Cycling’s big. It’s worth at least £26.1bn as a worldwide industry. There are two to four billion cyclists in the world and more people are taking it up everyday. So why is it so difficult to find sustainable and ethical cycling gear?
“Cyclists don’t know the impact of the stuff they’re buying but maybe there’s a mindset that thinks ‘oh well I’m doing my bit, I’m riding a bike, that’s enough’,” says Veleco founder Jamie Lloyd. Veleco was set up to produce ethical and environmentally friendly cycling gear. Its founder now outsources the skills and networks he established making Fairtrade sports equipment to larger manufacturers with bigger buying power.
The conventional cycling helmet is a good example of ersatz sustainability. The majority of helmets are made of expanded polystyrene [EPS]. But once you’ve been in an accident and the helmet has done its job, its protective qualities go away. The EPS squishes and you have to purchase a new one. As a plastic made from petrochemicals that is very slow to biodegrade, EPS’s extremely low weight makes it difficult to recycle – although you can reuse it if you break it up for packaging or turn it into a very hippy planter.
Cycling gear maker Abus recently launched the Ecolution helmet – made from recycled cardboard based on a honeycomb design. It says it is 15% lighter than EPS helmets and can absorb greater impact. However, when Abus started working with its inventor Royal College of Art graduate Anirudha Surabhi, they also retained the rights to that technology for their brand meaning others cannot benefit from the knowledge needed to spread that idea wider.
To date, a sustainable cycling helmet remains niche. Designer James Dart is working on a biodegradable one made of flax resin. Bicycle lights are packaged in compostable boxes, but still rely on less sustainable elements in their construct and manufacture. As for the rest of the bike? All that steel, carbon fibre, titanium, rubber, plastic and aluminium has to come from somewhere.
Helmet manufacturer Giro is among the companies hoping to redress this. “I’d say that within around 18 months we can see a new product aimed at the enthusiast and the commuter that would tick all the boxes for sustainability and ethics,” says its PR guy Mark Reidy. “Technology and manufacturing methods usually trickle down. So high-end processes make their way down to more consumer price points. But this time, we’re confident it will trickle up.”
Speaking of trickling, being stuck on a bike when the heavens open is not a good thing and almost everyone has some form of rain protection. However, the chemicals used for waterproofing are not so good.
“The issue with waterproofing is PFCs – perfluorinated compounds like Scotchgard and GoreTex,” says cycle wear designer Clare Farrell. “Eight-chain PFCs have been found to kill lab rats and cause cancer. There are traces in the environment and in human blood. Because they’re such stable chemicals they perform really well, but they don’t break down. They bioaccumulate. I don’t trust that technology or the similar six and four-chain alternatives many companies are now moving towards.”
Clare makes cycling jackets treated with a bluesign registered finish. “It’s an alternative chemistry and an industry system that monitors and limits the sorts of chemicals used across the textile supply chain. Adidas just signed up to a bluesign partnership so hopefully that will get people talking about it.”
Can you have a fully ethical bike? There are companies that make them out of bamboo and cyclists use old parts from one bike on a new one. There’s a healthy trade in second-hand bicycle parts. However, be it the bike or parts for the bike, people still tend to buy new.
Saddle maker Brooks – best known for their highly stealable leather saddles – have come out with the Cambium. It’s made of rubber and 100% organic cotton. But that’s an added bonus. Its real selling point is its brand pedigree and the claim that it’s instantly comfortable the minute you sit on it. In cycling, performance is likely to always top planet.
Former professional cyclist Francesca Barsamian says “durability and functionality is much more important to me than sustainability. All my accessories get heavy use and I have to know they’ll last. But because of that, I don’t buy things that often.”
The up-and-coming crop of professional cyclists are riding with sustainability in mind, according to Louis Delahaije, performance manager at Team Belkin. “You used to be able to dump anything along a route. Now there are zones for disposal along the Tour de France. The environment is becoming the top thing in a cyclist’s mind and it’s impossible not to take the planet into account when you’re riding.”
“If you talk about the inherent traceability of all products, you can really go very far back – especially with a bicycle,” continues Jamie Lloyd. “For instance, virgin aluminium is one of the most environmentally damaging products you can source because of the amount of energy it takes to mine it and to process. An aluminium bike has a much larger carbon footprint than people anticipate.”
Riding a bicycle emits around 21g of CO2 per km. An average car spits out 271g. So as a cyclist, you are doing a good thing. But until you’ve started going into the origins of the products you buy and companies start rolling out ethics, sustainability and traceability across their production chains, you’re not a sustainable cyclist.
This article was first published in the Guardian, 23 July 2014.