Cycling and the Circular Economy


This excellent seminar was hosted by Anthony Collins Solicitors as part of their commitment to encouraging thinking about sustainability and the public good and was delivered in partnership with Bike West Midlands Network as their second annual seminar on promoting cycling and the cycle industry in the West Midlands.

The keynote address was by Isla Rowntree, a cyclo-cross champion and entrepreneur, talking about her new Imagine Project . The discussant was Andrew Ritchie MBE the founder and designer of Brompton Bicycles. Cycling is a remarkably efficient and environmentally friendly way to get around. However manufacturing everywhere is based on taking raw materials out of the ground and turning them into products and, when they are finished with, throwing them away, all to often into landfill. This is wasteful and ultimately unsustainable - there must be a better way.

It was a great privilege to have these two British cycle heroes in the same room. Between them with their determination and fresh thinking they have transformed cycle design and manufacture for young people and for commuters and delighted customers across the world.

Isla Rowntree, is CEO of Islabikes whose range of children's performance bikes is the best available. It is designed for young riders with every component (brake levers, cranks, frame geometry) built to scale and light weight. However, at present the bikes, while designed in the UK, are manufactured in Taiwan and sold to discerning parents who often sell them on as a child grows and then have to purchase a new bike. The Imagine Project is going to produce a small range of of sustainable utility bikes ideal for riding to school or leisure trips which will be available on a rental-only basis, replaced as a child grows and produced and marketed alongside the Islabike models.

The Imagine Project is a pioneering attempt to rethink the way bicycles are made and supplied. The aim is to design bicycles so that they last much longer, and when they finally reach the end of their lives, all raw materials can be separated and reused. This is known as a "closed loop" or "circular" supply chain. This is not just about cycling. The Imagine Project has the potential to contribute to manufacturing businesses across the region and, by encouraging the circular economy, to help to reduce waste and pollution with all the health and other benefits that this would bring. It could also reduce costs and shorten supply chains while stimulating growth and employment. It is also a very different way for a company to engage with its customers.

Having built up a very successful business, Isla took a sabbatical and read Elena McCarthy's book Full Circle. The Islabike manufacturing process like most others was "linear". Finite resources were extracted with decreasing yields and rising costs, and while design and marketing was done in the UK, actual manufacture was carried out in lower wage economies like Taiwan, and then finished products were shipped half way around the world to be sold. She was worried that with rising wages in Taiwan (and elsewhere in the Far East) and increasing materials scarcity and costs, quality bikes will eventually become unaffordable for children in future. The vision behind the Imagine project began to form. Could the bikes be made close to the market with more flexibility, conserving precious raw materials and then rented to the consumer and user family?

The proposal created an incentive to build something that would last - a new way of thinking. Many consumer products have built in obsolescence, like white goods which are designed to work for the three year guarantee period and then to be replaced and scrapped when a component predictably fails. Meanwhile, in the cycling industry innovations like sprocket inflation (from 5 to 12 speed blocks) create an incentive to ditch old equipment and trade up after a few years. Within "circular" manufacturing a high quality product would be built to last with regular maintenance and refurbishment with minimal resort to use of virgin raw materials. As many of us know a steel bicycle can last for ages if properly cared for, but aluminum and carbon will eventually fatigue and probably not meet the ISO strength and safety requirements of the original design. In Isla's vision even when a product eventually fails, all its raw material will be separable and salvaged to go back into the circular flow of materials.

Back from her sabbatical and plunged into being busy running a successful business, Isla was reflecting on these ideas with a "nag burning away" in the back of her mind. Was it irresponsible to continue linear manufacturing? Would the cost of materials, global transport and higher wages in Far Eastern labour markets become a long term threat to the future of her business. Was there a moral responsibility to find a more sustainable model? Isla allowed herself five years to set up and run the Project in a circular and sustainable manner that would become commercially viable.

The design team began looking from the ground up at what makes a reliable and excellent child's bike. They researched the circular material flows and looked for partners locally who would manufacture the components. One issue with a bike that might be used for up to fifty years is tracking the bikes to ensure they are properly maintained and repaired if crashed etc. ISO standards are rigorous but only designed around a "normal" and relatively short product life. This led onto to the idea of renting the bikes to parents with an exchange mechanism when the child outgrows the first bike in about 18 months. Renting rather than buying a quality bike is less of a risk and expense to the parent who knows that any current bike will become too small in a couple of years. The company retains ownership and responsibility for the bike. The bike is designed around service intervals of about eighteen months and Islabikes will conduct these services and either return the bike or provide a new or refurbished one of the right size. Thus the bikes are recycled between children in a systematic way rather than through the currently thriving second hand market in Islabikes.

A new scheme of payment, compliance and service response in event of accidents or failures grows out of this approach. A mobile mechanic will attend the client's home if there are technical problems or a bike needs checking after an accident. Not all the details are worked out yet and the model is one of trying things, learning from failures, but above all getting the "stuff" out there. The finance and cash flow is somewhat scary. The first batch of the expensive to make bikes will be out in the market rented by small numbers of parents whose payments will take at least two years to cover the production costs. As the business model is tested, the company intends to learn quickly and make technical and financial adjustments, but it will take between 3-5 years to scale up to a sustainable steady state. All of this investment and risk is financed internally from the savings built up from the current linear manufacturing business and the successful range of off-road, on-road and competition children's bikes. By any standard this is a courageous and brave commitment to solving a problem that the whole developed world faces with its manufacturing with a new paradigm of production.

Isla revealed a few more tantalising details. The frames and forks of the prototype were made from high quality long fatigue life Reynolds Technology stainless steel (already 80% recycled and made locally in Hall Green). We could see low maintenance hub brakes and possibly hub gears on the prototype and a Brooks Cambrian saddle (alas made in Italy at present). Isla envisaged a future where the design would be open source and she wanted to "connect, collaborate and share" with like minded businesses, fellow manufacturers and suppliers. This could be the beginning of a social movement in a circular manufacturing economy based in or on the borders of the new West Midlands devolved Region.

Isla's presentation was a tour de force, amazingly well thought out from first principles but also very honest about the challenges of setting out on a radical new engineering and business adventure like this. It was great to have Andrew Ritchie with us to draw on his own legendary experience of innovation, engineering, design and business in the fickle world of cycle manufacturing where a whole UK industry virtually collapsed not so long ago. Andrew started off the discussion by pointing out that in the modern consumer the journey from a valued must have "product" to "clutter" and then to "rubbish" is squeezed as fashion and technology moves on and a more modern smart phone or super bike becomes the object of desire. Bikes with punctures soon collect dust and rust in sheds and garages. Isla quoted in-house research at a major retailer which showed that the average mileage achieved by the bikes that they sold was 16 miles before they stopped being used and found their way to a clear out. This is what Cycling UK's Big Bike Revival has tapped into, rescuing neglected bikes from sheds and garages and reviving their utility and the owner's interest in cycling.

Andrew RitchieAndrew was sympathetic to the sustainability argument but still thought that we were some way from running out of raw materials or oil. IslaBikes in its current form could last for another twenty five years as a very competitive business. But prices would rise as scarcity becomes more apparent. Globalised shipping has great environmental as well a oil costs and every factory is itself pretty "filthy" from an environmental point of view. Landfill sites at the end of linear production are themselves another problem. Local manufacture in China for their vast home market was probably a better way forward.

There are other ways of recycling (such as E-Bay) which conserve materials and enable the "hand me down" of products like bicycles to willing buyers. The Imagine project seemed to cut out dealers and bike shops who might have something to offer with the care and maintenance of the Imagine bikes and support localisation. Others suggested that local bike clubs or community projects might work as intermediaries between the company and the user, making it easier for less well off parents to participate.

Other examples of circular economies mentioned were Rolls Royce aero engines, which were paid for according to flying hours and owned, maintained and refurbished by the company. There are truck tyres where users similarly pay for them by the mile. Speakers from the floor were engaged in research on re-manufacturing where the usable parts of old equipment were recycled into new machines along the assembly line. This works for heavy industrial vehicles and plant apparently. Some of the elements needed in steel alloys are now becoming rare, which puts a premium on enabling the separation and retention of used components and materials.

The Imagine project looked to be designed around the needs, sensibilities and incomes of a relatively elite middle class market, and we discussed the growing number of local projects and community interest companies recycling old bikes which became available at low cost or through bike libraries. There are some risks here of bikes made of aluminium being recycled to the point of failure due to metal fatigue.

The wide ranging discussion moved on to what a bicycle means to the child who uses it. In cycle shops, apparently they see "child led gifters" who know little about cycling and gives the choice to the child rather than face a "hissy fit" around the wrong colours (purple or cammo), graphics and/or tassels. These are contrasted with "confident gifters" who take advice from the staff, know about sizing, quality and how the bike will be used. Children like to customise and "bling" their bikes. Does the bike become a lasting possession with emotional durability and does renting undermine this? But children's bikes are outgrown within 18 months (the Islabike norm) or even a year depending on the adjustability of saddle height and rate of growth. It is the experience of cycling, the freedom it gives and the adventures enjoyed, that are durable and long lasting. Isla had the idea of a booklet or log accompanying each individual bike which is handed on to each user in turn to add their own stories and experiences. The value of the bike is in what it gives you, changing your interaction with the wider world rather than in the possession itself. "Imagine" getting a "new to you" bike and finding that a few years ago it had been ridden by a young Laura Trott! The Imagine project wanted to offer a great user experience and ensure a close connection with the signed up families over a long period.

A small Islabike and a Brompton dressed the podium for this seminar - two little bikes that had transformed an industry and become "iconic" in their niche markets. Our two cycle heroes stimulated animated discussion amongst the large and distinguished audience which continued over drinks and nibbles - the Imagine Project and Circular Production are testing out concepts and practices which could play an important part in a sustainable industrial strategy in the West Midlands or nationally. Many thanks to Anthony Collins Solicitors for making this seminar possible and to Shivaji Shiva for chairing the meeting and bringing in his new Brompton and his son's Islabike - which has just been passed on to another family in Kinver!