Freerunner and passionate vegan Timothy Shieff talks about creating a real impact by introducing a new line of ethical clothing
World class athlete. Yogi. Business man. Free spirit. Timothy Shieff has many facets, but one quality underpins them all – his passion for veganism.
The activist rose to fame when he won the free running world championships in 2009, and gained more attention when he took part in TV’s Ninja Warrior show in 2011 and 2012, leading ‘team Europe’ to victory in 2014 as the captain. Since then, he has turned his focus away from competitive sport and focused more on promoting a vegan lifestyle.
“I’ve never had a coach,” he tells Vegan Life. “Parkour was always something I did by myself and for myself. To be honest, in some ways, when it became a competitive sport I began to enjoy it less. Of course I enjoyed winning competitions, but it was never really about that for me at first – it was more about expression. It felt to me as if once I’d become vegan and started to look outwards in that sense, it was more difficult to be competitive and completely focused on myself.”
It seems impossible to speak to any vegan athletes without them mentioning Timothy’s name as a huge source of inspiration to them. What’s it like becoming a role model?
“It’s strange,” he says. “It’s not something you decide to do – it’s a role people create for you. I feel very humbled having a platform to share my views about veganism. I think it’s very important to use that kind of platform responsibly.”
Does he ever feel the pressure of the role?
“It can be difficult,” he admits. “Sometimes you can share ideas that you’ve not fully worked out yet, and people can attack them. I’m always surprised when the attack comes from the vegan community. I feel like we should be working together and not against each other. I’m always open to being questioned, but should you be silenced just because other people might not agree with your ideas? That’s something I have experienced.”
For someone who has had such an influence, he is incredibly humble. Many vegan athletes cite him as their inspiration for transitioning to a vegan lifestyle.
“I’m just one athlete in one sport, and my sport doesn’t have that many eyes on it, so I don’t feel that important in a sports sense,” he says. “My goal now is bigger than being an athlete. It’s about creating that platform that people can come to. But it’s awesome to be able to inspire other athletes to go vegan just by talking about it. To go vegan, I think they have to have a certain level of humility themselves, as much as non-vegans might think so. To go vegan, you have to put yourself at the level of the animals, think why do I deserve to eat them? When I speak to athletes and they are already humble themselves and we can go to dinner and they can hear stories – it’s awesome to see them make the change.
“For me, sport changed when I became vegan. When you see the destruction that’s going on in the wider world, that becomes the bigger picture. That becomes the big game. It’s not about trying to be the best in the world anymore, it’s about trying to save the world, and I’ve been focused on how I can make a real impact on the world. Of course being an athlete and promoting veganism has got people into veganism, and has shown that you can be vegan and an athlete at the same time but I can’t get fixed on that. I need to evolve.
“That’s why I’ve been focusing on my clothing company Ethcs. That is ‘ethics’ without the ;I’, as there is no ‘I’ in ethics.”
According to Timothy, while diet is obviously a really big part of veganism, it’s easy enough to check food packaging and ingredients, and to make sure everything on your plate is plant-based. Where people often struggle is with clothing. It can be complicated to ensure clothing has been made in an ethical way throughout its production process.
He says: “I want to provide ethical clothing that people can easily buy without having to ask so many questions. We’re in a new age of creating clothing, looking at this two-step process of using the most ethical suppliers we can find. Ours use vegan inks, everything is fully-certified, and we use organic cottons where possible, climate neutral. Everything has to be as sustainable as possible – whatever is taken out has to be put back into the earth. So there’s that link in the chain.
“Then you have the humans who are manufacturing it – they have to be getting paid a fair wage. We get our stuff made in factories where people are treated properly. Realistically it does cut from our margins, but we don’t want to cut any corners, and we don’t want to sell our clothes for a ridiculous price, so we are just trying to build it, keep our integrity, and build from there. That is my focus at the moment.
“We are working on sportswear. We are focused on the ethical angle. It has harder because you can’t just use cotton, you need to use fabrics like polyester. Sportswear is obviously really important to me because I am so active – running in the mountains and doing sports – so I want clothing I can wear to do that. Promoting an ethical lifestyle is so important.”
As well as working on clothes, he loves connecting with people, seeing that as the most inspiring part of running a business. “We took our business to Vegan Life Live,” Timothy says. “It was an awesome event. It was great to have a business there and seeing it from that angle as well as being a customer. Getting to meet the people buying the product is the magic but for me. I still package all the orders myself at home. When you are shipping parcels, you just see a name and address, which is still cool to see, but it’s just numbers and digits on a screen. When you’re at a festival you meet every single human being who comes and talks to you. You get to meet so many cool human beings who have a story and want to talk to you. Without the festivals I wouldn’t enjoy my job – I wouldn’t enjoy running a company without meeting people at festivals.”
As someone who has been vegan for several years he has seen an increasing number of people engaging with the lifestyle – and feels positive about the future. He says: “This year – 2017 – is going to be the global shift. You are getting the real cream of the crop of artists, creatives and filmmakers making amazing work. You have [comedy mockumentary] Carnage by Simon Amstell which has had a great response. There’s a new documentary being executive produced by James Cameron called Game Changers. I take part in it. A big part of the film is showing men that veganism is a movement for them. There’s a strange attitude where lots of men think it’s weak to be vegan but what’s weak is caring about looking weak. People are afraid to be different but I think it’s weak to care what people think of you when you’re doing the right thing. Being vegan, even if you are worried what people will think about you, is strength. It’s real strength. You have to be courageous every day. It is a brave choice, and every year, every month, people are making that choice.”
People who are currently involved in the lifestyle have an important role to play in this. Timothy says: “We have to try and be a positive point of contact for people. I am in several different communities, and I see the same flaws in all of them. They are all so sure that theirs is the right one method, and that shouting the method is the only way to share it. I think the way is works is to be understanding with your approach to the delicate information you’re passing on to people. This is really life-shifting stuff. When I discovered the things that went on in animal agriculture I was shocked for days. I still am shocked – being raised in a world that does this to animals. So you need to hand on this information delicately.
“I know it seems frustrating that people don’t just change overnight, but they are not going to. The more we fight, the more we create a divide. We have to see each other as humans instead of vegans and non-vegans. We need to connect with that and not separate ourselves.
“I believe people are vegan in their hearts. They are compassionate but just haven’t made that step yet, so I believe a vegan world is something that will happen one day.”