Running the Road to Sustainability: the debate around finisher t-shirts

Finisher t-shirts, they’re dividing the running community. From issues around sustainability and eco-friendliness to necessity, purpose and practicality. We cannot escape the unsustainable way we produce clothing and the damage this can cause to the environment. Textile production contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined, consumes lake-sized volumes of fresh water and creates chemical and plastic pollution, according to the Environmental Audit Committee. But what are these impacts and what can we do?

Here I explore the environmental issues, potential solutions and implications of finisher t-shirts. Many of us have a plethora of race t-shirts, myself included, and this isn’t to cast shame on those who love finisher t-shirts or have sizeable collection. This is simply to present the complexity of the existence of finisher t-shirts and highlight the relationship these have with the environment.  As always I want to promote you don’t have to be perfect to make a difference.

2F49AC60-27E2-4610-8C6F-64E5E7E45A39

There is a growing pressure for races to step away from offering finisher t-shirts. This is linked to environmental and sustainability issues associated with their production (methods and materials), transport and lifespan. Statistics from Re-run– a community aimed at prolonging the life of running clothes and equipment indicate that 60% of runners have more than 10 race t-shirts, and these amount to 60 – 65% of all unwanted clothes received by Re-run.

Race t-shirts and considering their necessity opens up a great deal of discussion. Beyond the environmental issues that I will highlight here, there are also considerations around socioeconomic factors, sentimental value and equality. Who knew that such a seemingly insignificant item could spark such debate?!

The Equality and Functionality Factors

Firstly, lets address some of the surrounding issues. If finisher t-shirts are going to exist they at least need to be functional to prevent them becoming waste. I find I’m regularly offered ‘unisex’ t-shirts which don’t stand a chance of fitting my frame and wouldn’t be comfortable to run in (you may or may not experience this too). This is a great frustration of mine. Whilst many races have cottoned on to the fact that men and women participate in running events, there are still some races (including some of the larger races, London Marathon I’m looking at you) that offer ill-fitting ‘unisex’ t-shirts. Whilst these can hold sentimental value, for me, there is still an underlying annoyance that as women we train just as much, run as far and pay the same for entry, but aren’t always rewarded on an equal setting. Perhaps this just creates more waste, but it does throw up questions about the inclusivity, equality and diversity of these races. But getting to the heart of sustainability if a t-shirt is functional and serves it’s purpose, the chances of avoiding landfill are greater.

The Socioeconomic Factors

Similarly, in a socioeconomic context t-shirts throw up a variety of issues. The price of a t-shirt is often supposedly incorporated into race entry fees. Races can be expensive and if t-shirts were offered as an add-on item this could (in theory) lower the cost of races, making them more accessible. Although this argument does simplify the complexity of many social and economic factors, including those associated with access to items of running clothing- race t-shirts can double up as ‘free’ kit. In addition there are implications for those involved in the manufacturing of our race t-shirts (and fashion garments more generally). In February 2019, the Environmental Audit Committee published their report on clothing consumption and sustainability, which highlighted that whilst our consumption can lead to jobs and growth in developing nations. It also leaves them with the bulk of the environmental and social costs. Across the textile industry there are growing concerns linked to the use of child labour, prison labour, forced labour and bonded labour in factories and the garment supply chain, and whilst this perhaps mostly applies to the ‘fast fashion’ industry there is the potential that your race t-shirts are complicit too. Some brands like Contra and TALA favour production in European factories.

The Environmental Factors

Environmentally, race t-shirts can add to the burden humans put on the planet. According to Re-run, over 5% of the UKs total annual carbon and water footprint results from clothing consumption (this does go beyond finisher t-shirts) and 50% of textile waste in the running community can be cut by removing finisher t-shirts. The environmental price tag of t-shirts and embedded environmental cost in terms of energy, water, land and chemicals used can be linked to many factors associated with the production phase.  In terms of fibres, there is often a choice between cotton or polyester, neither are without their issues. Polyester is Synthetic man-made fibre made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource which requires an energy intensive production process. In fact, a polyester shirt has more than double the carbon footprint of a cotton shirt (5.5 kg CO2e vs. 2.1 kg CO2 equivalent). The most commonly used Polyesters are polyethylene terephthalates, or PET, which are widely used in both packaging and clothing. Therefore, when you hear statistics like ‘Race t-shirts are equivalent to 8 or 9 plastic bottles’ it’s because they are just that- plastic. Additionally, most synthetic polyesters are not biodegradable, with synthetic fibres being found in the deep sea, in Arctic sea ice, in fish and shellfish. As much as 20% to 35% of all primary source microplastics in the marine environment are from synthetic clothing, according to academic estimates (Laitala et al, 2018).

But ‘natural’ fibres such as cotton don’t necessarily offer a more sustainable alternative. Cotton is deemed to be one of the thirstiest fabrics with 1kg of cotton (equivalent to the weight of a shirt and pair of jeans) using as much as 10,000–20,000 litres of water to produce. This adds to issues of water scarcity in many cotton-producing regions. Additionally, excess use of nitrogen based fertilisers in cotton production are increasing soil aridity and can lead to chemical run off into water courses- harming both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

Cotton itself is also finite. The Earth only has so much arable land and space dedicated to the growth of cotton has to compete with crops grown for food. Deforestation and biodiversity loss are inherent with the production of fibre for the fashion and textile industries.

But what are the alternatives? The big one is to reduce initial demand and therefore reduce production. But in terms of direct fibre swaps, more eco-friendly materials can offer some solutions. Bio-based synthetic polymers made from renewable crops such as corn and sugar cane could be one potential alternative as they require less energy (The London Textile Forum) However this claim is based upon the balance of carbon emissions which is counteracted by the carbon sinks these crops can offer (vegetation can draw carbon from the atmosphere).

Some recommendations made to Government promote a movement towards organic cotton and switching from virgin polyester to recycled PET (in garments which are consciously designed to minimise shedding) to help reduce the environmental impacts of clothing production. Some races are hearing this and trying to buck this trend, for example Royal Parks Half Marathon are offering race t-shirts made from Bamboo and recycled plastic bottles. Bamboo is regarded as an eco-crop, but isn’t without its issues linked to chemical use when producing fabric.

Fabric is just the start of the environmental impacts of clothing production. There is the whole life-cycle to explore (otherwise known as life cycle analysis). A basic life cycle analysis typically follows a product from creation to ‘grave’. This can include production, distribution/sale, use and disposal. In the line of production, dye to create vivid designs of finisher t-shirts is also a problem. Conventional dye processing contributes to water pollution, CO2 emissions, and uses a large variety of potentially toxic chemicals. 20% of industrial water pollution globally is attributable to the dyeing and treatment of textiles (Ellen MacArthur Foundation). The textile industry around the world is accountable for discharging 40,000 to 50,000 tons of dye in the water bodies. Switching to eco-bleaching with non-chlorine substances and chemical free dyes, eco-friendly methods and biodegradable substances for dyeing can offer potential solutions.

For race t-shirts included in the life cycle would be transportation to their destination which releases CO2 and any additional packaging- they come in- often plastic packages. The Royal Parks half are aiming to eliminate this excess plastic and save 87kgs of packaging in the process.

Ultimately unwanted race t-shirts may become waste. In the UK alone approximately 300,000 tonnes of used clothing goes to landfill each year. We aren’t always exposed to rubbish in the UK, it is very much out of sight, out of mind. But, that doesn’t mean this is ok.

Suddenly that seemingly harmless race t-shirt comes with a lot of emotional and environmental baggage.

So what are your options?

Refusing t-shirts and putting pressure on race organisers

Refusing a t-shirt at the finish line is a tricky subject to navigate, one I’m really conflicted about and admittedly just don’t know the best possible solution. Firstly, and I don’t know about you, but when I finish a long race the chances are I’m not quite aware of all the choices I make. I’m usually caught up in a flurry of adrenaline, fatigue, chaos and people thrusting finisher items at me. I’ve gotten good at declining a bottle of water/snacks as I bring my own, but a t-shirt is still where I dither never knowing what the best solution is. Declining a t-shirt at the point of offering can mean you don’t add to YOUR environmental impact, but me for, it is the fact it already exists that causes my conundrum. The impact on the planet is already there via the production and shipment of this product and if I take it there is a chance I may use it (you never quite know if it is a good/useful t-shirt until you’ve gotten home). If I don’t use it at least I know I’m in control of what happens next, for example have the power to ensure it remains out of landfill.

Personally, in this situation I feel the decision lies with race organisers to offer a point of refusal/opt in when signing up to races in advance and ensuring unnecessary garments aren’t produced in the first place. For example, according to a 2018 article in Fast Running, Basingstoke Half, give runners the option to be a ‘zero waste runner’ and not take home a t-shirt, a medal or any of the other potentially unnecessary finisher items. In turn the race offers a discount in price too so everybody wins. However I couldn’t find information about this on their website- if races are doing good they should scream and shout about it until it becomes the new norm. One way to pressurise unsustainable races is to praise the efforts other races go to to be sustainable. Yes more can always be done, but you know I am a huge fan of little changes adding up to larger impacts and it is important to make environmental awareness a standard rather than a trend. As runners we can put this pressure on organisers by speaking out about this. Re-run offer a template you can use to send to race organisers which you can find here.

Other issues stem from attitudes to production. In their 2019 article ‘Finisher T-shirts a Buyer’s Guide’ Race Directors HQ provide lots of valuable insights for RDs contemplating buying finisher t-shirts and whilst really useful considerations like valuing women and offering well-fitting t-shirts are on the list, sustainability, the option of not offering t-shirts or exploring eco-friendly textiles is not explored.

Wear or re-purpose the t-shirts you have

So actually wearing the t-shirts is a start! They might not be comfortable for running but can double up as loungewear, PJs or T-shirts to chuck on to go to races, the pool or the gym. Let them utilise their lifespan, wash them carefully, repair them and keep them usable in some way or another.

In terms of repurposing, this can be quite imaginative:

  • creating blankets- this is my lockdown craft project, or alternatively if you aren’t crafty check out too many t-shirts (who aim for zero waste in their production)
  • Upcycling damaged t-shirts into unique finisher mish mash combos re-run style
  • Or even something as simple as rags to clean your car, bike, home
  • Wear them as your throwaway t-shirt at the start of winter races (rather than that trusty plastic bin bag) as many of these are recycled.

Donate to charity, give to friends or even sell them!

This isn’t always the easiest thing to do with race t-shirts, as they’re often sentimental and specific to a certain race on a certain date, but sometimes there are options such as:

  • Find someone who is after another size or a replacement. This is especially applicable to larger races where many people ran. Shout out on Instagram if you have spares from big races that you don’t want, try eBay or Depop too.
  • Beyond finisher t-shirts you can set up a more general swap shop with your friends (I’m part of a few of these) where you trade oddments of sports kit between yourselves, with swaps, wine and chocolate as currency.
  • Donate to re-run although please note they are likely swamped with finisher t-shirts. The Running Charity also accept donations of good and as new sportswear.
  • Speak to your local parkrun, running group or community to see if they know of any local initiatives. For example whilst living in the UK ASICS FRONTRUNNER member Jevi proudly established Runners Renew which supported women, especially BME groups through second-hand clothing donations. I’m hoping to continue a similar legacy in the coming months.

Recycling

If your finisher t-shirt has absolutely reached the end of its life you can look into where and how to recycle it in your local community.

 

So what is the future of race t-shirts?

In all honesty, I don’t know. But the one thing I do think is a potential solution is that we need to put pressure on races to make these optional. I am absolutely not discrediting the sentimental value these hold to people (I treasure many of mine) or the access to ‘free’ sports kit these bring. However runners should be given the option to completely opt out and not have a t-shirt produced in the first place. There are so many issues associated with the production of clothing, especially unwanted clothing, that cutting this at the source feels like the most truly sustainable option. Even eco-friendly options still include transportation and often excess packaging.

Races that do continue to offer t-shirts should strive to make their t-shirts good quality and functional. These factors alongside sustainability should be championed by producers and buyers alike.

In general across the clothing sector there needs to be a greater drive to reuse, re-wear and re-purpose. Running kit is designed to be sweated in so let’s break the taboo around ‘old’ clothes being ‘dirty.’ Share/swap with friends, engage in local community schemes and find innovative ways to make use of unwanted race t-shirts.

If you like it, wear it, and get as much use out of it as you can. Repair it if it becomes damaged and treat it well so it lasts. If you use your t-shirt constantly, you can avoid buying more elsewhere.

What do you do with your finisher t-shirts? Do you have a collection? Have you ever contacted a race about them? I would love to know your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!


2 thoughts on “Running the Road to Sustainability: the debate around finisher t-shirts

  1. Great Post Becca. Lots to think about here. When I started running, I would only enter races where a finisher t-shirts was on offer, but over the last few years I’ve started to decline them. I tend to wear my 5 favourite running tops all the time and finishers t-shirts drop to the bottom of the pile, never get worn and end up being recycled after a year or so. I have a few good finisher t-shirts and a few treasured ones, but many are poor quality and also not particularly nice looking.

    I think the “zero waste runner” option you mentioned can work. Making someone tick a box and think about the impact of the t-shirts (if the impact explained in the sign up details) before they pay their money. Grasping the “Blue planet effect” and highlighting the micro plastic impact of polyester and that it is a form of plastic would go some way too. This would need ethical and upfront race organisers or a sustained effort from the running community to say they no longer want them.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s