Sustainable pedal force
It's quite a paradox. Cycling is seen as a healthy movement that's also good for the environment. You know, if we used our bikes more instead of our cars. But looking at the pollution from the cycling industry as a whole, it's not such poetry. And let's not just blame the pro peloton.
It's about fashion today. Materials. Performance. Functionality. Slow pace in the fight against the fast fashion industry. The potential of cycling sustainability.
The fashion industry is responsible for around 10% of the planet's carbon emissions due to its long supply chains and energy-intensive production. It consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industries combined. It has long been known, and thankfully increasingly talked about, that fashion is dirty. Its production is highly polluting – huge water consumption and degradation, greenhouse gas emissions, waste in landfills. Add to that the factor of appalling working conditions in developing countries and you have a really big problem.
A few years ago, the apparel industry started taking sustainability seriously... more seriously... or is it just greenwashing? Either way, according to the latest Business of Fashion report, references to sustainability at major fashion companies have more than doubled in the last five years. A more engaged, issue-savvy consumer group, concerned about the environmental impact of their purchases, is contributing to this.
The outdoor and sports world has caught on to the trend. Who else? Athletes are often outdoors, with nature at their fingertips, they can see the negative footprint caused by human activity. Who else should care about what to wear? Patagonia. Houdini Sportswear. Ecoalf. Sportswear matadors and perhaps the most famous fashion warriors for the planet. Working with "better" textiles, putting recycled synthetics or all-natural fibres in the spotlight, policing production, shortening supply routes, building repair programs and recycling systems, encouraging lower consumption. For example, the aforementioned Patagonia sells in a "do you really need that shirt?" style. An unconventional business model based on customer education is clearly working. The company repairs clothes in its own stores and gives advice on how to do it at home in its tutorials. If customers no longer wear the clothes, they can return them. Such pieces are processed into fibres and reused in production. It actively supports local groups working to find solutions to the environmental crisis. As early as 1985, it committed to donating 1% of its annual sales to the preservation and restoration of natural capital. This is the global 1% for the Planet movement. It was initiated by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard together with Craig Mathews (founder of Blue Ribbon Flies). It includes, for example, ashmei. A cycling (not only) brand that's based on sustainability. Several other companies, such as Albion, ashmei, Rapha or PEARL iZUMi, have also gone in the direction of developing repair programs. Pearl Izumi, in partnership with Renewal Workshop, repairs and sells returned goods, giving them a second chance and saving space in landfills. Rapha has repaired more than 34,000 garments since 2004. Repair, not replacement, is one of the most effective ways to reduce environmental impact.
What does a sustainable cycling jersey look like?
The one that emitted fewer greenhouse gases affecting the climate? Recycled plastics from the ocean? Didn't pollute waterways with dyes, didn't contribute to deforestation, provided good living conditions for animals and working people? Has it not led to child labour(!!!)? Does it last more than four washes, can it be composted, repaired or otherwise used? There are many factors at play and the question is whether brands can and want to look after everything. As a consumer, should you opt for recycled content or look at transparency of delivery? The truth is that a sustainable product label should cover the entire production cycle from raw material to consumer as well as issues of product life and disposal. Rather than simply claiming "recycled ingredients" on packaging, many companies prefer to monitor supply chains from start to finish, perhaps providing a far more meaningful fulfilment of the meaning of sustainability. PS. If you as a consumer don't want to (and often can't) monitor this, certain certifications can be a good guide. For example OEKO-TEX, bluesign, The Higg Index, Responsible Wool Standard, Woolmark Certification.
Business of Fashion talks about six areas to watch. Transparency. A system that will not cover up human rights abuses and environmental devastation. But! Data is limited, hard to come by and of questionable quality. Consumers must rely on information supplied by the brand itself. But! Less than half of the companies surveyed were willing to disclose a full list of their direct suppliers, and none provided a complete catalog deeper in their manufacturing. Emissions. Cutting down. In factories, shops, offices, with all suppliers and partners. Water and chemicals. Or the impact on global water supplies. How do brands address water-intensive production (e.g. cotton growing), use of chemicals in processing and dyeing fabrics, microfibres? Waste. 40 million tonnes of textile waste a year ends up in landfill or incinerators. The direction is clear – reduce waste, reduce overproduction, reduce overconsumption, better manage deadstock, recycle. Workers’ rights. Don't distance yourself from the problem, from the issue of human and slave labor in terrible conditions for miserable pay. Who makes the clothes and where? Demand information. Materials. Synthetics versus nature? A crucial aspect of sportswear.
Cyclists want performance. Clothing and equipment packed with functionality, durability and high quality. For so long, manufacturers have relied on synthetics without regard for anything else. Sustainability in their eyes meant a compromise that could erode sales. Yeah! Fortunately, that's been breaking in recent seasons. In fact, sustainable materials have interesting potential and are strong contenders to build on top of performance. And how's that eco marketing getting attention now, right? Yeah! More on greenwashing below.
The jerseys are traditionally made of nylon and polyester. The two matadors of the synthetic world. And also of the oil industry, because oil is their basic production material. A very carbon-intensive commodity. The fossil fuel that's the biggest contributor to climate change. Synthetic fibres are difficult to dispose of. They're also responsible for the known microplastics. These small particles that are gradually released and toxify the oceans and nature, kill wildlife and, as a result, negatively affect human health. Pretty ugly list, so why do we wear it? Because synthetics can't be denied their athletically appealing benefits – high breathability, abrasion resistance, lightweight yet strong, elasticity, quick drying. If you've ever moved, you know how it can save a workout or a race.
Recycling synthetics is the way of many brands. It leaves the performance field open while reducing the environmental cost of fabrication. By the way, tackle microplastics with a Guppyfriend Wash Bag, this catches them when washing. Recycling processes result in collections that are both functional and friendlier, often in collaboration with producers Econyl or Repreve, probably the two loudest names in the creation of recycled textile fibres. Econyl regenerates nylon and follows the equation of „No waste – No new resources – Just endless possibilities“. The fibres are produced from industrial waste such as fishing nets, carpets and other textiles that would otherwise end up in landfill. The material is collected, sorted, cleaned and ground into tiny nylon particles. These are then processed into fibres, which are then turned into fabrics. The same quality as brand new nylon. In doing so, every 10,000 tonnes of ECONYL® raw material reportedly saves 70,000 barrels of oil and 57,100 tonnes of CO2 produced. Repreve is a fibre made from recyclable PET bottles produced by the American company Unific. It's therefore a polyester that uses less oil, produces fewer greenhouse gases and saves primary resources. They have already recycled more than 24 billion plastic bottles.
Elastane, what's wrong with you?
Cycling clothes fit close to the body. If you look at the label, it won't be 100% nylon or polyester. Tight fit relies on elasticity, so virgin elastane must be in the fabric composition. Or this way, it doesn't have to, for example, Q36.5 really is made from 100% recycled yarns and is proof that alternatives do exist. Elastane (you may also know it by the trade names Spandex, Lycra, Dorlastan) is the problem. It isn't itself recyclable. The moment you combine it with other fibres, you probably can't separate them anymore. The result? Your bike shorts will be hard to recycle. Incidentally, combining synthetic and natural fibres is also potentially problematic. Also difficult to separate. The challenge for the future?
Many Rapha products are made of synthetic materials, mostly polyester and nylon. The company is testing recycled versions and the intention for the future is to increase the recycling rate in its "plastic" range. Including elastane. Giro has a stock of Renew Collection cycling clothing made from recycled nylon, polyester and elastane, working with Econyl® Lycra® made from reclaimed fishing nets and other ocean debris, for example. ashmei offers recycled alternatives and wants all synthetic materials to come from recycled sources by 2022. You'll also find a special recycled set at Isadore. French brand Matchy Cycling uses Repreve fabrics, fabrics with an extremely comfortable feel on contact with the skin, exceptionally breathable and durable with a long life. If you were looking for socks made from recycled PET yarn from Repreve, try DeFeet.
The natural world is dominated by wool, especially merino, which looks better from an environmental perspective. Better... sometimes. But sometimes we also see mulesing and poor conditions on sheep farms, deforestation, pesticides, water consumption and other demands when producers don't play fair. When they choose practices that don't protect the health of the landscape and soil, don't support biodiversity and destroy native species. Here, too, we need to look behind the scenes. A lot of damage can be done.
But there are no harmful microfibres, the natural materials are renewable and biodegradable, and they don't lag behind in performance at all. They are naturally breathable, antimicrobial, durable, strong, flexible and don't need to be washed as often. Thanks to their natural ability to reduce odour and stay fresh longer, we can save the washing machine and reduce the energy burden.
ashmei rides in merino. In many pieces combined with carbon for long lasting performance. These are activated carbon particles embedded in the fibre to help wick away sweat faster and double the drying speed. The fabric is manufactured by Utenos, a Lithuanian company that holds a Greenpeace certificate awarded for adhering to strict environmental standards. Much of Isadore's portfolio is built on merino's qualities, its functional, odourless, breathable and insulating principles. Rapha, of course, isn't far behind. Wool has been at its core since the beginning. In 2004, they created their own Rapha Performance Merino blend and used it in their very first product, a classic jersey.
Nature, of course, has other species in store. A popular one is tencel, which is also suitable for sporting purposes because it boasts functional properties similar to wool. Cotton, silk, bamboo, but with these it's more a matter of #restday activities. Leather. A sensitive area in terms of ethics, it's also where a lot of harm can be done. In case you're looking for an interesting alternative, study Mylo Unleather, for example. A material made from mushrooms, to put it very simply.
Sustainability is a commitment. Nowadays, much associated with the aforementioned recycling. Recycled doesn't make a product sustainable, but it has a strong marketing thrust. Do you see the danger? It often leads to greenwashing. Non-organic companies talk about being "green", but they are kilometres away from being respectful of people and environmentally friendly. How do I tell a sustainable tank top from an unsustainable one? Eshops are all over the place with terms like eco-friendly, organic, bio, plastic-free, natural, etc., but can this really be trusted? We are not optimistic.
So don't let yourself be taken in by the cute pictures of happy animals and captivating landscapes on the web. Rather, look for ethical manifestos and real actions on what the company is doing in terms of social and environmental responsibility. Where they source their materials, who sews the products and where, who they support, how they operate, what the references say, how they communicate. If the website doesn't list anything, ask. When no one answers or the answers sound strange, pay attention. It's very clear to us that it isn't easy to be a fully sustainable brand and do everything perfectly. But what must never be forgiven? Misrepresentation or false information!