The race merch system is broken

Humans love free stuff. If you’ve ever walked around an exhibition hall, you’ll see this in motion – people filling their pockets with branded stress balls and pens, queueing round the block for a scoop of free ice cream. Just because it’s there. 

As runners we’re no different. This lust to receive something every time we race has created a downward spiral for race merchandise. It feels like win-win, the RD does their bit and you get your something, but, in reality, it’s lose-lose, and lose again

Tight race budgets are getting tighter, which means we typically end up with a poorly fitted polyester top from China, with a high environmental footprint in tow, often with a very short lifespan. You only need check out ReRun’s Instagram to see that the ‘want’ for a race t-shirt is short-lived.

Photo courtesy of ReRun Clothing

Over 60% of us already have over 10 running tops, and the £2.50 polyester number everyone gets at your local 10k is unlikely to find itself in regular rotation. The result? 1,000s of unused t-shirts, only printed to fulfil our lust to receive something. Send them to Africa? Send them to landfill? Neither option is a genuine solution.

The big ‘loser’ in our status quo of ‘t-shirts for everyone’ is the environment. Each t-shirt creates around 2kg of eCO2 emissions and uses up 2,720 litres of water in production.

According to the IIRM, in 2018 there were around 1.1 million participants in marathons alone. Most marathons I’ve done have offered a t-shirt, so each year this habit of offering free t-shirts creates 2.2 million kg of eCO2, whilst using a staggering 2,992 million litres of water. That’s 1,200 Olympic swimming pools. From marathons alone, not even thinking about all the other races.

Source: ReRun Clothing

The issue is, most Race Directors we speak to at Trees not Tees feel stuck. They’re scared of rocking the boat and getting backlash from runners by removing t-shirts altogether. Adding the Tree option is a start and something that is growing in popularity. In total, 116 events implemented Trees not Tees in 2021, and we’re seeing an increasing number of runners contact RDs to let them know about our project, which is amazing, as it gives RDs confidence to make a change.

However, we’re still faced with hundreds of races still offering t-shirts because it’s the easy thing to do and they’re scared of the pushback.

So how do we break this cycle, is it down to RDs or Runners? 

We need to work together.

It takes a brave Race Director to shake things up.

After COVID cancellations in 2020, like many other Race Directors, Sam Kantorowich from WMP Creative, who organise the Weston Super Half, Exeter’s Great West Run, and The Cheltenham Half, was left with 2,000 t-shirts, all dated and unusable. 

Whilst they managed to find a home, Sam realised something needed to be done to prevent a return to the inevitable ‘race to the bottom’ in procuring cheap t-shirts that participants don’t end up wearing. 

WMP took the brave decision, supported by local councils in Weston Super Mare and Cheltenham, to move away from t-shirts altogether. As a replacement, they chose to plant a tree for every runner. When they announced it, there was initial push back from runners, but the decision went down well overall, with only a tiny minority in disagreement. 

Rather than hiding it on their website, for 2022 they will be marketing the fact that runners get a tree planted for them as a special feature.  With a brave decision, they’ve gone from producing 7,000 t-shirts each year to planting 7,000 trees, with limited impact on runner numbers.

As runners, we also need to play our part and let races know we want change. 

We need to do more to give Race Organisers the confidence to break the habit of free t-shirts and medals. If you’re sent a free t-shirt you don’t want, drop it off with them at the race, or don’t collect it at registration and tell them why. Someone will be faced with having to dispose of all the extra t-shirts, which can be the impact that makes them change the next year.

But what about those of us who do want race merchandise?

Race merchandise can be great on a micro level. At every race it’ll be someone’s first, there’ll be a runner looking for a souvenir for an epic adventure, but this will be a small percentage. Others may wear a free t-shirt a few times, but nearly all of them will end up in charity shops, shipped off to another continent as a way of cleansing our conscious, or most likely, in landfill. 

What are potential solutions for races?

  • If you’re offering kit, always have an ‘opt out’ option
  • Even better, direct the funds to a climate positive project
  • Finally, if you’re doing merchandise, do it properly 

The best t-shirt for the environment is the one you already own, and we simply need to buy much less kit. However, where races and runners are determined to still offer merchandise, we need to move towards a high quality, low volume model, away from 1,000s of £2.50 t-shirts for everyone. 

UK brands like Presca Sportswear, pitched as the world’s first carbon negative sportswear brand, are making inroads in this market by offering races a high-quality, sustainable options for participants, from branded socks for people that just want something through to t-shirts. As with ReRun, Presca have also started offering the opportunity to stamp a t-shirt with the race logo, rather than pushing people to buy more merchandise.

As runners, every time you sign up for a race, have a look at what’s being offered. If there’s something being included for ‘free’, ask yourself whether you really want that item, or where it will realistically end up in 3 or 6 months’ time. If there isn’t an option to say no, take two minutes to message the organisers to suggest a change, you’ll likely find that many are a few encouraging emails away from making a positive change. 

Find out more

Trees not Tees, ReRun Clothing, IIRM

"The best t-shirt for the environment is the one you already own, and we simply need to buy much less kit"

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