Thursday, January 12, 2012

Gear: Ethical Consumerism & Running

greenHaving gone to a hippy-dippy liberal arts college and residing in hippy-dippy liberal San Francisco, I've spent a reasonable portion of my life concerned about things like labor practices, social justice, civil & human rights, environmentalism, sustainability, etc. This can be conflicting sometimes because it's difficult to live in the 21st century without doing or supporting *something* that doesn't match my values in one or more of those areas. I try to do what I can, but you can only delve so far down that rabbit hole before you're living in the woods gathering roots & berries for sustenance and weaving your own clothes out of hemp seed and dandelions.

I suppose, to a certain extent, it started back in high school. I'm sure you remember the Nike sweatshop scandal of the early nineties. Before then, Nike was my brand of choice when it came to athletic gear. When I found out about their repugnant labor practices, I was horrified that I'd been supporting such things & swore off the brand forever. The real trouble, though, came when I tried to find another brand I could purchase with a clear conscience; although most weren't as bad as Nike, just about all the major athletic brands at that time were engaging in a few practices that turned my stomach. The one exception seemed to be New Balance, so that's what I ran in for a while. With regard to clothes, I kind of threw up my hands & started just buying stuff at Target. (Don't think I don't see the irony of that now.)

In college, my roommate & I found out we could no longer shop at The Gap, for similar reasons. Then we found out Old Navy was part of The Gap, so that was out. Then we found out that Taco Bell, our one fast food indulgence, was horrible to its tomato pickers, so then we couldn't eat there. Then we learned that formaldehyde is routinely used in the manufacturing of "wrinkle-free" frabrics, which brings up all sorts of environmental & health concerns, so we couldn't buy those anymore either. At one point, my roommate began an active campaign to avoid hearing about such issues, because once she knew, her conscience wouldn't let her ignore it. "Pretty soon I'm going to be eating weeds & hunting & skinning squirrels to make my own clothes," she said soberly. (There were a lot of squirrels at our school.) "It's the only way to be sure."

Which brings us back to, no, you can't do everything. Most of us don't have time to sew our own clothes, grow our own grain, make our own bath products from scratch, etc. In general, my philosophy has been to do what I can, within reason, and to do the most where I spend the most. My big ones are food and health & beauty products -- if it's going in or on my body, I can take the time to do a bit of research. I try to buy recycled and reusable as much as possible, and avoid patronizing companies known for poor practices.

In the last few years, though, I've spent enough money on running shoes & clothes that I've started to feel like that's an area where I should make more of an effort. If I'm going to regularly support a brand or company with my hard-earned dollars, I decided, I needed to find out what their policies and practices are with regard to the things I value. Are they environmentally responsible? Do they pay their workers a living wage? Are the chemicals they use in production safe, both for the workers handling them and the consumers who will be wearing/using the product?

For a long time, I kind of figured that unless I heard something particularly egregious about a certain product or company (like Nike in the 90s), then most of them were pretty much the same and it didn't matter which one I went with.

Well, they're not. It matters. And thanks to technology, it's easier now than ever to find out who's making it a better world (or at least not actively making it worse) and who isn't.

So I've started looking into the brands that I personally have purchased the most, and those that I see and hear a lot about in the broader running / active community. It's a bit of an ongoing project, but I'll try to post about one or two every week or so.

(Disclaimer - The purpose of these posts is NOT to make you feel guilty or like a horrible person if you prefer a brand or product that doesn't have the greatest practices ever, or to necessarily persuade you to switch to something different. It's purely to inform. I absolutely, 100% believe that we should get to make our own choices, using whatever criteria we want (this is 'Murika, after all). But I also believe that we make our best decisions when we have all (or at least more of) the information. These posts have one purpose, and that is to inform.)

Have a favorite brand or company whose practices you're interested in? Let me know!


  1. I've been a vegetarian for the past 5-6 years (this included a 6-month stint as a vegan), and I've always felt conflicted over wearing running shoes that contained animal products. I do wear a bit of leather, but I buy it second-hand. I justify it by telling myself that vegan products in my budget don't hold up that well, and that I don't want my old shoes and clothes littering some landfill.

    As for running shoes. I can't buy those from a thrift-store, obviously. I read somewhere that some brands aren't vegetarian-friendly, but I can't really tell by looking at the shoebox or website. It's just one of those things I've learned to let go.

  2. I followed the same path as you from Nike to New Balance, and then later the same process as your roommate in trying just not to hear more about it because it would be too upsetting. I am curious, though — I figure shoes I'm always going to get what works best, but I have a lot of choices I can make when it comes to apparel.