Tee-d Off

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A friend of mine recently bundled up all the T-shirts she received from running road races and took them to Goodwill. She said getting rid of them was a relief. I know how she feels. I’ve come to loathe the cheaply made, ill-fitting cotton T-shirts that I receive for my race entry fees. I rarely wear them, and I’m not alone. Many people’s collections of superfluous shirts are so large that a cottage industry has sprung up offering custom quilts made from the spoils of competition. One such company, the T-Shirt Quilt Factory, will make you a six-by-seven-foot queen-sized quilt for $500.

Many more T-shirts no doubt end up as cleaning rags, or as part of the international rag trade, which sells millions of tons of unwanted clothing to lesser-developed countries each year. Not a little ironic, since many of the tees were originally manufactured in China or Central America under less-than-pleasant working conditions.

An industry, not a charity, the rag trade makes for some strange connections. A friend traveling in Africa was astounded to see a local man wearing a T-shirt from Bloomsday, a race in his hometown of Spokane, Washington. Someone didn’t want a shirt, and someone else did. Globalization appears to make us all even-steven.

Except that it really doesn’t work out that way. You don’t have to be an economist to see that. When you figure the fuel and other resources that are used to manufacture the shirt and ship it to the United States, where it goes unworn and is bounced around to various intermediaries until it makes its way back to a lesser-developed country, it’s no deal at all.

According to the nonprofit group Running USA, about 8.5 million runners finish a road race in the United States each year. Seattle’s Jingle Bell Run, which benefits the Arthritis Foundation, is one of the nation’s largest road races, with nearly 5,000 runners finishing the event in 2006. To make sure every participant and volunteer gets a correctly sized shirt, organizers order about 11,000, sell the leftovers, and give the rest to charity.

On its website, the Portland Marathon encourages finishers to send in pictures of themselves wearing its shirts in far-flung places, like the North Pole or the Great Wall of China. It’s proof that someone is wearing the shirt at least once.

Those who regularly spend a lot of time outdoors training for races experience the perceptible effects of global warming every day. It’s all the more reason to make sure we tread lightly and reduce our carbon footprint with every step we take.

The average cotton T-shirt, weighing around 400 grams, produces 15 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions. Each race entrant also receives stacks of fliers and other “swag,” such as overwrapped tubes of lotion, mini-deodorant sticks, and boxes of instant noodles. All of this overflows trash cans even before the starting gun has gone off. I’ve yet to see a recycling bin at running events, even though many racers dump the materials like newspaper readers weeding out ads.

Carbon neutral was the New Oxford American Dictionary’s new word of the year for 2006, yet carbon consciousness has yet to permeate the supersponsored world of event promotion. Far from it. Running, walking, cycling, and triathlon events are a carnival of marketing, from their prerace expos to their “goody bags.”

The T-shirt is not the only carbon culprit of these mass activities, but it may be the most controversial one. Participants and race directors alike say people are loath to give up the all-important race T-shirt, even if most of them never wear their shirts, and even if it meant they’d pay less to enter the race.

They’re not alone. Wearable keepsakes are also a mainstay at corporate events, music festivals, even family reunions. Which is why it’s encouraging to know that at least one eco-minded clothing company has emerged. Last fall, Continental Clothing, a wholesaler that caters to the promotions business, released its new line of EarthPositive T-shirts (www.earthpositiveonline.com). The tees are made from low-impact, organic cotton (no fossil fuel-guzzling tractors here), and the manufacturing process is driven by wind and solar energy. If enough race directors encourage this sort of label, runners could soon earn bragging rights for both their stride and their swag.

Reprinted from the Bear Deluxe(Summer 2007), a quarterly magazine of environmental issues and creative arts produced by the nonprofit organization Orlo. Subscriptions: $16/yr. (4 issues) from Box 10342, Portland, OR 97296; www.orlo.org.

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