Sustainability has been a cultural buzzword for years, imprinted on the labels of our food and vehicles, and slowly it has become a focal point for the fashion industry.
While carbon-fiber bicycles, shipped thousands of miles from their high-carbon manufacturing facilities overseas, have been primarily responsible for the bicycle industry’s environmental footprint, clothing brands of cycling have evolved into the new era of “sustainable” manufacturing, perhaps more so than many brands of bikes, and with good reason.
The fashion industry as a whole has one of the biggest ecological footprints in the world. Nearly 20% of global wastewater is produced by industry, as is 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN. The fashion industry now uses more energy than aviation and shipping combined.
Since the majority of bicycle clothing is made from synthetic fibers enriched with plastic and the oil industry, with the rise of electric vehicles, plans to shift mainly to the production of plastic, sportswear brands should have a strong impact by using recycled materials for their products.
Dirty fibers from cycling
“Recycled products, when you look at the life cycle assessment of the impact of a material, like a raw material for example, if it comes from a virgin source versus a recycled source, its impact is significantly lower, ”explains Margaux Elliott, clothing. product manager at Giro. Elliott studied fashion merchandising in New York City and incorporated his passion for the industry into outdoor sports. She started working at Giro in 2014.
Giro’s latest Renew collection is made with nylon, polyester and other recycled materials, using reclaimed ocean plastics, with the intention that at least 50% of the product will be made from recycled content. By 2026, Giro hopes that all of its clothing will be made from recycled materials. This means that fewer new virgin materials are produced to make clothing, and existing plastics have a second life and can avoid landfills.
“Just because you help solve a litter box problem doesn’t mean it’s better for the environment, but with recycled materials most of the time it is,” she says.
The materials regularly used in bicycle clothing, which must be durable, stretchy and breathable, are generally good materials for recycling, unlike cotton, but they are far from perfect and both materials have their drawbacks.
“Polyester is a really interesting material,” says Elliott. “For example, it works extremely well, especially for cycling. It is light, it dries very quickly. It’s cheap, it’s durable. It has all of these fantastic features, but something that has surfaced recently is ‘microplastics,’ or the denaturing of man-made fibers, where tiny pieces of plastic can make their way from the fiber to the washing machine, to the systems. water sources and water sources.
Natural fibers like cotton may seem more environmentally friendly, and while they are obviously a poor choice for mountain biking, cotton requires an abundance of water to produce, so there isn’t much a clear winner in terms of respect for the environment when it comes to natural fibers versus synthetics.
“I don’t necessarily see any fiber at this point or any material disappearing at this point, it’s more like how can we make each of them better? And how do we make sure that at the end of the day, we create a garment that the consumer will get the most out of and use the most? “
Like any product, a consumer can make clothes more durable by wearing them until the end of their life, reducing waste and the likelihood of them ending up in a landfill releasing greenhouse gases as they go. they slowly decompose. It is estimated that polyester can take between 20 and 200 years to decompose.
Sending a message
Pearl Izumi has been taking steps to reduce her climate impact for years, reducing the amount of packaging material she uses, opening channels for torn clothing repair shops and using more recycled materials.
This year however, they are implementing a different approach, called Pedal to Zero. By using the High Product module to measure the carbon dioxide created from a product and assess what the product is made of, how it is shipped, etc., Pearl Izumi can offer mileage to compensate for the impact.
For example, their new Rove shorts cost almost 5.9kg of CO2 to make, and using the EPA’s average MPG estimate, it would take a consumer about 15 miles of bike rides to offset the footprint. carbon. Pearl Izumi knows that not everyone is going to offset their new sons’ carbon output like this, but at least it will give them pause.
“I mean the fact that a pair of shorts is, you know, like the climate impact of making a pair of shorts equals 15 miles of driving,” says Andrew Hammond, brand manager for Pearl Izumi. . “Every time I walk in there and drive to the hardware store, I’m like ‘could I ride a bike right now?’ “
When they began to evaluate the program, Hammond assumed that shipping would have the greatest impact on the environment. This is not the case.
“The number one thing – the vast majority – is the main material of the garment, at least for what we make. ”
Eliminate the unnecessary
Pearl Izumi is reducing packaging where it can, but shipping it in easy-to-recycle packaging isn’t always an option. In 2019, the brand eliminated hang tags in place of a small recyclable card and got rid of printed catalogs, estimating that it would save nearly ten tons of paper, nearly 200 trees, 68,000 gallons of water and 4,500 gallons of oil per year.
The little plastic bag that surrounds the shirt or pants being shipped, it’s hard to say goodbye.
“It turns out to be a pretty tough challenge because that little plastic bag does a lot to make sure the garment arrives in good condition. What you don’t want to do is take out that little plastic bag that can be recycled and then suddenly have 80% of your products or [even] 5% of your damaged products. This is not a good way to reduce your impact.
Instead, to maximize shipping efficiency, they will start rolling and tying items like a newspaper, and Pearl Izumi can use a smaller bag, to reduce the amount of plastic they use and put more in each shipping container. The only downside is a more wrinkled shirt.
With all the new green initiatives for brands like Pearl Izumi, Giro and others, sourcing recycled materials has increased the cost of producing items, which they have absorbed, but as each of them does more. , the cost has gone down.
Is it sufficient?
Businesses know that sustainability is a hot marketing term and an easy word to put on a label and attract consumers who want to think their consumption is more responsible.
A report by the Changing Markets Foundation states that recycled plastics are where most of the fashion industry is moving towards adopting a more sustainable image, even though “such an approach only addresses the consequences of the problem of plastic pollution and does very little to reduce the plastics crisis at the source.
The report adds that especially when brands tout the use of ocean plastics, “current extraction volumes are minuscule; they do little to stop the flow of plastics into the environment in the first place, nor to reduce the industry’s reliance on plastic-based fibers.
Next, the foundation claims that recycling PET bottles from polyester is still problematic in several ways. Polyethylene bottles can be recycled many times, in closed loop bottle-to-bottle systems, if the bottles are collected correctly. Recycled fiber is not, however, infinitely recyclable; it may lose durability and may also need to be combined with virgin plastics the next time they are used. The recycling of fiber is also dependent on the delivery of this product by consumers to a textile recycling facility. But, if recycled materials are turned into a sufficiently durable product, this garment could live a very long time.
If something doesn’t suit them anymore, most people recommend taking old clothes or clothing to consignment stores or thrift stores rather than sending them to a landfill. In large cycling towns like Boulder, Portland or Seattle, there are bicycle co-ops that accept used equipment in good condition, which they can sell to fund bicycle repair programs and to win a bicycle.
Patagonia became infamy when she launched a campaign on a Black Friday that featured one of her sweaters under the words “Don’t Buy This Jacket”. The idea was that we can all be more responsible consumers by buying less bullshit we don’t need and using products throughout their lifecycle.
Hammond and Elliott agree with the idea, which is why sustainability remains at the forefront for both brands. Manufacturers need less plastic and oil when consumers buy less.
“I don’t think it’s fair to put all the responsibility on consumers either, you know,” says Elliott. “Industry and big business contribute much more to climate change than individuals. “
Much of a garment’s climate impact (Vogue Business reports it’s around 30%) comes from tracking; wash and dry clothes, as well as the water and energy needed to power these machines.
“So if you can wash less stuff, it’ll reduce the impact and it’s actually pretty easy to do, especially like a pair of mountain bike shorts,” says Hammond. Unless cyclists live in a humid environment, bike shorts tend to dry very quickly and can be worn several times before a wash.
Hammond recommends throwing in white vinegar in a wash cycle if a product has picked up an odor that won’t go away, such as when cooking in a gym bag. Then, of course, consumers can also take ripped clothes to a tailor to have them fixed and run longer.
Sustainability is not a word that we will see less and less over time. The more frequent use of the word seems to mean that what humans have been doing for decades and centuries is no longer working, and new practices need to be examined. There are still kinks in the recycled fibers that need to be ironed out, but the fashion industry and bike clothing brands seem to want to do better.
“I’ve been in the industry for a while and it’s really encouraging to see that ten years ago it was almost impossible to get hold of a material made from recycled materials. Even five years ago when we started this it was pretty limited, ”says Elliott. “I think at this point there really is no good reason for brands not to use recycled materials.”