Guest Opinion: Bruce Rayner on Environmental Sustainability and Social Justice

Guest opinion written by Bruce Rayner, Founder and Chief Green Officer for Athletes for a Fit Planet, an American Trail Running Association (ATRA) corporate member and partner in our Event Standards Program.

Athletes for a Fit Planet was founded in January 2008 to help running, cycling, and triathlon events become more environmentally responsible. It was two years after An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s inspiring book and movie about global warming. Very few events were recycling, and practically no one measured their carbon footprint. In fact, very few knew what “carbon footprint” meant.

At Athletes for a Fit Planet, we developed a Pledge of Sustainability for events to kick start their eco-journey. We’ve also helped organizations earn certification to the Council for Responsible Sport’s sustainability standard that includes credits for managing waste, water, and carbon, and enhancing access and equity. The US Trail Running Conference earned certification from the Council just last year.

Over the last 12 years, we have provided consulting and onsite support to event organizers of all sizes across the US, in Canada and Europe. It’s always the same routine. Slowly event organizers warm to the idea that they have a responsibility to manage and reduce their eco-footprint. Some come to it because it is the right thing to do. Others feel pressure from their participants and communities. And in a few cases, their sponsors demand it. Regardless, once they start to see the results and hear the positive feedback, there is no going back.

We’ve seen many event organizations go through the transformation as they make sustainability an integral part of their operations and their identity. It’s truly a beautiful thing.

But now our world has been turned upside down. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives and devastated the economy. And now the death of George Floyd has sparked Black Lives Matter protests across the globe. Together, these disruptions lay bare the inequity and injustice that has existed in the United States for centuries. It is everyone’s job to try to figure out how to contribute to meaningful positive and lasting social change, including the running community.

Truth be told, most road and trail races are not very diverse. While unintentional, the root cause can be traced back to systemic racism. Since the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia in February, many articles have explored why the act of running while Black is considered so dangerous. Examples include an opinion piece and an article from the New York Times, another from Runner’s World magazine.

I don’t pretend to have answers for how the running community can become more diverse. But the challenge is similar to and intertwined with the one we face with addressing climate change and environmental sustainability. It feels overwhelming, it’s hard to figure out where to start, and there are no quick solutions.

This is the moment for running clubs and event organizations to address social sustainability and become more inclusive. As with environmental sustainability, it starts with a commitment to initiate change, and over time becomes part of the organization’s identity. And it too will be a beautiful thing. You can be sure that Athletes for a Fit Planet will be doubling down on our efforts to support social sustainability in the months and years to come.

Where to start? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Education – A good place to start is the New York Times top 10 nonfiction paperback best sellers list. Also, check out the Netflix documentary 13th.
  2. Communication – Discuss outreach and action with your running buddies, club members, friends, coworkers, and local event organizers.
  3. Engagement – Invite Black friends to join your group runs. Support your local running club to engage with the Black community. Encourage local running events to be more inclusive.
  4. Formally commit to social justice and sustainability – Make public the actions your organization will take to be more welcoming for People of Color.

To learn more about Athletes for a Fit Planet, check out our website or send me an email at [email protected].