The Cyclist’s Guide to Sustainability

 

Black woman biking in the city

In and of itself, cycling is a sustainable practice. Your legs and lungs provide the ultimate renewable energy source, which serves to propel you across distances near and far. 

While in this pure sense cycling is eco-friendly, the various industries creating the kit on your back, food in your pocket, and bike beneath you are often not. While there’s no surprise there, a growing movement is beginning to support the idea that bicycles — the cleanest form of transportation on earth — should be part of a sustainable ecosystem.

Recently, branding powerhouse Walden Hyde conducted a survey amongst 1,000 cyclists nationwide regarding sustainability topics. The study found that a massive 87% of those interviewed said sustainability factors into their purchasing decisions. In addition, 62% said they would pay more for a bicycle made with environmentally-friendly materials, practices, and labor. 

Today, there are already materials and practices in the market which score better on the eco card than others. Here, at a glance, are some of your options.

Biking against a wall at sunset

The Greenest Bike

Choosing a bike frame from any big-name manufacturer gives you four choices — carbon, aluminum, steel, and titanium. Aluminum and carbon account for the vast majority of all bikes out on the road today, while steel and titanium are geared toward heritage frames and limited quantity projects.

When buying a new bike, odds are you’ll end up with an aluminum or carbon frame — though neither material is environmentally friendly. As Pink Bike put it in their incredibly well-written story about bicycle manufacturing practices, 

“If your bicycle frame is made of carbon, that hole is 12 to 30 inches wide and oil comes out of it. If it is aluminum or steel, well, those holes can be seen from space.”

 

The one bright spot in this story is that aluminum is highly recyclable, even if producing it creates giant craters in the ground. Carbon, on the other hand, is more energy and water-intensive to produce — all while having little to no recyclability. 

Renowned bike builder and industry veteran Calfee has been busy pioneering bamboo bike frames. Calfee claims the frames are often stiffer and more durable than carbon while possessing ride dampening qualities superior to any metal or composite-based frame out there. To top it all off, the bamboo bikes made by Calfee use hemp fiber lugs and natural plant-derived resin. 

The real kicker is that bamboo plants capture carbon dioxide at rates that may surpass the amounts released during the production process. With so many positives, it’s difficult to understand why bamboo bikes have been slow to take off or gain acceptance. 

However, with big bike manufacturers fully invested across billions of dollars worth of production infrastructure worldwide, it’s obvious that few if any major brands are in a hurry to switch up their offerings.

Finally, a discussion surrounding which materials are the greenest borders on being useless when any of those materials become environmentally-friendly if purchased second-hand.

Buying a used bike is the most earth-friendly path to cycling — you extend the life of a bicycle and keep it pinned at its maximum utility for longer.

 

Regardless of which you choose when buying your first (or next) bike, anytime you ride a bike rather than drive a car, you’re pitching in for a sustainable future. Shreya Dave’s classic 2010 study of life cycle energy use found that cycling consumes 60 kJ per mile traveled, whereas driving a sedan consumes 4027 kJ/PMT.

Responsible Cycling Kit

Changing infrastructure around bicycle manufacturing is a tall order. As demand changes and buyers signal that sustainability issues are bubbling up to the top of their list of concerns, we may start seeing a gradual shift. 

However, apparel manufacturing is a much more fluid process. The materials used to create everything from jerseys to socks and backpacks can easily be adapted to meet the needs of a more eco-conscious crowd, especially as new materials become available.

The advent of global textile accountability standards like Oeko-Tex and Bluesign means that there are finally clear ways to define what is sustainable in the textile industry. Pressure to conform to these standards, as well as their adoption by industry leaders like Patagonia and The North Face, means sustainable textile R&D is experiencing a renaissance of sorts.

In the sportswear industry, new fabrics like Tencel have the potential to make a big splash. Tencel is a plant-based fabric creating using dissolved wood pulp and a finishing technique known as spinning. It requires less energy and water than other leading plant-based materials such as cotton, but more than bamboo and hemp. However, Tencel is produced in a closed-loop environment with a 99% solvent recovery rate. It also just so happens to be amazing for sportswear applications due to its softness, breathability, and sweat-wicking properties.

Other advances in the textile field include kits made from recycled materials, bamboo, charcoal, eucalyptus, flax, and even coffee grounds. Patagonia is well-known in this arena for popularizing the recycling of plastic bottles into wearable polyester — a practice the company began way back in 1993. The practice has also brought to light the awesome power of reusing materials — and using leftover scrap materials.

This last point brings us back to the greenest bike being the one bought second-hand. When cycling kit is made from materials that already exist but are doomed for the scrap pile, then rescuing them and creating another high-value use case for them is the priority.

Remnants and Factory Deadstock

At Fierce Hazel, we source our materials from fabric remnants and factory deadstock. Our Echelon Pouches and Tour de Fierce Wallet are made from factory deadstock and our Evolution Convertible Backpack is made from fabric scraps that otherwise would have been trashed and sent to the landfill. This practice keeps those fabrics out of the world’s overflowing landfills and has a much lower carbon footprint than creating products out of newly produced materials — even when those materials are recycled. Be that as it may, recycling is a win in this industry, and there’s a movement growing around recycling in the world of bikes. From Sigr Ocean’s cycling apparel made out of ocean-recovered plastic to VeloElan’s wonderfully patterned kit constructed from post-consumer plastic bottles — the momentum around sustainability keeps growing.

Next month, we’ll check into sustainable labor practices, environmentally friendly bike food, and ways to reuse high turnover items like tire tubes.