July 23rd, 2014
Cycling’s big. It’s worth at least £26.1bn as a worldwide industry. There are two to four billion cyclists in the world and more people are taking it up everyday. So why is it so difficult to find sustainable and ethical cycling gear?
“Cyclists don’t know the impact of the stuff they’re buying but maybe there’s a mindset that thinks ‘oh well I’m doing my bit, I’m riding a bike, that’s enough’,” says Veleco founder Jamie Lloyd. Veleco was set up to produce ethical and environmentally friendly cycling gear. Its founder now outsources the skills and networks he established making Fairtrade sports equipment to larger manufacturers with bigger buying power.
The conventional cycling helmet is a good example of ersatz sustainability. The majority of helmets are made of expanded polystyrene [EPS]. But once you’ve been in an accident and the helmet has done its job, its protective qualities go away. The EPS squishes and you have to purchase a new one. As a plastic made from petrochemicals that is very slow to biodegrade, EPS’s extremely low weight makes it difficult to recycle – although you can reuse it if you break it up for packaging or turn it into a very hippy planter.
Cycling gear maker Abus recently launched the Ecolution helmet – made from recycled cardboard based on a honeycomb design. It says it is 15% lighter than EPS helmets and can absorb greater impact. However, when Abus started working with its inventor Royal College of Art graduate Anirudha Surabhi, they also retained the rights to that technology for their brand meaning others cannot benefit from the knowledge needed to spread that idea wider.
To date, a sustainable cycling helmet remains niche. Designer James Dart is working on a biodegradable one made of flax resin. Bicycle lights are packaged in compostable boxes, but still rely on less sustainable elements in their construct and manufacture. As for the rest of the bike? All that steel, carbon fibre, titanium, rubber, plastic and aluminium has to come from somewhere.
Helmet manufacturer Giro is among the companies hoping to redress this. “I’d say that within around 18 months we can see a new product aimed at the enthusiast and the commuter that would tick all the boxes for sustainability and ethics,” says its PR guy Mark Reidy. “Technology and manufacturing methods usually trickle down. So high-end processes make their way down to more consumer price points. But this time, we’re confident it will trickle up.”
Speaking of trickling, being stuck on a bike when the heavens open is not a good thing and almost everyone has some form of rain protection. However, the chemicals used for waterproofing are not so good.
“The issue with waterproofing is PFCs – perfluorinated compounds like Scotchgard and GoreTex,” says cycle wear designer Clare Farrell. “Eight-chain PFCs have been found to kill lab rats and cause cancer. There are traces in the environment and in human blood. Because they’re such stable chemicals they perform really well, but they don’t break down. They bioaccumulate. I don’t trust that technology or the similar six and four-chain alternatives many companies are now moving towards.”
Clare makes cycling jackets treated with a bluesign registered finish. “It’s an alternative chemistry and an industry system that monitors and limits the sorts of chemicals used across the textile supply chain. Adidas just signed up to a bluesign partnership so hopefully that will get people talking about it.”
Can you have a fully ethical bike? There are companies that make them out of bamboo and cyclists use old parts from one bike on a new one. There’s a healthy trade in second-hand bicycle parts. However, be it the bike or parts for the bike, people still tend to buy new.
Saddle maker Brooks – best known for their highly stealable leather saddles – have come out with the Cambium. It’s made of rubber and 100% organic cotton. But that’s an added bonus. Its real selling point is its brand pedigree and the claim that it’s instantly comfortable the minute you sit on it. In cycling, performance is likely to always top planet.
Former professional cyclist Francesca Barsamian says “durability and functionality is much more important to me than sustainability. All my accessories get heavy use and I have to know they’ll last. But because of that, I don’t buy things that often.”
The up-and-coming crop of professional cyclists are riding with sustainability in mind, according to Louis Delahaije, performance manager at Team Belkin. “You used to be able to dump anything along a route. Now there are zones for disposal along the Tour de France. The environment is becoming the top thing in a cyclist’s mind and it’s impossible not to take the planet into account when you’re riding.”
“If you talk about the inherent traceability of all products, you can really go very far back – especially with a bicycle,” continues Jamie Lloyd. “For instance, virgin aluminium is one of the most environmentally damaging products you can source because of the amount of energy it takes to mine it and to process. An aluminium bike has a much larger carbon footprint than people anticipate.”
Riding a bicycle emits around 21g of CO2 per km. An average car spits out 271g. So as a cyclist, you are doing a good thing. But until you’ve started going into the origins of the products you buy and companies start rolling out ethics, sustainability and traceability across their production chains, you’re not a sustainable cyclist.
This article was first published in the Guardian, 23 July 2014.
June 12th, 2014
A strike at Taiwanese shoe manufacturer Yue Yuen in Dongguan, China, which supplies athletic shoes to the likes of Nike and Adidas, brought the 43,000 employee outfit to a standstill for 10 days in April. Two months on and the factory still does not appear to have returned to full capacity.
It started when an employee checked their wage slip and noticed the company had been underpaying its social security contributions. Tens of thousands of people downed tools and walked out in one of the largest industrial disputes in living memory. But this was strike with a difference.
An account from inside the factory reported on by Reuters claimed that contrary to traditional views of strikes (with management as the bad guys) it was the supervisors who first challenged senior plant leaders over the payment irregularities that precipitated the dispute.
China sees its fair share of strikes, Hong Kong-based workers rights group China Labour Bulletin records at least 319 strikes and labour protests in China since the beginning of 2014, and the Yue Yuen strike isn’t the first to see unusual suspects standing up for workers’ rights.
But at Yue Yuen it was also brands – yes, brands – that got involved on the side of the workers, campaigning for the release of workers’ representatives arrested by Chinese authorities during the protest.
Some brands such as Timberland, proudly featured on Yue Yuen’s website, were quick to disassociate themselves from the disputes at the Dongguan facility. “Timberland products are manufactured in some Yue Yuen locations,” said a Timberland PR. “But not in the locations that were involved in the strikes.”
Others, however, were more proactive. Nike, one of Yue Yen’s larger customers which works with 744 of its factories around the world, said it chose not to move production from Yue Yuen. The company was in “close contact with Yue Yuen management”, but stressed that negotiations were between Yue Yuen, its workers and the government.
Adidas took it a step further. In a statement to the Guardian it said: “Throughout the strike, the Adidas Group was closely monitoring the situation and in touch with our partner Pou Chen Group [the parent company of Yue Yuen]. Pou Chen Group was in direct discussion with the local government and the trade union federation to seek ways to address the concerns expressed by the workers.”
Despite rumours to the contrary, the company said that while some orders were shifted to other suppliers at no point did it consider pulling out of the factory at Dongguan.
On its advocacy on behalf of those involved in the strike, Adidas said: “With respect to the arrest of two workers’ representatives, Mr Zhang and Mr Lin, we were engaged with several labour rights groups in Southern China, to try to determine where they were being detained and offered our support to secure their release. We also wrote to the Dongguan mayoral office, calling for his immediate release.”
Yue Yuen saw its shares drop nearly 5% during the dispute and it claims to have lost around $27m in revenue. Strikers demanded an increase to insurance and housing funds for the 45,000 workers at the plant. Eventually, Yue Yuen said it would increase welfare payments by $31m (paywall).
How brands react to industrial disputes will play an important role in future markets. Consumers demanding more transparency – by wanting to know where and how their clothes are made – will shape brand reaction. And as the labour force changes in China, and becomes more connected via social media, more action on worker rights can be expected.
It’s premature to suggest that industrial action has now led to large-scale revolution. However, what Adidas has proven is that some brands – once the nasty, glittery face of consumerism – are willing to lobby governments and campaign on behalf of workers and their representatives, if they think their quarterly profit and loss results will be affected. Brands want factories to stay open because they need to have their orders filled. So yes, workers do have the power.
This article was first published in The Guardian, 12 June 2014.
June 4th, 2014
A London cocktail bar is remixing a few old-fashioned ideas of what goes into a drink, and what goes into the rubbish. White Lyan, in the East End’s Hoxton neighbourhood, prides itself on being a pioneering low-to-no waste cocktail joint.
It uses no ice, no fresh fruit, and has reduced the number of bottles it sends for recycling to just 24 bottles a week – the average bar recycles up to three 300-litre bins’ worth.
Founders Ryan Chetiyawardana and Iain Griffiths first set themselves the challenge of disposing of the ice machine and fresh ingredients. Ice and fresh fruit, they argue, can’t be relied on to deliver a consistent flavour.
“It dawned on me just how little waste we were going to have,” says Griffiths. “The smallest amount of citric acid powder is needed to replicate an actual fruit on the palate. The environmental effect of the bar has become an increasing focus by the nature of just how little waste we produce.”
The bar is dark, black on tasteful black, lit by the frosted light of a wall of fridges stocked with pre-made cocktails and drinks. There’s a basement dance floor. Beyonce once commandeered the whole place for a post-gig party.
It might be an eco-bar, but there was never any question of compromising ethics for style or vice versa, says Chetiyawardana.
“My view of sustainability is not sacrifice. Luxury and comfort is something that we build towards,” he says. “We’re into starting new conversations around environmentalism. If what we do here prompts other bars to use what they have better, that’s important to us. That’s why we’re so open about what we do.
“We’ve reduced bar waste so that the only thing we actually throw away are bottle caps and some of the plastic packaging around things like our napkins. Everything else gets recycled or reused.”
Everything is made in-house. By day, the bar is a drinks factory. Spirits are ordered in bulk, citrus acid powders and vinegars replace fresh fruit, things like bone (chicken bones dissolved in phosphoric acid) and ambergris (ethically sourced whale bile) are made into tinctures and fed into traditional drinks and bottled cocktails.
Bottles are washed out and reused. The bar only serves one beer, which is spritzed up with hops for people who prefer a pale ale. The duo have made a carbonation rig from a home-brewing kit. They make a set amount of drinks for the evening, and filter their water with charcoal.
“The average bar throws out two or three 300-litre glass bins a week,” Griffiths points out. “Unless we use something like Campari or Aperol, which we’re not at the point of making ourselves yet, we recycle between 18 and 24 bottles in a normal recycling bin. That’s per week.
“We buy in bulk so most of what we do has a slow-burning financial return, which we pass on to the customer. I’ll take a price challenge against any other high-end cocktail bar in London and see how we square up.”
For energy, they’re still on the national grid. “Because of where we are, we can’t really control too much of that supply,” says Griffiths. “But, like finding an alternative means of refrigeration, that’s all part of our evolving concept of how to do things. We will address it, but we want to do it right, and that could take time.”
Some years ago, the pair devised the “recycled cocktail”, which used all the parts of a drink that were normally thrown away – the pips of a lemon, the oils on the lemon skin. But the inspiration for White Lyan came more out of frustration with the drinks industry.
“The industry wasn’t questioning how things were being done and everyone went with what was known and accepted,” Chetiyawardana says.
Chetiyawardana and Griffiths are also opening a new bar, Dandelyan, where they will use fresh ingredients. However, they insist that they’ll use as many by-products as possible – such as lemon husks and pickling liquors from the kitchen – to see if they can work towards a closed loop.
“If you look at the cocktail part, you see hedonism and fun,” Chetiyawardana says. “Then you look at the philosophy and ethics that drives us to be so DIY and thorough about what we use and how we use it. All seeds of change need to be sown – what’s needed is a nugget of an idea and people willing to take that risk to try it. We’d like to persuade a classically led bar to not accept the status quo, to think deeply about what they do, and make changes to push them ahead.”
Griffiths adds: “Every aspect of this venue utilises ingredients, products and methods that already exist. That’s the key to sustainability. We’re by no means creating or depleting another industry. We’re drawing on what already exists in the world and just applying it in a different way. It’s a case of finding everything under your nose, but just a new way of using it all.”
This article was first published in the Guardian, 04 June 2014.
May 9th, 2014
May 9th, 2014
Three British companies have developed a 90% recyclable and reusable circuit board, whose components can be easily separated by soaking in hot water. Funded by the UK government’s Technology Strategy Board with a view to help industry conform to European electronic waste regulation, theNational Physical Laboratory (NPL), In2Tec and Gwent Electronic Materialshave devised an adhesive that helps manufacturers take apart electronic circuit boards and reuse their components to make new components. They call it ReUse – Reusable, Unzippable, Sustainable Electronics.
“What happens to end of life electronics is one of the fastest growing waste streams,” says Chris Hunt, head of the Electronics Interconnection Team at NPL. “Existing electronic circuit assemblies are based on reinforced epoxy glass systems and solder. A circuit board itself is a significant part of a final product but it’s made with a thermoset of glass that isn’t easily recyclable.
We looked at how you might make a circuit assembly that could disassemble easily when you no longer had a use for that appliance.
The result was a new adhesive and ink system, which allows the team to put components onto a thermoplastic substrate with a conductive adhesive and make a circuit. A substrate is a solid onto which another solid is applied and that solid adheres to the first. A thermoplastic is something quite pliable at high temperatures but cools down to a rigid solid. The thermoplastic substrate produced by the team can be recycled.
The novelty of what NPL and its partners have developed is demonstrated when a circuit is exposed to water that is just about boiling. In the presence of hot water the ink and the adhesive soften so significantly that all the components on the circuit are easily scraped off with a business card and can be reused for new circuits. It seems laborious and Hunt agrees that they’ve a while to go before their innovation becomes scaleable for use by the likes of Apple or larger electronics manufacturers.
“This is definitely not a solution for all types of electronic technologies,” Hunt continues, agreeing that some types of tech such as high-end servers and performance electronics operate at temperatures too high for ReUse.
However, their business partner In2Tec has already gained a few clients in the automotive industry off the back of this technology..”
Hunt says “there would have to be a step-change in a manufacturer’s mindset to embrace this technology and until there is legislative pressure to change, they will stick with what they know. What you get with ReUse is the ability to take apart and recover your components and reuse them. But until there is a pressure to change, manufacturers will stick with what they know.”
NPL and its partners say they haven’t used any restricted elements or compounds and around 90% of what they have constructed can be reused. “It’s very difficult to throw away much,” says Hunt. “And when you look at how they currently make things, that’s huge.”
This article was first published in The Guardian, 07 May 2014.
April 17th, 2014
It calls its product the “friendliest fibre on the planet”. But Crailar, a US company which has found a way to soften bast fibres like hemp and flax, has its beady eyes on cotton. Not as a direct competitor – they’re not that big yet – but if their recent moves and shakes are anything to go by, they’re certainly up for taking on the cotton/polyester hegemony that spreads throughout the global textile industry.
Intent on dispelling the impression that bast fibres have a scratchy, uncomfortable and unreconstructed hippy feel to them, Crailar has looked to paper production and worked those processes into its product.
“We started as a company called Hemp Town making clothing for clients like Universal Studios and Starbucks,” explains Jay Nalbach, Crailar’s chief marketing official. “You had to wash them hundreds of times to make them comfortable to wear and throwing conditioners at them didn’t help either. The reason flax, hemp and linen are stiff is down to the pectins that naturally occur in the plant – like paper.”
Canadian universities in the 1990s were conducting research into paper production – particularly at the bleaching stage. Paper gets its colour from the lignins and pectins that naturally occur in its fibres.
“Thanks to green chemistry and enzyme science, we worked out that naturally occurring enzymes can be used to rinse the raw fibre and remove all the pectins,” says Nalbach. “What you come out with is a soft, fine fibre of flax or hemp that can be blended with cotton but is far more sustainable than 100% cotton or polyester.”
Cotton is a 125m bale-a-year habit. It is the most widely used fibre across the world. Alternatives such as bast fibres (coming in at 5m bales a year) have a long way to go if they want to overthrow the global cotton hegemony.
Although Crailar sees itself as more of a complement to the cotton industry – if recent tie-ins with the likes of IKEA are anything to go by – Nalbach admits that any new fibre needs to incorporate scale and make it as easy as possible to make the switch.
“The whole industry is a two-trick pony. It’s either cotton or polyester,” says Nalbach. “If we can help big brands like Levi’s and Target towards sustainable business practices by providing a complement, supplement or replacement to their cotton or polyester consumption, it’s a big deal … Conversion is also easy. We don’t want to create a system where people need to buy new machines or make a huge capital investment in order to work with our fibre. So in our case a spinner might have to adjust the settings on their machine, but they don’t have to go buy a whole new machine.”
If you think of cotton, you think of smothering your face in crisp white sheets. We don’t tend to think that what’s being harvested is a flower and that land is intensely – often industrially – farmed to meet set global demands. The cotton plant has been genetically modified in a lab to offer a universal staple length (the length at which the fibres pull apart) and it might not be a variety indigenous to where it is being grown.
Deforestation to meet our cotton supply demands is of deep concern to Nalbach and Crailar. “We have plenty of land where we can grow plenty of fibre,” he says. “Bast fibres don’t need anything except sunshine and rain. You can grow it in different parts of the world and in rotation with other crops. What’s great about them is that they’re prolific in growth and don’t require many pesticides or herbicides.”
Although Crailar’s production chain isn’t organic, it is a conversation they are willing to have. Similarly with adopting a closed-loop production process. Nalbach says it’s something they are going towards but they haven’t reached yet.
“We work very closely with our brand partners – they’re in it as much as we are. A lot of the folks we are talking to are getting their manufacturing facilities Blue Sign certified and they’re looking into using fewer toxins or fewer dyes or less energy or creating systems that are wasteless or wastefree.”
This sharing of knowledge and the willingness to have holes picked into supply chains is new to the fashion and textile industry. But it isn’t new tosustainability. Nalbach says that openness has a lot to do with innovation and new businesses are smarter – they find their own niche, ringfence that and then plough forward with the business model.
“We’re collaborating,” he says. “Whether we’re competing or not competing, we help each other out and show how we can do more with less. We like sharing how we can be more efficient and be more prudent with our resources.”
Crailar technology – heavily patented, of course – appears to have simplified the fibre that comes out of plants such as flax and hemp to make them useable across the whole supply chain. They’re even sold in bales, like cotton. It’s as if someone has taken a hippy boyfriend and scrubbed him up to meet their parents. He’s still a hippy, just a showered one.
This article was first published in The Guardian, 17 April 2014.
March 17th, 2014
Swedish denim label Nudie Jeans recommends people don’t wash their new jeans for at least six months. It has also opened satellite repair stores around the world where customers can take their knackered trousers in for a free fix up.
Nudie wants to be a fully transparent company. “Caring capitalism” may be an oxymoron but Nudie appears to be shifting the public gaze towards something akin to responsible consumerism.
The website claims that they “do not envisage a trade-off between profit and people, or between manufacture and environmental responsibility”. Fashion is still very much an industry and you won’t find people screaming for the takedown of capitalism here. Not too loudly anyway.
I sat down with someone who was there at the start of Nudie – its CEO Palle Stenberg – and asked him to explain their business model. “I first met Nudie’s founder Maria [Erixon Levin] when she was working at a small shop outside Gothenburg. She’d been working with denim for many years.” Some years later, he adds, “she said ‘Palle, let’s do our own jeans’. She was fed up with the commercial side of things because everything was looking at the short term. Her idea was that instead of just looking at profit, let’s do the jeans the way we want them. I said ‘yeah, let’s do it'”.
Stenberg says Nudie started out with the ethical side hard-wired into the business model. “Those ethics have always been part of us … The look and the fit is important – otherwise nobody buys them. But the social responsibility and taking care of nature was also there from day one. We wanted to know that everyone who worked with us would go to sleep at night having an OK life.”
“We became 100% organic a few years ago, our next step is to be 100% transparent – to show everybody everything. We’re just working out the way to do it.”
In India, where Nudie gets some of its cotton from (it also sources from Italy and Turkey), Palle says they pay their workers living wages, not just minimum wages. He also takes great pride in Nudie’s manufacturing – 90% of which happens in Italy. “Italy is a part of the EU and we pay the same taxes, their salaries are like the ones we have here in Sweden. I think that’s where the big difference is. I think our margins are more or less like other brands … maybe even a little worse. But we’re a profitable company. Shoppers are really behind us because of our core values.”
Nudie Jeans are becoming popular and not everyone buys them for the ethics, but they soon get the hint. At a visit to one of their flagship stores in London, I was taken through their range, where their jeans came from and how to care for them. Their repair shop is in the front window next to the till.
You get the sense that the average Nudie customer wouldn’t be seen dead with a dream-catcher listening to the Grateful Dead. Everyone who worked there and who walked in was effortlessly cool. The price point is cheaper or equivalent to most designer denim labels.
“We have three shops in Sweden, one in Berlin, one in London, five in Japan, five in Australia, one in Zurich and one in Barcelona,” says Stenberg. “And then online. We also have distribution in 26 countries around the world. The cool thing is that the same people who started the brand twelve, thirteen years ago are still here.”
Stenberg acknowledges that Nudie aren’t perfect. It takes around 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pair of jeans. “It’s no secret that the cotton industry is one of the worst industries in the world. We only work with organic cotton, and the people we work with reuse their water and they don’t use pesticides to grow it.”
When I ask about his own waste flows, Stenberg gets up and fetches an older-than-old pair of jeans. “Everyone wants to know what difference we make,” he says. “Here is a pair I’ve been wearing every day for at least two years. Can you see the repairs? If I turn it inside out … you can see repairs. That’s the idea. Buy a pair of organic jeans, never wash them and you wear them and wear them and wear them and they become like a second skin. You save water because you’re not washing them too.”
The Nudie business model is based around not washing your jeans? “Your jeans break, you come to the store and we repair them for free. You wear them for another six months at least, you bring them back, we repair them and so on and so on until you don’t want to wear them anymore and we take them off you. You choose a new pair and we use your old pair to fix other pairs or we sell them to people,” he says.
“It’s not about how much we spend to make one unit. It’s about how long you can make a single pair of jeans last. People sometimes say that we’d earn so much more if we didn’t have this service … yes we could, but that’s not the point. We think long term.”
• This article was amended on 17 March to add that Nudie gets its cotton from Italy and Turkey as well as India.
This article was first published in the Guardian, 17 March 2014.
March 17th, 2014
A German company is spinning fibres out of milk. Qmilk, was founded by Anke Domaske as she was looking for non-allergenic fabrics for her cancer-sufferer father.
After having seen a YouTube video on milk fibres, she found that the old process was too chemically laden for what she needed but that a more environmentally friendly process could produce a fibre so innocuous you could eat it.
It works “like a big noodle machine,” according to Domaske. “You add the protein powder – it looks like flour – to water and you mix it into a dough. Then there’s a nozzle at the end with teeny tiny holes that put out textile fibres instead of noodles.”
“You can use any kind of milk but the safest, right now, is cow milk that’s just turned sour.
“We need to have it sour to separate the protein. We get ours in powder form from dairies but we’re revamping our collection system. ”
The University of Berlin has found that Germans throw away around 2m tonnes of milk each year. Milk consists of more than 200 vitamins, minerals and proteins that can be processed and turned into resources. If the future of food waste is turning it into something useful, then Qmilk fills a gap in a market that might unwittingly turn a blind eye to sustainable options.
A reliance on sour milk might not seem scaleable but Domaske is adamant that current German dairy waste is enough to dress the whole US in a t-shirt.
It feels like silk and if the mildly erotic promo video on their site is anything to go by, you can stick a naked model in a milk bath and have her come out of it dressed in a flowing Athenian frock. One of its major advantages is it’s antibacterial properties. Like silk, it’s also temperature regulating, light, absorbent, compostable and flame resistant.
“We only need a maximum of two litres of water and an 80°C temperature [to make 1kg of textiles]. We have low waste and the process takes five minutes. Everything in the manufacture of Qmilk uses 100% natural and renewable resources,” Domaske stresses.
“We have a transparent production chain. The press is welcome to film it and we know where all our milk comes from. To be sustainable we understand that people want to look behind the scenes.”
“Our vision is to have a zero waste process that stretches right back to our resources … so who supplies us. What we do at the moment is turn our waste into powder which either goes back into our research or is delivered as a biological additive for the plastic industry.”
“I would like to build our collection system and spread the idea worldwide,” she says in a hurried exchange.
“Milk has over 200 ingredients which gets wasted when milk isn’t sold. I’d like to use this as a resource.”
This article was first published in the Guardian, 17 March 2014.
March 17th, 2014
so we got to meet and hang out with alice walker the other week.
we spoke about a load of things – and tried to set the world to rights while I figured out how to fix the sofabed in her hotel room – but the most important of which was the importance of art in palestinian culture. it was for the “this is palestine” festival in dubai.
here’s a film we shot of her…a short promo thing…and she kept leaning forward out of the light when she spoke.
but you can’t get too pissed off with alice walker.