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Sustainable and Eco-Friendly Running Gear - What Are Your Choices?
By Rick Morris
The facts and numbers are overwhelming. Twenty five percent of all pesticides are used to produce non-organic cotton. More than 8000 chemicals are used to manufacture textiles. Forty seven percent of the chemicals used to manufacture textiles are considered possible human carcinogens. Pesticides contribute significantly to the worldwide drop in honeybee population and directly cause the death of more than 67 millions bird deaths annually. The production of textiles causes irreversible damage to the environment, but a full 2/3 of a garments environmental impact occurs after production.
Those number make you want to run naked, don't they. Well, naked running would be much more environmentally friendly, but it would be hard to maintain your training program while you're lounging in jail for indecent exposure. Can you do something to help the natural world that won't put you behind bars? You sure can - you can run in more eco-friendly and sustainable running gear. What makes a fabric eco-friendly and sustainable? It should be produced using a minimal amount of pesticides and chemicals. It should leave the least amount of impact on the environment and lifeforms over its lifespan, from the agricultural stage, through the manufacturing process and finally to its disposal.
There are a lot of fabric choices out there from cotton to high tech micro fiber clothing. Some are very environmental friendly, but not great for running, while others are perfect for running but not eco-friendly. It can be hard to find a good balance of being green while still meeting your running needs. Here are some sustainable fabric basics that will help you find the sustainable fabric that will meet your running goals.
Regular cotton fabric is a poor choice for a green runner because of the large amount of pollution and environmental damage caused by pesticide use. A much better choice is organic cotton. Organic cotton is produced without the use of pesticides or chemicals. It is non-toxic and bio-degradable. For running purposes, cotton will absorb a lot of moisture. The problem is that it also tends to hold onto that moisture, rather than wicking it away from your body. Overall, organic cotton is a good environmental choice but a so-so running choice.
Bamboo is a fabric that was once heralded as a highly sustainable fabric but is now the subject of some debate. In a way, bamboo is highly sustainable because it is harvested from the stalk of bamboo grass, which grows incredibly fast. Bamboo also makes a very soft and comfortable fabric that is thermodynamic, anti-microbial and blocks UV rays, making it an excellent fabric for runners. As with cotton, the problem lies with the manufacturing process, which uses toxic chemicals and uses up a lot of energy.
A more eco-friendly alternative is natural bamboo. The processing of natural bamboo is completed without chemicals but the finished product is stiffer and less comfortable, much like linen. The bottom line is that while bamboo makes for a nice running fabric and is highly renewable, it's chemical production makes it a less desirable green running choice. One product of bamboo that is commonly used in running gear is the carbon from burnt bamboo which makes fabrics more antimicrobial or "stink proof".
For general wear purposes, hemp is one of the most sustainable and eco-friendly fabrics currently available. Hemp grows very fast and yields more fiber per acre than any other crop. Hemp becomes even more sustainable by its tendency to rejuvenate the soil it's grown in instead of draining it like most crops. Hemp requires little or no use of pesticides, making organic hemp highly available.
Hemp is stronger than most other fabrics and holds its shape well. It is longer lasting and become even more comfortable as it "wears in". Hemp is naturally a soft fabric, but most manufacturers will combine it with organic cotton to make a very comfortable, strong and long lasting garment. Hemp absorbs more moisture than cotton and is also porous which allows it to breath more efficiently. As an added benefit, hemp is naturally anti-microbial and thermodynamic.
Sounds like the perfect green running solutions doesn't it? It almost is, but not quite. There are a couple of minor glitches when it comes to hemp. First, while it is great at absorbing moisture and wicks better than cotton, it still tends to hold onto that moisture more than the higher tech micro fibers. Second, hemp is illegal to grow in the US as of the publishing date of this article. Oh - one more thing. Don't try to smoke your hemp running gear. It will only make you sick. Industrial hemp isn't exactly the same as the illegal kind.
In summary, hemp is actually a good choice for running gear with the caveat that it isn't great at wicking moisture away from your body.
Polyester is one of the most commonly used synthetic fibers. Polyester and other synthetic fibers are manufactured using petrochemicals. The production process uses a number of highly toxic chemicals. These types of fabrics will not decompose naturally and are an environmental nightmare. On the other hand, polyester and other synthetic fabrics are excellent running choices because they can be made to very efficiently wick moisture and dry quickly. So, you have the best and the worst. Synthetic fabrics are terrible for the environment but great for running. So what do you do? If you are eco-conscious and a green runner you need to avoid polyester -right? Maybe not. In recent years a number of environmentally friendly companies have started using recycled polyester. They are making high tech running clothes out of recycled plastic bottles, recycled polyester scraps and even recycled running gear. That's right, you can now recycle much of your used polyester gear. Not only are you using fewer resources but you are keeping trash out of the landfill. Recycled polyester is a great choice for a green runner. It is both an eco-friendly and runner friendly choice.
Many have touted wool as a good, sustainable running fabric. I strongly disagree. As an animal based product, I feel that wool is simply unacceptable as a green running choice. While wool, especially merino wool is an effective fabric for both moisture wicking and thermodynamic regulation, it's terrible impact on the lives of the animals that produce it make it a poor choice for a green runner. While it may seem on the surface that wool shearing does little harm to the environment or the animals, the truth is that most wool producing animals undergo painful procedures and are inhumanely housed and treated. We should make every effort we can to eliminate any unnecessary pain and suffering to our fellow earthlings.
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