I wish organized races would do away with including t-shirts in the swag bag. Although they are still popular as a souvenir, and race directors find advertising shirts as a way to entice people to their events, I find them to be unnecessary to the point of being wasteful, and they get even less valuable the more they accumulate.
The benefit of having a “cool shirt” is all but obsolete, as we now put our accomplishments on Facebook and Instagram, and what we wear on our back IRL doesn’t matter as long as the photo proof of our efforts are out there. I have gotten some really cool race shirts, but the more I raced the less special they became, and I wonder at how much of my positive view of them was from the novelty of getting a shirt back when I didn’t have many. I’ve never needed the shirt, however, and if you can afford to spend $35-150 on a race, you are probably not in need of being clothed. Unless I am mistaken, there is not an epidemic of topless recreational runners filling the sidewalks, only saved by the grace of finally running a race and procuring a shirt. If you check the first few miles of a half or full marathon, you’ll see further evidence of this. People wear their “extra” shirts for warming up and then throw them down, many with no expectation of retrieving them again. We’re good on shirts.
These feelings about the wasteful and unnecessary nature of apparel in race swag proceeded The True Cost of Fast Fashion and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. If you haven’t heard, fashion is the number two polluting industry after oil and petroleum. Think about that- before medical, before automotive, or industrial production, the consumables we wear are contributing to making the environment and communities a worse place. While our races are raising money to help one cause, we are stressing resources in another. Even clothing made from recycled plastic bottles, an increasingly popular practice right now, especially with workout apparel such as tech shirts, sounds a lot more environmentally friendly than it actually is. Small fibers from those fabrics come off in every wash and wind up contaminating water sources- they aren’t caught at water treatment plants before going back into the natural environment.
I’ve asked others what they think of moving away from the shirt as a given, and there isn’t a consensus. I will say that the people that opposed me did so in either such an emotional or outraged manner that I hesitated for a long time about even sharing my views on a bigger scale. I’m doing it now because the more I think about it, the less it matters how we feel, and what does matter is what is happening on the ground. Some of the more emotional pleas I received described seeing the shirt as much a part of the race as the event itself. There are others that feel the same way I do, that the shirt is kind of a waste, it makes the event more expensive without adding much value, and that there are better alternatives to shirts. Also, like anything else, you get this diminishing return on getting a race shirt- the people who supported me the most are the ones who race regularly. If you aren’t in that population yet, spoiler alert: The first one to maybe ten are cool, then it stops mattering as much. If you are reading this and mad at me already (and not a t-shirt printer), then I’ll wager you have not had 50+ shirts file into your closet over the years. Even if you are hip and into upcycling, I’ll imagine a person only has a need for so many t-shirt quilts.
Keep in mind, the shirt is not “free”, it is factored into the price of the event. Making the shirt an “extra” that we have to opt into would be a start. The few shirts I kept and still have, I probably would have paid $10-15 for. We can also come up with more sustainable and probably even cooler mementos. The last race I ran included free photo downloads, and I found that savvy and sustainable. Digital souvenirs create almost no waste, no storage, and they last. Pay the photographers more and hire more of them- the people want ‘razzi, no doubt about that. Other solid options that I have received and seen are pint glasses and buffs. Runners love socks and hats. One of my running buddies proposed the idea of wrist sweatbands (who doesn’t love retro?) when I asked her whether she valued the shirt (she didn’t).
Races keep you accountable to training and getting or staying fit, place you in a peer group of other go-getters, challenge you to step up or step aside, and finally support great causes. They can offer travel opportunites, as well, as destination racing is now a thing, with tour companies offering packages and support. I ran a 10k in Houston this a few weekends ago and the t-shirt went straight into my donation pile, as I lamented the total waste, and fumed at the unknown person who decided to make it a “baby-t”. (Side Bar: Am I alone in this or are baby-t’s the worst?)
I”m don’t want to downplay the accomplishments of people completing a training plan and running a race. The process takes a huge amount of not just physical, but emotional and mental effort and fortitude, and that’s before you have to get up at 4:30 am and be subject to waiting in line for the joy of using a port-o-potty. I’ll I’m asking for consideration is that, in light of the social, environmental, costs, maybe we suck it up and say, “Hey, this isn’t worth the up and downstream effects. Keep my shirt. Pay the photographer more- I just want a decent picture anyways.”
I won’t deep dive into the sustainability problem created by western consumption here, but here are links for the curious. The summary is that there are psychological, social, and environmental costs to our pursuit of possessions.
The True Cost of Fast Fashion: It highlights fast fashion brands, but I find the implications of clothing over-consumption and waste relevant here
I found information in another this article that came up during my research, which links to research papers on clothing made from plastics (including recycled plastic bottles) such as tech shirts.
If you don’t care so much about the effect on oceans referenced above, maybe you care about beer
For race directors looking to put on a more sustainable event (spoiler alert: this post also shows no love for race shirts)