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Imperfect steps

Updated: Nov 2, 2022

By Kat Spinney

Nobody wants to hear bad news or read about a depressing dilemma that is spiralling out of control, do they? But what if that story had the power to change the future of our planet and shape the sport that we love into something that we can feel better about, and which isn't fanning the fire of climate change. We talk to environmentalist, fell runner and friend of Girls on Hills, Kat Spinney about the new book We can’t run away from this by inov-8 ambassador and ultrarunner Damian Hall.

Author Damian Hall, credit Stuart March at ReRun

Kat's Thoughts

In this second book from Damian Hall, the author shifts focus from his life and prolific running achievements to the environmental footprint that he (and the rest of us) leave behind when we go running.

The chapters examine the different areas of running as a sport and how the way in which we go about running impacts our carbon footprint - and ultimately the climate and health of the planet. As anyone who follows Damian Hall will know, he has a light-hearted writing style and keeps things jovial wherever he can, but despite this, if you haven’t given the environmental impact of running much thought, then you are probably in for a shock when you read this book!

The environmenal discussion is running-specific and begins by looking at shoes, clothing and gear, with a wide-ranging perspective covering the life-cycles of the different types of kit we all use. Damian also examines marketing and the way in which we acquire these things, especially t-shirts. For example, these are often a race freebie and Damian highlights the insanity of extracting fossil fuels, then exploiting people in a polluting sweatshop to make them and shipping them thousands of miles to give to someone who doesn’t even want it, only for it to be discarded and clog-up landfill or be burnt! It’s a pretty inexcusable system in its current format.

The focus then moves to the racing industry and travel. It’s a tough topic and I found it both interesting and controversial to see this talked about by an athlete who has himself travelled great distances to big races, meanwhile encouraging everyone to think about not doing so themselves. But Damian is not shy of owning his hypocrisy and exploring the dilemma that faces environmental activists/athletes in his unique position. In this chapter he examines the impact of global race series and the carbon footprint of putting on events; it’s definitely thought-provoking!

Next under the microscope is diet. This is a relatively short chapter, which I suspect is because the right thing for the planet (and I would agree with him) is a clear move to plant-based diets. He also examines race and training food, plus how it is packaged and consumed.

The discussion ends on the subject of activism and strongly makes the point that these problems are bigger than all of us, and that it is impossible to be perfect in an imperfect system. I found the book somewhat comforting in terms of the level of detail that is given and the use of supporting figures for everything! It made me feel slightly less neurotic myself, as someone who is always trying to make the most environmentally friendly choice in everything I do. But also it gave me hope that other people really do care!

The central message is an important one. It is very easy to feel that you are a hypocrite by being imperfect and the fear of being exposed (as anything other than 'perfect') leads to inaction and to keeping quiet about the positive changes that you have made. This in turn slows the spread of these good ideas and actions!

Reduce, reuse and recycle! Credit Stuart March at ReRun

Damian uses one of my favourite quotes from Ghandi 'be the change you want to see in the world' and I would add 'buy cheap, buy twice' in relation to outdoor gear! Buy the best that you can afford (which will be different for everyone) and make it last as long as you can by looking after it and repairing it to reduce your impact.

But what I liked most, was the end of each chapter. After the author has taken you through all the problems, there's advice and resources for trying to improve the issues discussed, along with practical things to do to make a difference, specific to running. There are also a couple of pages at the end with a wealth of links to organisations for environmental action, along with films, podcasts and books to further your knowledge. There is a comprehensive list of repairing, recycling and rehoming organisations for specific kit to help keep it going or find a way to donate/dispose of them ethically.

Through 'care and repair' Kat is still using outdoor clothing that she owned when she first started running (top left; Kat on Eilidir Fawr, North Wales in 2008. Mid Left; the same kit still going strong in 2022 - plus comedy recycled curtains aged 37 years! Other images of repaired kit)

I am a hypocrite too. I eat a vegan diet except I sometimes buy eggs from our neighbour (for animal welfare reasons rather than climate). I still buy woollen base layers (as they do the job and I hope that they would compost at the end of their life.) Contrary to the stereotype, I am embarrassed to tell people about it because I am not doing it perfectly, and I spend a lot of time apologising for only having oat milk and being a bad host. Our family has set itself up so that we can walk or cycle to school, work and town. I try to cycle everywhere but sometimes I don’t have time to get out on the hill when the kids are at school without taking the car. My only running bag is over a decade old and has lots of repairs; I only replace kit when the previous item is really dead! I recycle and compost and take laces off old trainers to reuse them. But today, instead of worrying about the most eco-friendly way to buy broccoli (local but wrapped in plastic or loose but from Spain?), and in the spirit of this book, I have taken time-out to write a review, in the hope that I can have a positive impact and encourage you to buy and read this book!

Damian Hall is a strong advocate for empowering people through encouraging the accumulation of little actions. I think the carbon footprint of the book (2.48kg, he’s calculated it!) is thoroughly justified, given it's potential to help runners to make a material difference to the planet.

It isn't easy on the conscience but it's nevertheless a book that we should all read (and then pass on)!


Cost of Living of Crisis and Environmental Impact

Many people who are feeling the pinch of the current Cost of Living Crisis may be denied the luxury of free choice when it comes to buying running equipment or specialist outdoor gear. This applies to travel too, where the cheapest option is not the most environmentally friendly (e.g flying vs train). In this financial climate, it's arguably more important than ever that those who do have the luxury of time or finance, put their money to work for good and support businesses that are trying to do the right thing - i.e. to help make being green good for business too! Such an economic shift would be a massive step-change for progress in the fight against climate change.

Girls on Hills and Sustainable Tourism

At Girls on Hills our biggest carbon impact is the travel that our customers undertake to attend our courses. We encourage the use of public transport and provide information for runners on how they can travel to Glencoe by rail and bus. Once in the area, we provide a local shuttle for runners visiting us without a vehicle and facilitate lift-sharing (to reduce use of vehicles as well as ease parking congestion). As a company, we mostly travel short distances within our area, use local run guides and promote local businesses wherever possible, to support our rural economy (for all course locations across the UK).

As part of our Outdoor Pledge we also promote responsible use of the mountain environment, including best-practice wild-camping, use of bothies (i.e. the Bothy Code) and 'plogging'. We aim to provide authentic experiences that celebrate and conserve the environment, heritage and culture of our region.

But there is always more we can do! In this respect we welcome constructive suggestions and fresh ideas about how we can make our business greener.

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