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How green is my jersey? The environmental impact of your cycling kit

Emma Cole
31 May 2022

Cycling is viewed as an environmentally friendly sport but what impact does our kit have on the planet?

Words Emma Cole Photography Tapestry

When it comes to protecting the environment, cyclists are the good guys, right? While riding our bikes we’re not burning fossil fuels or spewing out pollution. But what about that new jersey you’re wearing?

According to the latest report from the Apparel Impact Institute, the clothing sector accounts for around 2% of annual global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and is ‘well off pace’ to achieve the 1.5°C warming limit set out in the Paris Agreement.

Emissions estimates vary. McKinsey & Company’s Fashion On Climate report claims the industry produces around 4% of global GHG emissions, the equivalent of the combined annual GHG emissions of France, Germany and the UK, while the World Economic Forum puts these estimates higher still, at about 10% of global GHG emissions.

‘These emissions vary because of the different metrics being accounted for,’ explains Dr Sara Han, senior lecturer in international fashion business at Nottingham Trent University. ‘Estimates that just look at production, distribution and supply chain will be lower than those that take into account the “use” phase. But whichever estimate you look at, the apparel industry has a major environmental impact.’

Chain of impact

Mavic clothing

Image credit: Fred MacGregor

Cycling clothing has a long and complex supply chain, from the design process, through agriculture and petrochemical production to manufacturing, logistics and retail. And there is an environmental impact at each stage along the way.

‘Fashion is an industry that has a huge impact on both people and planet, so regardless of whether a product is made in six weeks or 60, it still has an impact,’ says Amina Razvi, executive director of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

‘The most important thing to consider is how to lessen that impact over time both in terms of what the product is made of and how it’s made,’ she adds.

The design stage in particular plays a critical role in a product’s sustainability.

‘Although the design stage isn’t where the actual carbon, water and waste impacts occur, it is where they are decided,’ says Dr Han. ‘It is where the key choices about a garment are made, such as how it is going to be used, its materials, where it will be made and how recyclable it will be. All these choices impact the rest of the supply chain.’

Image credit: Rob Milton

To help with these decisions, some manufacturers are turning to Bluesign, a sustainability standard that evaluates organisations, reviews supply chains and looks at the chemical composition of textile products. It aims to help brands, mills, yarn suppliers and factories be more sustainable and has become a popular choice among many cycling brands.

‘If something is a Bluesign partner, you know that audits have been done and that there will be a certain level of sustainability, which automatically gives you that peace of mind,’ says Darren Tabone, VP of product at Australian cycling brand Maap.

‘We are the first cycling brand to join Bluesign as a full partner and in our case Bluesign acts like a big brother. Becoming more sustainable is a journey and there’s no real end goal in the sense that you are constantly evolving and learning.’

Flair for fabric

Image credit: Rob Milton

According to the Apparel Impact Institute, brands should aim to use more sustainable materials such as recycled polyester to mitigate their environmental impact. The institute estimates that increasing mechanically recycled polyester from 15% to 30% would see a reduction of 23 million tonnes of carbon emissions.

One apparel brand to take this on board is newly launched Cadenzia, which uses a 44% bamboo viscose and 56% recycled polyester blend in its cycle jerseys.

‘The bamboo is woven with the recycled polyester into a highly durable, long-lasting, ultra-soft ripstop performance fabric,’ says co-founder Rob Stross. ‘Bamboo is a sustainable yarn with natural performance benefits and also happens to be one of the fastest-growing plants on earth, and one of the world’s most sustainable, naturally replenishing resources.

‘To minimise impact further, we make our jersey fabric in natural unbleached white and then add other colours via computer printing using eco-dyes straight onto the pattern pieces,’ he adds.

Cycling brand Isadore also champions recycled materials: ‘Our Alternative line is made entirely from recycled fabrics and we hope to replace all virgin synthetic materials with their recycled counterparts by 2025,’ says Martin Velits, ex-pro rider and co-founder of Isadore. ‘The most important thing to realise is that there is no performance difference between using virgin synthetics or recycled fabrics.’

Scottish brand Endura agrees, but notes that recycled fabrics can come at a cost. ‘About 33% of our road jerseys are made from recycled fabrics, which we hope to increase to 100% from 2023 onwards,’ says product director Pamela Barclay. ‘We haven’t found a performance difference with recycled fabrics – only a cost difference because of demand and availability.’

In 2019 another British cycling brand, Tic CC, undertook a year-long period of ‘environmental reflection’, which led to 95% of its SS21 collection being made with recycled fabrics. However it says that the choice of fabric is still not straightforward.

‘You have to assess the impact of every decision you make, which may mean the need to combine recycled fabrics with virgin to ensure maximum performance and durability,’ says Tic CC co-founder Andrew Monk. ‘This will change as technology improves but you have to take a holistic approach, looking at other impacts including production methodology and distance travelled from source.’

Image credit: Louisa Gouliamaki via Getty

While substituting recycled synthetics may prevent further carbon emissions at the production stage, these materials can shed microplastics during use, which is itself a major issue.

Microplastics are any plastic fragments smaller than 5mm that are too small to be filtered out by waste treatment plants so they enter waterways, seas and oceans where they can be ingested by marine life. Microplastics contain toxic chemicals that not only harm sealife but enter the human food chain.

According to a UK Government report, if someone eats six oysters, they are likely to have eaten 50 particles of microplastics.

‘The biggest environmental impact of the apparel industry at the moment is microplastics,’ says Dr Han. ‘These are primarily being shed off our clothes as we wash them. A lot of high-performance materials are synthetics, including recycled polyesters, and these shed microplastics.

‘We consume on average about one credit card’s worth of plastic every week and we don’t know what the long-term effects are. It’s a huge problem,’ she adds.

‘When it comes to clothes, things can be done to stop microplastics entering the water system. Washing cycling kit in the likes of a Guppyfriend bag, which catches microplastics, is a good way of caring for garments and reducing microplastics. But it is also really important to put pressure on brands and governments to investigate how microplastics are filtered out of the water or can be prevented from entering in the first place.’

Reuse, recycle, re-educate

According to the World Economic Forum, consumers bought 60% more garments in 2014 than in 2000, but only kept their clothes for half as long, while 85% of all textiles are sent to landfill each year. Pushing back on this throwaway culture is a key element to the sustainability conversation.

‘I think people need to see that the industry doesn’t have to conform to how it has been for the past however many years,’ says Will Hurd, lead designer at London-based cycling brand Universal Colours.

‘As cyclists we are probably more connected to the outside world than a lot of other people. Obviously, if that outside world is deteriorating around us it’s not a particularly nice experience, so we need to try to change this.

Glencoe Big Ride Descent -Fred MacGregor

Image credit: Fred MacGregor

‘An important part of this is maximising the longevity of our cycling kit. With all our waterproof jackets we give a sample of Nikwax aftercare to reproof it. We want to help customers look after their garments so they last longer.’

The value of longevity also rings true at American brand Velocio: ‘It’s ironic given that the bicycle can be such an environmentally friendly mode of transportation, but the industry at large, especially at the aspirational end, has pushed newer/better/faster as their primary marketing language for so long that bikes are essentially disposable,’ says co-founder and CEO Brad Sheehan. ‘That mentality has been absorbed by consumers and it’s the main thing we hope to push back on.’

With this in mind Velocio has created a zipperless jersey, which the brand claims offers fewer pieces to break, simpler repairs and better processing at end of life.

Long-term thinking

It’s a similar viewpoint for Bristol-based brand Presca: ‘Essentially we need to re-educate the consumer into buying good quality clothes that they keep for a long time rather than just continuously replace them,’ says CEO Rob Weddon.

‘We offer a trade-in service for our own garments and offer a pad replacement service for any brand of cycling shorts. Send in the shorts, we replace the pad, the lifespan of the shorts is then massively extended and waste is prevented.

‘This rolls into the concept of a circular economy, which is crucial to making the industry sustainable,’ Weddon adds. ‘So much of the industry is linear, which means the end of life for a product is its disposal, whereas in a circular economy manufacturers take a restorative or regenerative approach. We launched our first fully circular garments in 2020 and we’re aiming for all of our new ranges to be fully recyclable by the end of this year.’

Transparency and traceability 

Transparency around emissions and product traceability is also becoming increasingly important. Rapha has released a down jacket that is fully trackable, right down to the source of the feathers in each individual jacket; Isadore releases a sustainability report every year, listing where products are produced; while Presca plans to release an annual report this year with similar details.

But this isn’t happening all on its own. Shift Cycling Culture, a non-profit organisation, is pushing the industry towards greater transparency. Shift asks companies to sign up to a ‘climate commitment’, which commits them to reporting their scope 1 and scope 2 GHG emissions (see below) by 2023 at the latest, and then to do so annually. It also commits them to disclose their plans to reduce GHG emissions by at least 55% by 2030.

‘Sixty companies have signed up so far and more companies are committing every week,’ says Erik Bronsvoort, a Shift Cycling Culture board member. ‘It seems to be a bit like a New Year’s resolution for some.

‘Ideally, the industry becomes circular, so there is no waste, no pollution and no use of finite resources, and Shift Cycling Culture doesn’t need to exist anymore.’

Rapha is one of the founding signatories of the commitment and aims to become carbon neutral by 2025, across scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. It is currently working on its ‘science-based targets’, which means it will publish a defined path to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement goals, and will release these this year.

‘The effects of climate change are already apparent and they have the potential to change everything about how we ride and how we do business,’ says Duncan Money, head of social and environmental impact at Rapha.

‘The cycling industry has the ability to be an incredible force for good in the world, but to make the necessary changes we need to take action with urgency, together.’

Greenhouse gas emissions explained

Greenhouse gas emissions are categorised in three ways: scope 1, 2 and 3

Image credit: GHG protocol

Scope 1

Direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that occur from sources that are controlled or owned by an organisation, such as emissions from manufacturing equipment or company vehicles.

Scope 2

Indirect GHG emissions associated with the purchase of electricity, steam, heat or cooling, and a result of an organisation’s energy usage.

Scope 3

All other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain, which are not owned or controlled by the company, such as the end use of sold products.

Looking for sustainable cycling kit? Head to our guide to the best sustainable cycling clothing brands

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