Cycling is often commended for being an activity with a low environmental impact. But when it comes to reducing impact in the lifespan of cycling products, there is still a lot of ground to cover. 5 QUESTIONS FOR is an interview series with cycling brands that are trying to step up their game.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. #002: Troy Jones, Social and Environmental Responsibility Manager, Specialized
When did your company start addressing its environmental impact, and why?
"Specialized Bicycle Components has worked closely with our manufacturing partners since we began designing and importing tires in 1974. We started to take a more systematic approach to social and environmental improvements around 2008. Our senior leadership realized that the bike industry lagged behind other consumer product sectors in some aspects.
Specialized soon hired Bryant Bainbridge as Sustainability Director. Bryant, a key player in the development of Nike’s sustainability efforts, brought on Nicole Bassett, a CSR consultant with vast experience in the outdoor industry. That team quickly set out to close the gap; formalizing our Restricted Substance process, creating sustainability guidelines for packaging, and collaborating with other bike brands to launch the Responsible Sport Initiative (RSI) in 2012."
What particular impact within the lifespan of your products do you focus on, and why?
"One of the things I like about Specialized is that decisions are largely guided by available data. The few life cycle analyses that have been done on bikes confirm the findings of other sectors; the vast majority of the social and environmental impacts happen in manufacturing. So that is where we focus.
We audit all of our tier 1 suppliers (assemblers, frame/fork makers, proprietary components) as well as many in tier 2 (stems, bars, components, tires, etc), using an audit protocol developed collaboratively with other bike brands in the RSI. The audit covers labor rights, occupational health and safety issues, as well as environmental issues like chemical handling, water use/discharge, and waste management. Through this process we have driven improvements in our supply chain, and indirectly benefitted the hundreds of other brands with whom we share suppliers.
Packaging was an early focus for a few good reasons; using less material saves money, putting more bikes in a container saves money. We continue to make incremental gains in our packaging footprint, while searching for that innovative leap."
What are the biggest challenges you face/have faced so far?
"Having decided to focus on our supply chain, we still faced a difficult task of deciding exactly where to look and what to do. Many companies focus entirely on their tier 1 supplier, with whom they have a direct commercial relationship. I call this a classical risk based approach; it serves to prevent a potentially embarrassing situation by ensuring that your tier 1 supplier meets your social and environmental requirements. This is a great place to start, and its relatively easy because there is trust and a mutual respect between two parties working sol closely together.
The problem we face is that many opportunities for improvement are nested deeply in our supply chain. For example, an aluminum frame manufacturer must polish the tubing prior to painting. Tube polishing is potentially hazardous so many countries have extensive requirements for air filtration. Some suppliers opt to outsource this procedure to avoid the capital investment and the regulatory scrutiny. Someone making bars and stems for example, could outsource polishing and anodizing; two processes with considerable potential to impact the environment and worker health.
In principle, our supplier bears responsibility for ensuring subcontractors also meet our requirements. In practice, we know that many suppliers don’t yet have the expertise to do this. So we help our supplier develop their expertise, joining them to visit subcontractors in order to gage compliance and develop a corrective action plan.
This all takes time and resources and it’s hard to know just how much work to put into a subcontractor who is anodizing a million spoke nipples a year when we are buying a fraction of that. I don’t think we are unique in that our supply chain has a long tail. One solution to that problem is for more brands to actively monitor their supply chains and for us to collaborate whenever possible."
"Collaboration is key for us to solve the huge problems we face as a society. Specialized often represents only a small fraction of a suppliers output, and we are often the only brand asking that supplier to invest in social and environmental improvements like improved waste water treatment, or reducing workplace hazards. Our work with suppliers to improve their engineering or quality performance has obvious tangible benefit to all parties, but social and environmental efforts can be seen as a cost with no immediate benefit. We believe firmly that these efforts are not just the right thing to do, they are an investment in anticipating heightened regulatory enforcement (i.e. China Water 10), and greater consumer expectations.
We welcome the efforts of Shift Cycling Culture and others who are raising awareness. Specialized are proud to be founding members of the Responsible Sport Initiative, and we urge other bike brands to be part of this collaborative solution to our shared supply chain challenges." Please contact the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industries if you want to learn more about the RSI.
What are your ambitions for both short and long term?
"We are going wider and deeper with our supplier audit; increasing the number of tier 2 suppliers we engage in our audit process, and looking deeper at energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. We have an opportunity to pilot the Higg index and establish the baseline from which to measure future improvements.
Next year will also see a commitment by Specialized and other brands to adopt the Employer Pays principle to shift the burden of recruitment fees away from foreign migrant workers. Currently, the combination of poor enforcement of fee limits, and predatory lending practices, make it possible for a foreign migrant worker to arrive at their job in a Taiwanese factory in significant debt and at risk of further exploitation. Patagonia, Lululemon and MEC are pioneering this effort. We appreciate their leadership and urge other brands to learn more about this important issue.
Another sharper focus will be on end of life issues. The growth of e-bikes and the associated e-waste makes this a critical task. We are also closing in on a long term solution for carbon fiber that will incorporate reclaimed fibers into other products and enable us to roll out our frame take back program beyond the US market, and potentially to other brands.
We are continuing to improve our sustainability efforts under the assumption that within 10 years consumers will demand complete transparency on all social and environmental impacts of their purchase. We’ve got some work to do to get there, but we’ve started, and that is the hardest part."
What do you expect of your consumers on this journey?
"Ask questions and be skeptical of the answers. There are only a handful of bike brands who are actively engaged in addressing their manufacturing impacts. It’s hard work. Many brands would rather make products and money without considering the social and environmental costs, then give away some money to a good cause, that’s bullshit."
For more information: specialized.com/us/en/social-and-environmental-responsibility Please contact the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industries if you want to learn more about the RSI. Photo credits: Specialized Bicycle Components