Running with a conscience

Melissa Schweisguth photo credit: TIME

Two of my passions are running and the environment. I do my best to marry them: I’ve recycled my old running shoes. I currently run in Vibram FiveFinger “barefoot” shoes, which are light weight and last a long time. I mix my own Gatorade from a 3 lb. 3 oz. can of powder, which saves plastic bottles. But I also use high tech equipment (Garmin GPS, Monster headphones, iPod shuffle), own dozens of T-shirts from races that are stuffed in a closet and drive 2-3 miles most days just to get to the place where I start my run. Over the years I’ve flown to marathons in Chicago, San Diego, Big Sur and Athens, Greece.

Melissa Schweisguth is a 36-year-old fellow sustainability professional and writer who also enjoys running. She puts me to shame, and not just because she clocked an impressive 3:11:07 in the Eugene (Oregon) Marathon this year. Melissa hasn’t thrown anything into a landfill since 2006, which earned her notice in Time magazine (due to non-consumerism and creative reuse.). She thrives on an organic, whole foods, locally-based and almost exclusively vegan diet, (as does famed ultra runner Scott Jurek). She’s been working on improving her running footprint to avoid trampling people or planet and has written three blogposts on running “au naturel” for her blog, Living Acoustically, which she’s kindly agreed to let me share here.  I don’t expect most runners to be as “green” as Melissa, but my hope is that she’ll inspire you, whether you run or not, as she has inspired me to make a change or two in your lives. When she isn’t running, Melissa works a freelance writer and consultant on sustainability issues and media relations, and as director of membership and development for the Food Trade Sustainability Leadership Association. Here’s her first post, about clothing and shoes:

Sometimes we need new, ready-made things, but, more often, we can reuse, buy used, or make something easily, and get a better, cheaper, more healthful product. It’s easy to forget this since marketers are skilled at wooing us, we’re encouraged to seek upward mobility and novelty, and our culture has devalued making things ourselves: gardening, basic cooking and the like.

While running, I’ve sought to maximize and improve performance while honoring a guiding principle that defines sustainability to me: “live simply so that others may simply live.” (Or, following this blog’s theme, unplug from consumerism and run acoustically.) Below are examples of things I do, some long term and some more recent changes. This is being shared for informational purposes only; it’s not intended to be preachy or judgmental, as that’s not my style. We all have different backgrounds and resource demands in our lives, and I’m the first to admit there are many things I can improve!


When I started running, “technical” fabrics and performance-optimizing clothing weren’t on the market. I wore basic clothing and never really bought into the marketing around newfangled stuff. More apparel uses fabrics marketed as environmentally friendly, such as organic cotton, wool, bamboo, hemp and recycled poly, which are great if new things are needed. However, the most sustainable choices are items we have or can get used, which also saves money. I’ve found great shorts, tops and running tights at thrift stores and yard sales. Last fall, arm sleeves made of bamboo grabbed my interest but I made my own from old kids’ leggings (super easy) and a tank top (a bit more work). Old nylons and wool socks also do the job with no sewing required. Retired apparel can be donated if still in good shape or used to stuff pillows, stuffed animals, etc.

Running bras and socks I prefer new, so I look for durable, responsibly made products, sourced and manufactured as close as possible. Patagonia’s recycled poly bra has held up (no pun intended) for more than two years and thousands of miles. I hand wash it in shower water and air dry it (like the rest of my running clothes), which probably helps. For socks, I look for recycled poly and organic natural fibers. “Eco-friendly” materials aren’t guaranteed to be grown, harvested or manufactured with good labor or environmental practices. Bamboo may be grown on deforested rainforest and processed with harsh chemicals, for examples, and sweatshops are a reality in the U.S. and abroad. More businesses are sharing supplier information (check websites) so it’s easier to size up options. Companies that aren’t transparent lose the race with me.


While some may say barefoot running is the most environmentally friendly way to go go go, I like wearing shoes and think they’re generally better new. This is one of the more challenging areas since options are limited and those don’t fit every foot or situation.

For road running, Brooks’ Green Silence is marketed as the greenest option on the market, with 60% recycled content, biodegradable components, less materials, and other positive attributes. Brooks has several environmental initiatives and a great supplier responsibility program. Check out an article I wrote on the shoe and company here.

My preferred terrain is mountain trail. Brooks’ Cascadia is a great, durable trail shoe with recycled content and a biodegradable midsole, though a bit heavy for me. I like the New Balance 100, which is light and thus saves on materials but otherwise not distinct in terms of sustainability. New Balance retains some US manufacturing presence and has good environmental practices. They also sponsor ultrarunner Kyle Skaggs, who’s an organic farmer, which gets big points from me.

Old shoes are great for walking and hiking after their life in the fast lane ends. They can also be donated for reuse or recycled, and many stores and races collect them for such programs. I started planting things in them to extend their useful life and try to close the loop on my end.

Note from Marc: Melissa gives new meaning to the words shoe tree

Tomorrow: Racing, training and technology


  1. Sol says

    Hi Melissa – thanks for this great article. Although I’m not a runner, I’m a cyclist, and of course just generally need shoes – and while I, like you it sounds like, buy all of my clothes used, I can rarely find used shoes, and I would worry, anyway, about the support of shoes broken into someone else’s foot. So I’ve actually held off buying runners for a couple of years, hoping that I’ll find another option.

    A colleague told me that she had composted her canvas runners – and a year later when she dug up her compost, all that was left was a pristine white rubber sole, and the six metal eyelets! I loved this story and have adopted canvas runners this summer. But I live in the Pacific Northwest, so they’re not going to work for the winter. I think I”ll probably switch to ‘galoshoes’, since they’re one single material for recycling – but for support, I’d prefer runners. Which leads me to a question – you say in your article that runners can be recycled. My understanding is that if products are made from more than one material (i.e. polyester or various types of plastic uppers, rubber soles), and they can’t be separated from each other, then they can’t be recycled. Do you know something different? I’d love to hear about it.
    thanks again for your blog, Sol.

  2. Melissa says

    Hi Sol –

    Technically, anything can be recycled. We just don’t have the right infrastructure.

    Recycling hybrid materials is challenging and appropriate processors are limited, one reason McDonough calls these “monstrous hybrids” in Cradle to Cradle.

    Nike has the appropriate infrastructure to separate and use various materials for their Reuse-a-Shoe program. Check out this site, which explains the process with good multimedia

    I advocate recycling only if shoes are really unwearable. Old running and sports shoes are great for walking, gardening, casual biking, etc. or can be donated to programs linked in the blog. If you’re really motivated, you could make sandals from the bottoms of shoes with bygone uppers.

    Industrial plastic recyclers can also recycle composite materials like food and other product packaging (energy bars, snack food bags, household & personal products with 6 or 7 resin identification code, etc.) and electronics casings. Many large companies who produce these products sell or give excess materials to composite recyclers, where they’re melted together to make raw materials for things like park benches and the moulded plastic around car mirrors.

    Finding outlets for such materials can be a challenge. Check or see if your city, county, etc has any special collections for unusual plastics, electronics, etc.

    A company called TerraCycle collects some food packaging and other harder-to-recycle-locally plastics for reuse and traditional composite recycling. Schools and non-profits can raise a few dollars collecting materials. They do take some items that could be reused or replaced with refillables, like yogurt containers, pens and tape dispensers, so working to reuse locally first (and replace single-use items like tape and pens with refillables) makes sense for these items.


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