Sustainability in Bicycle Production
Travel by bike for recreation, transportation, or extended adventure leaves little trace on the environment. A puff of brake dust or a little rubber left on the road after scrubbing speed in a tight corner, perhaps. Compared to a car, even noise pollution is nonexistent provided you drivetrain is well maintained. While bikes are certainly “green” not all bikes, frames, and components are created equal when it comes to sustainability. The bicycle manufacturer from Gundelfungen, just outside of Freiburg, is quite content when they do not see their customers for years after their initial bike purchase. To some this may fly in the face of “good business” - it is not uncommon for Tout Terrain riders to spend a decade riding the same bike. This is not just because Tout Terrain bikes are built to last, but because sustainability starts with a simple, understated design aesthetic that is not subject to the whims and fancies of trends and fashions. The construction and assembly quality along with reparability of steel tubing means frames are not easily damaged and can be repaired if they are. Tout Terrain frames can even be sent back to the factory in Gundelfingen for repair and refresh – a breath of fresh air in a climate of disposable goods. But with such expertise in Germany, the question often arises: Why are the frames manufactured in Taiwan?
Manufacturing Frames in Taiwan
Twenty years ago, Taiwanese bicycle frames were synonymous with cheap bikes that were heavy and poorly welded. Indeed, in the early days the price of frames out of Taiwan was lower, but the frame manufacturing sector in Taiwan has changed radically in recent years. Although the country has a relatively small cycling culture of its own, some of today’s best welders are building frames in Taiwan. There is no longer a major price discrepancy between European and Taiwanese manufacturing. The simple fact is that there are no European facilities available to shape the tubing and weld Tout Terrain frames require in the quality and quantity. Tout Terrain has been working with the same frame producers in Taiwan for more than ten years and has developed a great relationship - employees from Gundelfingen visit the production facility twice per year. The teams in Taiwan and Germany both appreciate the personal contact which is important to ensure the small adjustments and fine details of the products are done just right. Such trips come with an environmental cost, but Tout Terrain compensates for the carbon emissions for these (and all business trips) by air or by road through Atmosfair, a climate protection organization with a focus on travel. The revenues are used to support climate protection projects under the CDM Gold seal of approval. "It’s a step in the right direction,” comments Stephanie Römer, one of the two managing directors. "We are actually quite happy to reduce our travel footprint wherever we can.” In addition to compensating for employee travel, carbon emissions from the shipment of parcels are offset by the "GoGreen" program from DHL.
Environmentally Responsible Business Practices
The company also pays close attention to green alternatives on the ground. This magazine, if you are reading the print version, is made of FSC-certified paper, printed in the neighbouring town of Emmendingen. The office supplies come from the ecologically oriented supplier Memo, who delivers in returnable boxes. For those reading online, web hosts Hosteurope and Timme Hosting were selected in part because they power their servers on sustainably generated electricity. Tout Terrain recognized that even disposable cups and plastic drink bottles would add to the carbon footprint of your bike, so they did remove them completely. You won’t find these at the manufactory - coffee is served in mugs, and water is available from the dispenser with matching glass bottles provided for employees. Based on advice from an energy audit, insulated windows were installed in the building, with new lightbulbs which are brighter and more economical. Even heating is controlled via Wi-Fi-enabled thermostats. All this makes for a more comfortable and more sustainable work environment in summer and winter. As a result of implementing these changes, Tout Terrain, as a comparatively small company, joins the ranks of much larger, environmentally conscious companies such as Vaude in Tettnang and Patagonia in California. But sustainability starts even before opening the front door – dedicated, covered bicycle parking is provided for each employee’s bike.
Sustainability Through Employee Health and Wellbeing
If any of the twenty-or-so employees have not had enough exercise after riding home by bike they can take part in the "Hansefit" program, a membership providing free access to gyms, spas, pools and recreation facility across the region. "Many of us go to a fitness center, climbing gym in winter or swimming in the summer," says Stephanie Römer. As healthy fuel for all of this sport, Tout Terrain also provides a local organic fruit basket every week.
The company recognizes that its employees are its greatest asset. The bicycles they produce have a huge amount of customization available, so a traditional “mass production” assembly line is not a good fit for this business model. If a label says "made by Christian Peters" on a finished Tout Terrain bike, Christian has assembled every single component. This vertical integration requires some planning on the part of management, but the workflow encourages quality assembly, and allows employees to balance family and career, provides flexible working hours, and offers telecommuting for staff outside the workshop.
Is Powdercoating Environmentally Friendly?
Tout Terrain works with powder coating rather than liquid paints. Rather than laying on thick coatings of wet paint, the process of powder coating ensures that paint particles only adhere to a calculated layer thickness. Paint particles go on uniformly and adhere to the frame with an electrical charge. This is reducing the “powder footprint” by forty percent. But powder coating is not an easy task – the painter must wear a protective mask to protect him from the paint particles. Fortunately, this is much safer than the side effects (such as Painters Syndrome) which are associated with solvent vapours from liquid paints. Powder coating also results in a long-lasting and durable finish, as the colour content in paint powders is twice that of conventional wet coatings. The layer thickness is also at least twice that of wet paint, thus requiring fewer coats for the same durability. A quality powder finish resists wear and tear from bike bags, or when locking-up against a lamp post. The in-house facility means every customer is free to choose their colour. Piggy pink or elegant matt black? Just about anything is possible. If a few years of riding the Pan American Trail has taken its toll, the frame can be refreshed or repainted in a different colour: The old finish is removed, then and a fresh primer, colour and finish layers applied in the Gundelfingen facility.
Matching Customer's Charitable Donations
Any time a Tout Terrain rider jumps on their bike they are making a positive environmental impact. Time spent travelling by bike is time not spent travelling by car (or airplane, depending on how far you ride). But even before your Tout Terrain is delivered you can choose to contribute. "The Go2 Atmosfair! Campaign starts in September and we hope it will be well received by our customers," says Stephanie Römer. Under this initiative, Tout Terrain will match every dollar voluntarily contributed by customers to Atmosfair at the time of ordering.
The plans for the coming years to go even greener are taking shape. Initially, there will be more vegetation on the company premises. This will reduce the number of automobile parking spaces, but they used less and less frequently. E-bikes also have a strong presence in the Tout Terrain program, "For distances up to twenty kilometers the time difference between a car and a bike is minimal, and between the ride to work and home again, you've already got in some exercise." enthuses Römer. With or without electric assist, a Tout Terrain bike can always tow a Tout Terrain trailer, creating the “sustainable parent taxi”.
Environmental Sustainability in Bicycle Manufacturing - FAQ with Oliver Roemer
“When shipping the frames and components, rail and sea transport are preferable to air and truck freight.” Customers may find this a little non-committal."
We would like to be firmer in this commitment, but at the moment we can only exert so much influence over the supply chain and the shipping methods used by our partners. For example, we have chosen to have our frames shipped from Taiwan by boat, in shipping containers, rather than via air freight. We source our bicycle lights from German manufacturers, one of which is literally located across the street. It is often difficult to find suppliers who guarantee environmentally friendly transport, so we try to source as many components as possible from German companies who still manufacture on site.
How much transport is required during bicycle assembly?
None at all. We assemble everything in our manufactory in Gundelfingen. This is not only environmentally friendly but allows us to maintain strict quality control. We also manufacture our prototypes on-site and can test them the next day under real-world conditions. The Black Forest is pretty much in our back yard.
In the past four years, the amount of plastics used for shipping has been reduced by 90 percent. Why not tackle the last 10 percent?
We have been offsetting our shipping CO² emissions for 4 years now, so we came to terms with the issue of sustainability at a very early stage. Despite our durable powder coated frames, cardboard and paper unfortunately act like sandpaper on the finish. Technically this is not a problem in terms of functionality, but customers understandably expect new frames to be flawless. Therefore, we still protect exposed areas with stretch film or bubble wrap made of polyethylene. For protection during transport, we also attach plastic to the protruding parts such as the fork dropouts.
E-bike batteries don't last forever – how do you deal with this from a sustainability perspective?
This is a tough one, and a matter of perspective. If you start from a standard bicycle, the e-bike is already less environmentally friendly. But if an e-bike rider leaves their car at home more often, then it is certainly an improvement. Compared to the massive number of rechargeable batteries that are being used in the auto industry, the quantity of rechargeable e-bike batteries is manageable. Obviously professional disposal at the end of their service life is vitally important.