashion. The more bells and whistles, the more materials and energy required.

Top companies such as Nike, Adidas and Brooks are assessing what to do about greening their operations. Needless to say, greening an energy-intensive industry that relies on a non-renewable material has its challenges.

Runner’s World’s Florence Williams offers an insight to the industry’s dilemma: “Is it better to use a nontoxic water-based glue that requires more heat (and thus energy), or is it better to use a more hazardous solvent-based glue as long you use the solvents really carefully? In this manner, each brand has to evaluate its priorities: toxins versus climate change; renewable energy versus renewable materials. Almost every change has its consequences.”

Greening Update
Here’s a quickie on what some of our shoe producers are currently up to on the green front. With rising fuel prices, the heat is on to find solutions and alternatives to this fossil-fuel dependent industry:

  • Adidas & Brooks have stopped using toxic polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which was a footwear staple.
  • Brooks uses silica, rather than fuel byproducts, in 25 percent of its shoes.
  • Mizuno has replaced some plastics with castor oil products.
  • Nike has pioneered better glues.
  • Asics has started adding rice husks to its outsoles. It also provides marathon runners with 100% rice husk soles. The advantage, aside from the green-light qualities, is greater traction. Downside: they only last 50 miles.
  • Brooks is working on a biodegradable midsole. While the shoe will biodegrade in 20 years instead of 1000, some thought needs to be made in keeping it out of landfills, whose airless environments make it impossible for anything to breakdown.
  • Patagonia is working on a shoe that lasts a few years rather than a few months. This entails a replaceable inner and a stronger more durable outer shoe. If this comes into market, runners will likely have to pay a lot upfront with the knowledge that they will save in the long term.
  • END, a company new to the scene, is producing shoes with partly recycled soles. In an effort to reduce the number of parts and production steps, they’re eliminating the frills and extras, focusing on performance and not fashion. END shoes contain about 25% recycled content, compared with Nike’s 3%.
  • New Balance and Brooks use recycled boxes. Duh. No brainer here.
    Some new companies such as Oboz are planting trees to offset carbon emissions. Again, a no brainer.
  • Brooks, Nike and New Balance and others are pressuring vendors to adopt better practice standards.

Corporate Watch
What about these companies’ practices when it comes to quality of life for their workers? Much work has been made to improve working conditions but it sounds like some have more work to do. The following links are from Corporate Watch.

Nike - CHINA: At Nike Plant, no Sweatshop, Plenty of Sweat

Adidas - INDONESIA: Adidas 'fails to act' over sacked workers

In the News
Greider: Who Rigged Wall Street ?
Great food for thought.

Schwarzenegger gives starring role at climate change conference to Obama

Scientists talk; politicians listen
Some hope for the Boreal Forest?

Honesty About Ethanol
New York Times editorial

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