BTCEB Blog No 28 ” Never Mind the Greenwash ”
I’m going to move away from mountain bikes a bit on this so I hope you’ll bear with me on this. The other day I was reading one of my favorite news feeds, the Guardian UK and I ran across an interesting article about a bike company called Racer Rosa in London England. While the foggy streets of London is a world away from sun-baked mountain bike trails of California the issues concerning the impact of off shore manufacturing cuts across national boundaries. Where the bike is made does effect not only on the people who make the bikes (due to lax environmental and labor oversights in the countries where the majority of most mass produced bikes are made) but the health of the industry too.
While crude oil prices have momentarily it’s simply a matter of time before they go back up . When the price of crude creeps back up that will again affect the prices of every aspect of bicycle manufacturing and distribution.
Diego Lombardi, co-owner of Racer Rosa, decided to take a different tract, a “green” tract as it were.
Recently I conducted a quick email interview with Diego of the London based bike shop and company. Throughout the interview I’ll be asking Diego questions as “AH” and Diego will be answering questions simply as “D”. Enjoy.
AH: Why do you think larger bike manufactures don’t elect to follow a low impact model? Do you think it’s a matter of scale or priorities?
D: That is a hard question, obviously they are driven by the need to make a profit and the matter of scale plays a big part in this but I feel that there is a real inertia within the bike industry – they are happy to use the ‘green image’ of cycling as a carbon free form of transport – but they don’t really take environmental issues seriously. In this respect they are really out of step with the cyclists I know.
When I started out with my business I knew that I would probably have to sacrifice profit margins for the sake of staying low impact. I’ve taken it as a challenge.
AH: What did you find was the hardest part about trying to establish a low impact bicycle company?
D: A lot was hard! It was particularly difficult to find companies that still produced good quality parts components in the EU, but it was even harder to try and find out whether they did or not – trying to get that sort of information from some bike companies was like getting blood out of stone.
AH: How many people work at Racer Rosa and what is the background of Racer Rosa’s backgrounds?
D: It’s three full time, two part-time freelancers, various backgrounds, graphic design, advertising, TV production, media and literature but we all have one thing in common; cycling.
AH: Where else does a low carbon footprint lifestyle impact your life?
D: A little bit everywhere in our lifestyle. We try to buy second hand, eg our telephone, computers and furniture in our bicycle studio are second hand. We are vegetarians and buy at local markets rather than Tesco or similar. We try not to fly too often. We are far from perfect, but we try.
Saying that, we’re far from being ‘fascist’ about it. We are not here to preach to others about their lifestyle, we just want to provide an alternative in the bike market. People may say that we are niche or ‘greenwash’ and of course people can look at what we offer and make up their own minds – but they can’t argue that it is a bad thing to have more choice – we’re all for freedom of choice in a free market, aren’t we?
AH: Racer Rosa has made a conscious decision to try to take advantage of European made parts (Columbus tubing, Selle San Marco saddles, Deda Elementi components) do you plan on importing any American made bicycle components?
D: Obviously we favour European made parts – it keeps the carbon footprint smaller, but yes, as long as products are made in a democratic country with a good level of environment regulation and working conditions, from companies that don’t choose to outsource their production to take advantage of cheap labour, we will consider buying their products.
People who think the big established EU and US companies have chosen to move their productions over to Taiwan because of Taiwan’s “huge investment in technology” are people who perhaps don’t want to see the truth … we all know about cheap- labour, don’t we?
AH: What does a “green” business model mean to you?
D: In general it means to step back a little and try to return to a more localized, artisan approach to produce things.
In particular, it means starting to generate a demand. There is obviously no short-term solution, this is the beginning… perhaps in 100 years (hopefully a little earlier) companies will start to do things differently, because in the end the demand has changed.
AH: What tips do you have for any bike shop that may want to adopt a sustainable or “green” business model?
D: Well, no tips at all really – we are not about preaching or trying to make other people feel guilty about their behaviour. We are just trying to offer an alternative, it may not be suitable for everyone, but it’s an alternative. So I guess if you pressed me for a tip – I would say do it because you think that you have something else to offer that you think is better – not because you think you ought to… and never lose sight of the fact that quality is equally important.
AH: Do you see Racer Rosa expanding into geared or internally geared hub bikes?
D: Definitely yes to gears, we already produce touring bikes with gears and mudguards and men’s and women’s cruisers with gears and mudguards… we’re unlikely to use internal hubs though.
AH: What do you think the future of Racer Rosa is?
D: We’re happy with the current set-up (small, hidden away, artisan studio). If we do grow we’d like to find a small shop front in a London high street, but will keep the local, small business identity. Hopefully using more localized resources, like local frame builders. We have already just found a local artisan making headbadges by hand etching…. yes, expensive but viable.
AH: Is there anything else you would like to add?
D: Yes, three points to address some recent criticism:
1. Someone pointed out that mass produced bikes have less carbon impact per unit than hand-made cycles but I don’t think it is that simple. It depends on what environmental regulations that factory has and, importantly, what age-span they have in mind for their bikes.
It is very hard to find out the truth (and from an ethical point of view it depends on how much the people are paid in that factory, and their working conditions).
Also, carbon impact wise, do we want to compare the emissions of thousand and thousands of bikes mass-produced in factories, with those from any artisan who makes one or two frames a day? There is a place in the market for mass-produced bikes; it’s just that mass production could also be more ethical.
2. Cost wise, our approach is obviously more expensive than mass-produced bicycles and perhaps not accessible to everyone, but there are many people like us who are happy to spend a little more for a bespoke and artisan service. Our profit margin is very little and we’re happy with scraping by every month, because at least we’re lucky enough to make our passion our profession.
3. We have never stated that there is none of our parts is in the far east fitted on our bikes, in fact we say on the profile page on our website that the 100% ethical bike is still a dream. Of course if there is no alternative in the market of parts made in EU or US, we have to go for those made in the far-east. There is no conflict there. Like it or not, we’re trying to generate a demand as utopian as that may be.
For further reading please check out http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/green-living-blog/2010/aug/24/racer-rosa-bicycles-bike and http://www.racerrosabicycles.co.uk/index.php.