Cycling’s green reputation – time to step up?

October 8, 2020

Alec Seaman, the Bicycle Association’s sustainability consultant, examines how the cycle industry could take lessons from major players in the outdoor industry when it comes to meeting growing expectations of environmental responsibility.

Cycling has long enjoyed a reputation as a ‘green’ activity, and the cycling industry has, to some extent, been protected from some of the scrutiny experienced by other sectors by this broad green reputation.  

However, growing consumer awareness means tough questions are starting to be asked, and there is an expectation that the cycling industry should be ready to provide convincing answers.

Technology provides

In the past, the cycling industry has dealt with consumer questions and problems through technological developments. The industry has ceaselessly engineered solutions to real-world challenges.  

You name a problem, and the industry has presented the technology to solve it, usually in a brand-specific manner.

If the consumer wanted to go faster, the industry made it lighter and stiffer.

If the consumer wanted to travel over rougher ground, the industry engineered better suspension.

If it’s too hard to ride the distance, the industry responded with better gears, and electric motors to assist the rider.

The question unasked

Some might even say that the industry is now so good at finding technological answers to problems that it’s now providing solutions before the consumer even knows they have a problem.

But when it comes to sustainability, can the cycle industry realistically expect to provide a technological answer? Sadly, if it were that easy, sustainability probably wouldn’t be a problem – in this instance, a new bottom bracket standard isn’t the answer.

And it’s not just the ethically conscious consumer asking the questions. The industry needs to find answers to the increasing scarcity of resources and more stringent regulation. These are questions the cycling industry can no longer afford to avoid, and it’s time for us to look for good answers.

Avoiding reinventing the wheel

Fortunately, in this race to sustainability, we might be able to ally ourselves with, or even take a draft from, teams who have already been making marginal gains. 

At first glance, the outdoor industry is just like the cycling industry, only without the cool bikes. Many of the biggest and best-known brands in both industries were founded by enthusiasts, who created great products that attracted a loyal fan base. In time, some of those loyal fans became passionate employees, resulting in companies that not only have a deep sense of purpose but a shared set of values.  

Cycle vs outdoor industries

Unfortunately, the similarities seem to stop at sustainability. A simple investigation of the websites of the ten largest cycle and outdoor companies shows a stark difference in the priority sustainability is given in brand positioning and consumer messaging.  

Cycling websites tend to talk in terms of performance and technological development, so if your question is ‘can I go further, faster’ you can expect a comprehensive answer. If you follow that question with ‘can I do that without a trail of single-use plastic and the smallest possible carbon footprint?’ you might be somewhat underwhelmed by the response.

By contrast, look for a new rainjacket on the Patagonia website. You’ll not only be convinced of the garment’s performance credentials, but you’ll also be assured that it was made using recycled material, and is Fair Trade certified too. 

Screengrab from Patagonia website
Screengrab from Patagonia’s website, October 2020

Just like the cycle industry, Patagonia is answering questions the consumer might not be asking, but it’s a very different question. 

Reassuringly expensive

Of course, a critic might say that it’s easy for Patagonia. They’re a premium brand and have positioned themselves at a market entry point where the consumer is willing to pay for sustainability. That argument stumbles when one considers that, just as in the cycle industry, margins in outdoor products are tight and the market is competitive. 

Furthermore, this ethical approach is visible across a spectrum of brands, from start-ups to companies offering more competitively priced products.

To find out how the outdoor industry is tackling sustainability we spoke with Wendy Savage, Director of Social Responsibility, Traceability & Animal Welfare at Patagonia; David Hanney, CEO at Alpkit; and Christian Smith, co-founder of Outdoor Provisions

Despite these companies’ differing sizes, ages, product offerings and market segments, there are some recurring themes.

Sustainability is everyone’s responsibility.

Sustainability is here for the long term. It’s more than a special project team pulled together to deal with a discrete challenge and eventually, it’s going to reach into every corner of your business.  

You might be able to hire in some expertise, you may even partner with a university and fund some PhD students to conduct Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of your products, the belt and braces academic approach, but that’s a resource-heavy way to do things in the first instance. 

More importantly, it smacks of the cycle industry grasping for a technological solution – ‘we have a team developing a gizmo that ensures every bike we make is sustainable.’  

Wendy, David and Christian all said that engaging with and empowering employees was a powerful tool – this is expertise you already have in-house, people who know the business and who see problems daily. More importantly, they’re probably conscientious recyclers and energy savers at home, so why not let them bring that attitude to work?

“No one wants to leave her values at home when she leaves for work”

The Responsible Company, a book by Yvon Chouinard and Vincent Stanley, the founders of Patagonia.

Yes, an LCA will give you excellent detail, but you can get a lot from just speaking with your team. 

The people working in the warehouse will know how much plastic packaging comes in each day. 

The assembly team will know they have to wear gloves with the grease they use because it’s not a nice substance and could probably identify something they’d be more comfortable using. 

Even the cleaners might tell you that they empty bins full disposable coffee mugs every day. 

Without the cost of an LCA, you’ve got a starting point to reduce plastic, you’ve been recommended a gentle grease, and you can introduce a ‘no disposable mug’ policy too – the latter being something to get everyone into the spirit of finding further improvements.

Small steps and easy wins

Wendy says that approaching the problems like this means ‘every step you make today, no matter how small, makes the next step you take that little bit easier’. 

Christian calls it shifting the needle, no one action is revolutionary, but everything helps push the needle closer to green. It’s a tried and tested technique. 

“Shifting the Needle” from Outdoor Provisions on Vimeo

David points out that from Alpkit’s very beginning they were doing lots of small things, not because they had an expert saying that was what was needed, but because everyone felt able to flag wasteful practices and suggest alternatives. 

You might not solve the challenge of how to recycle carbon fibre today, you may not even achieve that tomorrow, but you could switch to a green energy provider right now and feel confident that’s a worthwhile thing to do.

Small steps lead to big values

With your team empowered and enthused, you might find you pick all the low hanging fruit quite quickly, you might be ready to start taking bigger steps, but what do you prioritise? How do you make sure the next thing you do isn’t at odds with what you’ve just worked to achieve?

Chances are you already have some company values or principles – something along the lines of ‘to create the best….’. 

Patagonia certainly does. So does Alpkit and Outdoor Provisions as well. At their very core, they’re all still businesses and making the best product possible is at the heart of what they do.

However, they’ve all caveated that with phrases like ’cause no unnecessary harm, be a responsible brand, and provision with a conscience’. They have even developed sets of principles – things they won’t do in the pursuit of the best possible product and they tell their consumers where they have drawn that line.

Our best-ever bike shouldn’t cost the earth

What would you do if you discovered that one or more of your product colour options was particularly harmful? Patagonia found themselves in this exact position. You might remember a period with some pretty funky purples, that was because Patagonia refused to use the dyes they had identified as being harmful until they could either source or develop acceptable alternatives. 

From a technical perspective, they were still committed to making the best product while also being guided by the principal to cause no harm.

We’re still not perfect

Despite literally decades working on getting this far, none of the three outdoor companies will say they’re perfect, or even close. 

Patagonia is even reluctant to use the word ‘sustainable’, arguing that to do so would imply they give back more to nature than they take, or that they help nature more than they harm it, which they don’t – although that is one of their ultimate goals.

Even at this stage, people still call Patagonia out when they feel something could or should be done better. Wendy describes this as living an examined life and says:  We’re the first to say we’re not perfect, we acknowledge what you say, and we’ll try and find a way to fix it. 

It’s fair to say that Patagonia maybe has enough ‘green kudos’ to take the odd blow, but what if you’re starting out? Making any statement invites scrutiny and what if you get it wrong? 

Going public

David says the team at Alpkit had been making all sorts of decisions based at least in part on ethical and sustainability considerations since 2004. They were issues everyone in the group was passionate about, but they weren’t telling their customers what they were doing, or that they had any vision for a better future.

They decided to go public in 2014, with a much clearer sustainability policy because, in the absence of positive information, their customers were making almost worst-case assumptions about Alpkit’s products – assumptions that didn’t reflect the reality or Alpkit’s values. 

“Your customer may not be eager to know what’s wrong with your products, but if and when she finds out, she’s likely to care”

The Responsible Company, a book by Yvon Chouinard and Vincent Stanley, the founders of Patagonia

At that stage, not saying something would have been worse than saying something that a few people might have found fault with.

It would be a far longer journey alone

Leading this examined life and being open to the tough questions is more than just a way of refining your actions. It’s a way of working with your stakeholders.

There isn’t a single company out there that’s capable of doing this alone – even the behemoth that is Amazon has avoided this challenge and opted for colonising Mars instead, possibly because it’s easier. 

Suppose the cycle industry is going to tackle these issues. In that case, it’s going to need to galvanise the entire peloton and work with teams that in other situations, would be fierce competitors.

Coalition Against Sweatshops

Wendy shared that the apparel industry first came together around human rights issues in the 90s. Up until then, apparel brands did not acknowledge their role in ensuring workers in their supply chain were protected. It was all left to the factories.  After years of brand boycotts and NGO protests against human rights violations in manufacturing worldwide, President Clinton teamed up with the garment industry, brands and NGOs to announce a plan to help combat sweatshops around the world and ensure brands take responsibility for the conditions under which their products are manufactured.  This work led to the creation of the Fair Labor Association which is one of the key organisations bringing stakeholders from private sector and civil society together to work on industry wide issues affecting workers around the world. 

Fast forward to today, there are many multi stakeholder organisations working together in the spirit of collaboration which is needed to solve big problems around human rights and environmental impacts.  The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) has become a key player in finding solutions to sustainable production as a whole, evaluating the sustainability of materials, as well as brand and supplier practices and impacts.  The SAC developed the Higg Index as their measuring tool for apparel, footwear and textile practices.

It’s not hard to imagine cycle manufacturers coming together to set a common standard for the supply of components that reduces single-use plastic in packaging for the benefit of the whole industry including the original manufacturer.

Solving the consumer’s problems

While this kind of non-competitive collaboration is a powerful, if not an essential tool, if used alone, it may be construed as an attempt by industry to solve the problem for their consumers.  

Helping the consumer is a significant part of the approach employed by Patagonia, Alpkit and Outdoor Provisions. It’s more than just making a product that’s more ethical; it’s about helping the people who use your brands gain a better understanding of their impacts and what they can do to help.

Wendy says that the time to educate consumers is now and making information available is something they take seriously. Visit the Patagonia website to see what she means. Powerful stories will immediately engage you, as will tales of activism and calls to action from the Patagonia community. Push a bit harder, and you’ll find their store!

Likewise, Alpkit commits space for their Continuum Project, explaining their adoption of the Responsible Down Standard, introducing their first Sustainability Report, along with other stories of what they’re doing beyond just making great products.

Screengrab from Alpkit’s website, October 2020

Even Outdoor Provisions, just over a year old, has space dedicated to explaining why they joined 1% for the Planet and how they are supporting the RSPB’s work to protect birds of prey.

All of this information helps answer the ‘sustainability question’, even if the consumer didn’t arrive at their website asking it. But now they know the answer, they’re likely to ask the question elsewhere.

A long journey

If you’ve got this far, well done. This is clearly a long journey to make, especially if you’re going to be taking only small steps, but spare a thought for those who have travelled this way before you.

Back in 1973, when Patagonia started taking its first small steps there was no road map, they headed into entirely unknown territory. When Alpkit set out, the edges on the map were still only roughly defined. It’s only now, as Outdoor Provisions start their adventure, that the path is beginning to look well-trodden. 

As we in the cycle industry prepare for our own sustainability journey – and we must – we can examine, and perhaps join, some of the structures already put in place by those who have gone before. 

There are numerous cross-industry social and environmental initiatives which would welcome cycle company participation – things like signing up to 1% for the Planet, becoming a Living Wage Employer, or joining the Conservation Alliance or other similar schemes. 

Possibly the gold standard, though, is becoming B-Corp certified.

B-Corp: built for business

Patagonia is a B-Corp, so is Alpkit, and Outdoor Provisions is already working toward becoming one. So what is B-Corp, and how does it help?

“Certified B Corporations are a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit. They are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. This is a community of leaders, driving a global movement of people using business as a force for good.”

From the B-Corp website, October 2020

Working with B-Corp allows you to focus on being better, rather than trying to understand what better might be. It takes the guess work out, because they have defined ethical, and just like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, everyone is working to the same standards. That makes it easier for you, and it makes it easier for the consumer too.

“Why B Corps Matter” video on Youtube

B-Corp also provides a free self-assessment tool (about 300 questions) designed to highlight what you’re already doing well and where you need to focus on improving. You can use their toolset for free, but if you wish to be certified, you have to become a member. It’s a bit like taking a test-ride.

B- Corps are certified by B-Lab UK, a UK registered charity (Charity No 1164694). It’s worth noting that neither the BA, nor any of the BA team, has a relationship with either B-Corp or B-Lab.  We are not promoting B-Corps as ‘THE’ way forward, but merely suggesting them as ‘A’ way forward. 

You may decide that B-Corp isn’t right for your company, or you can’t commit fully it this stage. It may be more appropriate to work with a specialist group that aligns more closely with what you do – that could be organisations like Plastic Oceans, Sustrans or The Wildlife Trusts.  If you do opt for this route, you’re unlikely to be certified, but it is another way to make a difference.  With some careful thought, you can partner with an organisation that is meaningful for you and your customers.

Other than performance, what does the cycling industry stand for?

As adventure riding, gravel and bike packing continue to grow in popularity, the line between outdoors and cycling brands is likely to blur. Patagonia now has an MTB clothing range, and Alpkit owns Sonder, so that blurring has already started.  

Consumers, used to convincing answers from outdoor companies, are inevitably going to start looking at cycling and asking tough questions. 

As we look for answers, we could do worse than follow the outdoor industry’s example.

Screengrab from Patagonia website, October 2020

Credits and further reading

The Bicycle Association would like to thank Wendy Savage, Director of Social Responsibility, Traceability & Animal Welfare at Patagonia; David Hanney, CEO at Alpkit; and Christian Smith, co-founder of Outdoor Provisions for their time and support writing this article.

For further reading I recommend The Responsible Company by Yvon Chouinard and Vincent Stanley, the founders of Patagonia.  Not only is the book an excellent and accessible read, it also contains a checklist to help you start your own journey toward more sustainable ways of working. It’s available from Patagonia here.