5 QUESTIONS FOR is an interview series with cycling brands that are trying to step up their game when it comes to reducing environmental impact.The series does not set out to present perfect examples, nor does the series intend to favour specific brands. What we do hope to offer is an informative and honest account of the possible challenges, gains and pitfalls of their journey. And to inspire more cycling companies to become part of this shared responsibility.
#010: Rob Webbon, CEO Presca Sportswear
When did your company start addressing its environmental impact, and why?
"From the very beginning, it’s all we have ever done. We started the company in 2014, specifically to try to be the most sustainable cycling clothing company on the market. My background is in environmental science, so it was a no-brainer for me. I was competing a lot in cycling and triathlon events and was just very conscious that the clothing I was wearing was completely unsustainable, and with zero supply chain transparency it was impossible to know how ethically it was made.
So in the end I decided to do something about it and set up a clothing company. Neither myself or my co-founders had experience in the clothing industry and being perfectly honest that led to quite a few rookie mistakes in the early days. But coming at this from a different angle to most people definitely means we aren’t wedded to the “standard” way of doing things in the clothing industry, so that does give us an advantage there."
What particular impact within the lifespan of your products do you focus on, and why?
"Historically we have concentrated on the ‘in use phase’ choosing fabrics that will ensure longevity in our garments, one of the best ways to make clothing more sustainable. We’ve focused on synthetics to date as we know these to be very durable in clothing, with the added benefit that choosing polyesters from recycled bottles, and nylons from fishing nets and carpets, significantly reduces CO2 emissions and water use in their manufacture, as well as tackling plastic pollution.
Over time our approach to sustainability has become much wider than just the fabrics we use, and now our focus is on the whole lifecycle of the garment from design through to end of life. Our goal is to be fully circular in all new garment ranges from the end of next year. Circularity has many different aspects but for us the challenge means sourcing from 100% recycled fibres and looking to achieve 100% recyclability of the garments we produce. That’s a very tough ask, and perhaps we’ve given ourselves an impossible challenge, but we figured that we need to get there as an industry sooner rather than later, and if we set targets for 2030 or even 2025 then there’s no urgency to get it done. We’re really keen to collaborate with other like-minded folks on this. This is an industry-wide challenge, and it will only be solved through genuine and open collaboration.
We've developed a design philosophy that specifically focusses on longevity of our garments, and recyclability at end of life. We’re currently working with a technology partner on chemical recycling of polyesters which has been really successful so far, and are now looking at how to apply that in a commercial setting. And we’ve begun conversations around similar processes for nylons and naturals.
It is fair to say that sourcing the right fabrics for circularity will push us to our limits. We’re building a huge library of recycled fabrics and are focusing on mono-material construction wherever possible to ensure recyclability. The big challenge for circularity in the performance sportswear industry is the stretch fabrics. We’re working with a number of different mills to source and test emerging mono-material fabrics with mechanical stretch. I am yet to be convinced that will be a viable option for garments like bibs or super-aero clothing, so if that’s not a viable option we’re also looking at how we can approach this challenge through the recycling process."
What are the biggest challenges you have faced so far?
"The single biggest challenge we’ve faced is manufacturing. We started the company with an ambition to use British manufacture for all our clothing to lessen the impact of transportation and help closer factories become more sustainable. We invested a huge amount of time and energy (and money!) trying to follow this path, and we gave it our best shot. But ultimately, to get the quality and capacity that we needed we had to move our manufacture to Europe. We now work with a factory in Lithuania who make fantastic garments and are keen to be challenged on their environmental impact. They source 100% of their energy from renewables, and we’re working with them on a trial to chemically recycle 400kg of offcuts from their manufacturing process (our offcuts, and other brands too). Their offcuts currently go to an Energy Form Waste plant, which is certainly better than landfill but still very much part of the linear economy. I’m hoping we can help them change that.
The other challenge is materials. When we were looking into sustainable fabrics when we started the brand, the options were still very limited. This definitely caused some delay in the development of some products until the right fabrics were available – we did not want to compromise on performance, but at the time the breadth of fabrics in recycled fibres just wasn’t sufficient to really hit the performance mark in a number of garments. So instead we had to focus on fewer garments.
Fast forward 5 years and now the suppliers are knocking on our door to show us their sustainable fabrics. The range of materials available to us has expanded massively, but that does bring drawbacks too. It has increased the propensity for greenwashing in the textile space, and it means we have to do more digging than ever to ensure we’re happy that the suppliers meet our standards for environmental performance and ethics.
We put a lot of effort into understanding our supply chain, but there’s a lot more to do as we grow. For example, all our Tier 1 suppliers and fabric mills are signed up to our Code of Conduct, which mandates fair treatment of staff, no bonded or child labour, right to join a union etc., and sets a baseline for understanding where that supplier is in terms of environmental impact and improvement plans. By end of next year, we expect all other Tier 2 suppliers, as well as Tier 3 & 4 (down to the bottle collectors) to be covered by that Code of Conduct."
What are your ambitions for both short and long term?
"We’ve only recently launched as a B2C brand, having focused solely on custom kit up until early 2020. So the next two years are about strengthening the brand and really working hard on expanding the B2C product range and building community. Our brand film has just launched and gives a taste of where we’re going with this. At the same time we’ll be focusing on positive impact through working towards our circularity aims, and becoming carbon neutral by the end of 2022 (on all operations and, critically, supply chain too).
In the next 10 years we’ll be building on the solid foundations we’re laying for brand and community to massively expand our customer base within our key markets of the UK, EU
and the US. You can expect to see a lot of focus on innovation through collaboration with our suppliers, academia, and hopefully with some of the people reading this article. We’ll be developing the facilities and/or partnerships necessary to enable a true circular approach to clothing in all its facets (e.g. design out waste, eliminate harmful chemicals, regenerate ecosystems, and keeping products in use longer), and will be developing, testing and rolling out the business models to match that approach."
What do you expect of the cycling community on this journey?
"Over the last year or two we’ve started to see a real shift in customer demand and interest for more sustainable products. We expect this to continue, and if anything, to accelerate. We’re moving away from the traditional clothing model of incentivising constant churn of new garments, which is fundamentally unsustainable. Instead, we’re looking at a range of different business models that develop a longer term relationship with customers where they may buy fewer garments, but will always look to us as one of a handful of brands that they are loyal to and engage with throughout the garment lifecycle. If we can build that kind of relationship, then our customers will be our biggest advocates.
I’m also expecting great levels of challenge from our customers! As they continue to become more environmentally and socially aware, I would expect our customers to keep us on our toes, to make sure we’re building the very best version of Presca and staying true to the promises we’re making."
Find out more about Presca here: www.prescasportswear.com Photo credits: Presca