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The Outsider: Does the bike industry get away with greenwashing?

Getting more people out of cars and onto bikes in cities and urban areas has to be a priority, writes Vince Shuley.

One of the biggest light-bulb moments I had during my four years of university was during my introduction to life cycle analysis. Carbon emissions of products, services, and travel are talked about a lot more these days, but 20 years ago, it all but blew my sophomore mind. In his opening lecture for the semester, my professor gave us a real-life example we’d all understand. When you design a public washroom, you have three options for people drying their hands: a fan-forced hot air dryer; paper towel that gets used once and disposed of; and a roll of linen towel that gets used, laundered then reused.

Which method was the best for the environment? Everyone in the room had experienced all three methods, and a show of hands verified most students’ intuition that of course it had to be the reusable linen towel. The other methods either generated copious amounts of paper waste or involved manufacturing and powering a hot air machine. But we were all wrong. The linen towel was actually the worst for the environment. When you analyze the entire life cycle of fabricating that linen, then laundering it with detergents over and over, its environmental impact far eclipsed the other two methods of drying one’s hands. The reason why reusable linen had a brief surge in popularity in washrooms was that it appeared to be more environmentally friendly.

The cycling industry champions itself as being at the forefront of moving our societies away from carbon-emitting passenger vehicles. Bikes generate far less carbon than cars during their manufacturing, and emit nothing. In turn, e-bikes—which have a far higher carbon footprint during manufacturing than traditional bikes—are way ahead of the environmental impacts of making electric cars. But if you dig into the minutiae, you quickly realize that selling lots of bikes and e-bikes isn’t without its own significant carbon footprint when you analyze the entire supply chain.

Last year, Trek—one of the world’s biggest bike brands—became the first bike manufacturer to release a detailed sustainability report. Trek is putting a lot of stock in the future of cycling, not only for the growth of its business, but for the betterment of the planet. And while preaching about e-bikes replacing short car trips is all well and good, the Waterloo, Wisconsin brand knew that in order to get the rest of the industry moving towards sustainable bicycle manufacturing, it had to do some serious self examination first.

Flipping through the report, you notice all the typical greenification trends: reducing air freight and corporate travel; increasing reliance on renewable energy and alternative materials; removing plastic waste from packaging; and creating zero-landfill manufacturing facilities. It’s great to hear that this bike company is fabricating water bottle cages from discarded fishing nets pulled out of the ocean. But the real meat for reducing carbon emissions came in the latter half of the report, with Trek’s goals of increasing the use of bike share systems in cities across the U.S., and, more importantly, shifting cycling modal share (getting people to choose bikes over cars). With Trek’s life cycle analysis, it has arrived at the “Rule of 430”: if you ride your bike 430 miles (692 kilometres) that you would otherwise have driven, you’ve saved the carbon equivalent of what it took to make your bike. Sorry, Whistler—that doesn’t apply to the shiny, carbon, dual-suspension mountain bike in the back of your truck (author guilty as charged). But it does make a strong case for the commuting e-bike, which is the type of bicycle most likely to replace shorter car trips.

The key to unlocking the potential of the increasingly popular e-bike is, of course, more bike paths in urban areas. This is something we’ve begun to take for granted in Whistler, with the odd local crank already seeking to ban e-bikes from the Valley Trail and citing a ruling against Segways 20 years ago as precedent. But that’s a topic of discussion for another time.

The point of all this is that accountability begins with transparency. Just because it’s a bike with two wheels doesn’t mean it gets a pass on its carbon footprint. The marketing team at Trek no doubt had their reservations about revealing that their full-suspension, carbon fibre-framed Fuel EX has a manufacturing footprint 32-per-cent higher than the best-selling alloy entry level mountain bike, the Marlin. But releasing a sustainability report this detailed set an example for every other bike manufacturer to follow.

For those curious, the number of kilograms of CO2 released by manufacturing (including the entire supply chain) was studied on four different bikes in Trek’s fleet: the entry level alloy MTB (Marlin), 116kg; the flagship carbon fibre road racing bike (Madone) 197kg; a full-suspension carbon fibre trail MTB (Fuel EX) 153kg; and the carbon fibre electric MTB (Rail) 229kg.

So unless you intend to ride your new bike 692 kilometres on trips you otherwise would have driven your car, buying a bike is contributing a net positive of carbon emissions. OK, so the e-mtb has the worst carbon contribution from getting made, but what if you started riding your e-mtb to every far-flung Whistler trailhead, like Wedge or Cheakamus, instead of driving your bike on the back of your car? You can see how it all starts to get a bit subjective.

Bikes are key to the future of our planet, and getting more people out of cars and onto bikes in cities and urban areas has to be the first priority. But that doesn’t mean ignoring all the baggage that the cycling industry comes with.

Vince Shuley is mindful of his own carbon footprint. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email or Instagram @whis_vince.