What if one day there was nowhere to run?
Imagine a world where it was no longer feasible to pull on a pair of runners and take off for a jog through the bush trails, along the beach or around the streets of your neighbourhood.
“I love to exercise outdoors so it terrifies me that the air may become so polluted or the beachfront so decimated that one day there’s simply nowhere for us to run,” says Kusaga Athletic sustainable textile creator Graham Ross.
“This thought struck me when I was running the Great Wall Marathon in China, a location so spectacular it forced me to look up from my watch, forget about my times and really consider how amazing this planet is. We really are so lucky to have the freedom to run wherever we want, whenever we want.”
Maybe it sounds a bit dramatic, but the thought of having nowhere to run is not that far-fetched. The effects of climate change are real and are being felt around the world but most of us feel powerless to make a difference.
“In China, we’d pass through the tiny villages dotted around the Great Wall, and local kids with very little in the way of consumer goods were so excited to say ‘Ni Hao’ and wave as they hung from branches or lined the unsealed roads. I imagine they thought we were pretty weird choosing to run up and over the Wall in the searing heat and smoggy conditions. I also imagine if our generation didn’t hurry up and do something to offset all the environmental damage we have caused then their generation could well have nowhere to run. At the time it was a fleeting thought, but it must have burrowed in my mind somewhere because when I came home, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“It popped up again a few weeks later when I grabbed a t-shirt for a training run. Inside my wardrobe was a pile of event finisher shirts I was proud to own but never wore. Just like hundreds of thousands of athletes the world over, I had a selection of poorly made, stifling polyester tees that would never see the light of day. Many were still sealed in the plastic bag.
“Somewhere in the back of my mind a light bulb flickered. What an incredible waste. A waste of fabric, a waste of time, a waste of money. Then I started thinking about the manufacturing process, and, I started doing some research.”
It turns out that polyester, nylon and spandex are pretty damaging in environmental terms and are created via a chemically-laden and resource-heavy process. Then, when you have worn them threadbare and thrown them out, they can take hundreds of years to breakdown.
And then there’s what seems like the more environmentally sound choice, cotton. “Like many people, I didn’t know it took around 3,000 litres of water to make just one cotton t-shirt!” explained Graham, “ The average person drinks around 800 litres of water in a year, so you start to get the picture. Cotton is an incredibly thirsty crop and a massive amount of water is wasted just to make one t-shirt when you also include the production process.”
Production of synthetic fibers (polyester, nylon, spandex) requires minimal water but can use twice the energy needed to produce 1kg of fiber. The manufacture process releases harmful bi-products such as Co2, H2, hydrocarbons, sulphur oxides, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen chloride.
“My mind was off and running. What if I only wore athletic gear made with the planet in mind – environmentally friendly shirts? What if once I found these shirts we could convince people to switch? To me there was a strong connection between what I was thinking and how athletes could make a difference.”
Mass participation events are an obvious place to start, on sheer numbers alone. As an example, five of the bucket-list marathons – New York, London, Paris, Tokyo and Boston have a combined competitor volume of more than 200,000 runners a year. Even Sydney's annual City2Surf attracts almost 80,000 participants. The massive numbers make you start to think about the shirts that might be piling up in wardrobes all over the world.
The sports apparel business is worth big dollars. According to Statista the global apparel market revenue will be upwards of $158 billion in 2016 alone. And the majority of these clothes will be made from non-sustainable materials via a manufacturing process with huge cost to the environment.
“I’m not trying to be preach here – I love a new kit to suit the season as much as any another athlete, but when you consider how much we throw away, how much fast fashion (athletic wear included) ends up as landfill, there’s definitely a role for us, as athletes, to play, insists Graham. “Here’s a scary stat: two million tonnes of textiles are thrown away in the UK - every year. That adds up to almost ten billion t-shirts!”
We can all help by wearing what we have longer, and buying better, more environmentally friendly products – kit made from new fabrics and recycled materials is available but Graham wanted to do more and tackle the problem at the source.
“My challenge to all of us is to go further and think about ways to leave less of a mark when exercising in the great outdoors,” he adds.
Kusaga have developed a range of plant-based materials for use in the manufacturing of clothing – specifically high performance sports apparel for people who they describe as “having one eye on the environment and one eye on the road ahead.” By developing a unique blend of natural fibres that are biodegradable, compostable and sustainable they are changing the way fabrics in sports garments will be used the future.
We are starting to see a much healthier approach to putting the environment first at events including with corn starch cups used at many of the larger (and smaller) runs, special drop boxes for empty water bottles, charities recycling used runners, and rules for competitors in trail events to be self-sufficient with their water and refueling. New events like Evergreen Endurance are popping up that leave little to no trace on the landscape once the race is over and everyone goes home.
The clothing industry is also looking to address its impact socially and environmentally and sports brands are leading the way through recycled polyester products and sustainable materials. The drivers of this change are the consumers - the LOHAS (lifestyles of health and sustainability) market which in Australia doubled in the last four years to $26 billion. Until now athletes haven’t really had the opportunity to choose performance-focused products created from sustainable materials but these choices are, we hope, just around the corner.
Athletes are generally early adopters to change in tech and are key influencers. They carry plenty of sway with their opinions, one-on-one interactions and, of course, their wallets. We have a chance to lead by example to protect the environment we run in.
You can find out more about Graham Ross, the Kusaga journey and their environmentally sustainable products at www.kusagaathletic.com