The Ecology of Commerce: A Trail Running Perspective

In 1993, one of the world’s leading voices for the environmental movement and best-selling author, Paul Hawken, wrote The Ecology of Commerce, a book that highlights the problem of the extreme environmental impact caused by modern business practices. “There is no polite way to say that business is destroying the world” (page 3), writes Hawken in the first chapter. Examining modern day environmental issues such as the ever increasing greenhouse gas emissions of fossil-fuel producing companies and consequences that result from destructive business practices including oil spills and Plastic Island (to name a few), I find the problems presented in Hawken’s book are as relevant as ever. Although it’s easy to pin the blame of this destruction of the planet solely on large corporations involved in fossil fuel, I can’t help but think about how we as trail runners are also intimately involved in contributing to these same problems. The business practices of the trail running industry are destructive to the environment and the trails we love to run. This needs to change if we hope to continue practicing our sport. In this article, I’ll explain why I think trail runners should take a closer look at Hawken’s principles for creating more effective and ecologically-minded business practices that will help us learn to trail run in a way that saves our planet.

The Current Trail Running Business Model is Destroying the Environment
The current trail running business model is what Hawken’s would describe as “destructive” rather than “restorative.” In a restorative business model, businesses prioritize not just money, growth and productivity. Hawken writes on his vision for the ideal business model, “The promise of business is to increase the general well-being of humankind through service, a creative invention and ethical philosophy. Making money is, on its own terms, totally meaningless, an insufficient pursuit for the complex and decaying world we live in” (page 1).

We as trail runners should take a closer look at how the major brands in our sport are operating and how these businesses conduct themselves with regards to their impact on the environment. Gear, such as trail running shoes, running vests, socks, poles, etc. all have a carbon footprint in their creation, use and disposal that should be considered. The nutrition industry is another huge contributor in our sport. Individually packed items such as gels and energy bars may be ideal for carrying in races, but we must also think about the packaging these products require and how to dispose (or reuse!) them properly.

A huge problem that may stop trail running brands in the gear and nutrition industries from becoming more environmentally conscious is the way the current market operates. The market favors those with the lowest price, which doesn’t always reflect the true cost of the product. Hawken’s explains this idea further with his concept of “unrecognized costs.” Hawken writes “Because markets are a price-based system, they naturally favor traders who come to market with the lowest price, which often means the highest unrecognized costs…a market cannot distinguish between a piece of wood harvested sustainably from a forest and one harvested from a clear-cut that has destroyed habitat and future productivity (page 79).” In terms of trail running, the market cannot distinguish shoe, apparel, or nutrition products that are produced in the most sustainable way possible as opposed to those that are produced with materials or practices that greatly damage the environment. The market does not reward trail running businesses for their sustainable practices.

In addition to the market of trail running gear and nutrition, we also should consider the environmental impact of our trail races. For every race there is a carbon footprint involved with putting on the event. One of the largest contributing factors to this footprint is the travel to the event by participants. This is a particularly serious problem for events that attract large numbers of international participants such as the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc or many of the Ultra Trail World Tour Events because these participants will likely take flights or drive long distances to reach the event. Additionally, the energy used to run the operations of the event itself usually involves fossil fuels. This can include things like powering generators for speakers, aid stations, driving supplies between stations, etc. Finally, waste is another problem at races. Runners produce trash in the form of food waste, plastic cups, wrappers, etc. that usually find their way into the landfill or also unfortunately sometimes litter trails. Human waste is another concern that race directors must plan for prior to the event.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Why Should We Care?
Of all the sporting industries, trail running should be particularly concerned with its environmental impact. This is because our sport is situated within natural settings that are at risk of being damaged should we continue on the same trend of destructive practices we are currently involved in. Climate change can damage trail systems through flooding, fires and harm the natural ecosystems in which our events take place. Our sport is nothing without the majestic nature of the trails in which we run. If we want to preserve the beauty of our sport, we need to take action to change the way we practice it.

The Future of Trail Running…And The Planet!
Going forward, we as a trail running community can choose to prioritize environmental initiatives in our sport to protect the planet. Listed below are my top four things you as a trail runner can do to save the planet and shift away from the current destructive business model our sport practices.

Change Your Consumer Demands
The market responds to consumer demands, so by changing your demands you can change what types of products are being produced in the trail running industry. If we as trail runners buy exclusively brands that use recycled/sustainable materials, request removal of unnecessary packaging materials, buy from businesses that source locally (to reduce the carbon footprint of shipping), etc., then these businesses will have no choice but to meet our demands if they still want our business. We should express that we are willing to pay more for a product that is produced sustainably and includes the “unrecognized costs,” as opposed to being produced as cheaply as possible. Look at the brands you typically purchase. What is their approach to their environmental impact? If you feel there are areas where they could be doing better, reach out and give suggestions, or consider switching to more sustainable brands. The North Face and Patagonia are two major brands in the trail running industry that routinely make major commitments to support the environment. Additionally, GU Energy Labs has partnered with international recycling leader TerraCycle for the past six years to reduce their packing waste.

Talk With Race Directors
Many trail race directors are concerned with their event’s impact on the environment and are often receptive to suggestions for improvement in this area. Compostable toilets, solar power, going “cupless”, including carbon offsets into race entry fees, requiring trail maintenance work, and increasing access to car pooling or public transportation are just a few ways trail race directors across the country have improved their event’s environmental impact. For your next race, reach out to the race director and see what they are doing to make their event more sustainable. Also, consult our resource for Trail Running Race Sustainability Guidelines for more ideas.

Peter Maksimow getting his plog on.

Start Plogging
Plogging is perhaps the most “hands on” way you can make a difference for the environment when you go trail running. Plogging is a Swedish term for the act of picking up trash as you run. Plogging is a great way to clean up the trails in your community or wherever you run. Even picking up just one or two pieces of trash every run will add up. Plogging enthusiasts might also consider bringing a bag to carry trash in while they run.

Get Involved With Or Promote Environmental Initiatives
As far as the sports industry is concerned, trail running is doing a good job in terms of its environmental activism groups to be involved with. One example is the pledge, launched October 2020, by elite trail runner, Kilian Jornet, which encourages brands, athletes, and race organizers in the trail running community to reduce their environmental impact. This is a huge stance for Jornet, whose job as a professional athlete is to travel internationally to races, a practice his new pledge hopes to change in order to reduce the environmental impact produced by such race travel.

Organizations such as Runners for Public Lands, The Council For Responsible Sport and Protect Our Winters are also taking steps to change the culture of our sport to be more environmentally conscious and encourage political involvement. Additionally, there have been many “grassroots” actions taken by individuals in the trail running community such as those by Soleil Gaylord and Matt Bone. There are many organizations and individuals in the trail running community committed to saving our planet and your first step should be to find a way to get involved with these initiatives. These organizations and individuals can be great resources for learning how you can make a difference in your community.

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