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At this year’s Taipei Cycle Show I got talking to a product manager who was in the midst of setting up a new bike brand. Normally I’d glaze over upon hearing another such story, but this was different. It was filled with talk about disposable and non-recyclable products, irresponsible packaging, poisonous working conditions, and an over-complication of the bicycle that’s designed to have you buy more, more often.
Enter Bjorn Bikes. A start-up out of Vancouver, Canada that aims to raise awareness about how environmentally hypocritical our pedal-powered scene can be. The brand’s first model, a do-it-all, make-it-what-you-want gravel frameset, is made with up to 60% recycled stainless steel and a fork that’s up to 70% recycled aluminium. The bike is accompanied by a grip made from recycled materials, and there’s a tyre in the works, too.
However, at least in my opinion, the specifics of the products aren’t important. Rather it’s the design approach and thought that’s gone into every step of the manufacturing, supply, and post-use process that could provide lessons for other brands and manufacturers to follow.
A soapbox made of cardboard
“I remember being at Interbike and seeing a booth emblazoned with the slogan ‘One more bike, one less car’ getting pushed into a dumpster by a bulldozer. And it clicked,” said Dennis Beare, founder of Bjorn Bikes.
A lifelong member of the cycling industry, Beare recalls working in bike shops where daily bike builds resulted in multiple trips to the dumpster to dispose of single-use packaging. Anyone that’s built bikes in a shop will have had the same experience. But that packaging isn’t something many consumers ever see, and so the eco-friendly image of cycling is maintained.
Beare has spent the past decade travelling back-and-forth to factories in Taiwan, seeing first-hand the production of bicycles and bicycle components that aren’t always as green or healthy as they might seem from afar. “Your manufacturers or suppliers may be doing it all right, but it’s hard to know what their suppliers are doing,” he said. “I remember being taken to an anodisation factory once — the acids weren’t getting washed down drains, but the staff were running around and breathing that stuff in. I was there for 30 seconds and my eyes were on fire.”
“So many of the factories are focussed on making you the fastest, lightest, best thing in the world,” Beare said. “[But they] aren’t designed to compete in a market that wants the greenest thing.” As Beare revealed, starting Bjorn was the first time in his career that he’d ever had to create presentation documents and pitch his brand’s plan to manufacturers — his brand’s green plan.
Many of those manufacturers simply didn’t understand or said it couldn’t be done, at least not in market-viable (i.e. smaller) quantities. “I’d be in meetings trying to portray my desires, and would jokingly say ‘Just think of the turtles,'” Beare said. “It became a running joke, but one with purpose. At one point I even found tinned turtles. They were like a jack-in-the-box — a giant toy turtle would pop out once you opened the can. I sent those to my suppliers.”
When it came to making the grips, Beare contacted a couple of manufacturers. “We spoke to Velo and we spoke to ODI,” he said. “The team from ODI were onboard from the beginning. It sometimes requires someone with the enthusiasm and willingness to stick their necks out. Those grips are made out of the excess material waste of their manufacturing steps.”
Bjorn is far from the first brand to consider the environment at the centre of its business mission. Hub, headset and bottom bracket manufacturer Chris King has made almost all of its components in-house from inception. It recycles its scrap, uses recycled cardboard packaging, and makes products that are designed to be serviceable for a lifetime. Green Oil, and to a lesser extent, Pedro’s, produce bicycle maintenance products that are bio-degradable and non-toxic. On the clothing side, Australian label OORR was arguably the first to introduce recycled and sustainable materials to performance cycling clothing.
Eco-friendly bikes have been done before, too. There’s no finer example than Schwinn’s Vestige, a short-lived flax-fibre-framed cruiser that picked up a Eurobike Gold award in 2010. And there are plenty of small brands, such as Melbourne-based Allegro, who take an eco-considered approach to outsourced manufacturing.
More recently we’ve seen Bontrager develop its best-selling Bat bottle cages out of recycled fishing nets, and Pearl Izumi says it’s moving toward a sustainable product range, too. However, Bjorn may prove to be an important voice in influencing change. And much of that is to do with price, mass-market appeal, and the involvement of manufacturers who are all new to thinking green.
“As more companies demand sustainable packaging, the costs will eventually come down,” Beare said. “As for now, we are struggling to find factories that will work with our requirements; they don’t want the hassle. At times, we feel that some factories are giving us the old tactic of a high price quote because the job is undesirable, in the hopes that we just go away.”
While Beare hopes Bjorn is successful, he genuinely seems content with the idea of simply creating change in the industry. “Our goal is to inspire other brands and the public to demand a more sustainably focused product from their suppliers,” he said. “Ideally, when alternatives to plastic and polystyrene become an easier substitute, supply chain and demand will be adjusted.
“Unfortunately, for now, there is little demand, resulting in factories not wanting to adjust their current processes. It’s not the cost of the product, but the cost of changing their supply chain.”
Beare’s sentiment is backed by Dave Musgrove, the owner of Sydney-based gravel brand, Grove Bike Co. Grove, another new small bike company, also sought to ditch plastics from its packaging, but that’s easier said than done.
Speaking of his manufacturers, Musgrove explained, “our packaging concept was completely new to them but they helped us with sourcing the materials we specified and enthusiastically took on the challenge of securely packaging our bikes.”
According to Musgrove, single-use foams and plastics are the status quo for two reasons: “firstly because it’s on-hand and cost-effective, but also because it’s a foolproof way to ensure the product isn’t damaged in transit, hence reducing complaints from customers and warranty claims.”
That second element is certainly true. As Beare explained, even though they go to great efforts to be plastic-free, their first retail partner, JensonUSA, simply cannot get insurance coverage from its freight companies without specific plastic reinforcements (such as over the disc rotors and axles).
The challenges faced are not simply at the factory, but Musgrove is optimistic that it’s changing. “While the traditional brands’ wasteful packaging is hidden from the eyes of the end-user, direct brands like Canyon or YT have also realised that many of their customers actually care about the environmental impact of their purchase.”
Changing the consumer mindset
So often our industry focusses on the diversification of cycling. The more diverse our riding, the more bikes we need. Many jokingly call this N+1, but there are a few championing the opposite.
Both Bjorn and Grove Bike Co are coincidently aligned in this regard, with bikes that aim to do a job that was previously done by multiple bikes. Bjorn’s first (and currently only) bike model is a progressive geometry gravel bike that can be set up for bikepacking, flat-bar commuting, or just gravel exploring. Grove’s is a little more performance-orientated and features a geometry that aims to be suitable for road, cyclocross, gravel or bikepacking – all with a simple swap of wheels.
Bjorn, however, takes it a few steps further. Their chosen materials are made in part from recycled materials and can be recycled themselves (Grove’s aluminium frames can be recycled, but not the carbon fibre forks). They’re designed to be super durable and able to take a hit, built for someone who cares more about abusing it beyond intention than what the scales say.
Equally, the materials are naturally corrosion-resistant – removing the need for protective paint – and Bjorn has purposefully left its frames minimally branded (with eco-friendly paint and decals, of course) which is cleaner, cheaper and worry-free. Painting a frame often means the bike can look like last year’s model; bare metal will never date and is certainly less likely to get damaged in transit.
Look to some of the most eco-friendly products on the market, and there’s often one thing in common – price. However Bjorn is trying to buck that trend. US$1,699 gets you a stainless steel frame and matching aluminium fork, with all the latest trimmings and fitments you’d expect. JensonUSA is selling complete Bjorn bike builds from just US$3,200. Now that’s not quite mass-market pricing, but it’s impressive value for a stainless steel frame with offset emissions. And it’s clear they’re not charging extra for a feel-good experience, either.
Bjorn’s products are clearly more than a greenwashing exercise to increase product margin. But as Beare points out, no matter your approach, there are always negatives and room for improvement. Is sourcing recycled materials, and the energy required to turn them into raw materials actually better than starting from scratch? Or would the plastic used in bike packaging offset the number of damaged goods we’d see without that packaging? It’s these questions that Beare and his business partner, Rob Beck, continue to research extensively for existing, and future, products.
An open market
We’re only at the start of this new trend and it’ll take a first mover, like Bjorn, to create a movement.
Sadly, for every company wondering how to do better for the environment, there are many more companies pushing low-cost Lithium-ion-powered bikes without a care for the e-waste they create. And in the end, it’ll require some big fish in the industry to promote change that’ll benefit all in the ocean (metaphorically and literally).
For Bjorn, they’re approaching this as a business, but without an aggressively commercial mindsight. They’re not patenting any of their processes. And they’re being quite open about how and from whom they source their products. “If we get the ball rolling for processes,” Beare said, “we may be able to kick back in 20 years and know we made a difference.”