We humans consume an awful lot. We buy 56 million tonnes of clothing a year, packaged up in billions of boxes, transported thousands of miles, all to be eventually emptied into a landfill at a rate of around three tonnes per second.
Naturally, cyclists are an environmentally-conscious lot. But the clothing that we use still has its own footprint – not helped by complex global supply chains, the use of synthetic fabrics, and hydrophobic chemical treatments. As one of the world’s biggest cycling brands, Rapha wants to do much more to fix the problem. This season’s Classic jersey and bibs, made with recycled fibres, represent part of a statement of intent to do just that.
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Rapha’s Classic jersey and bib shorts are the true hero products of the brand. When Rapha was formed back in 2004, the Classic jersey was the first item it sold. It was previously called the Sportwool jersey and made from polyester and Merino wool, fabricated to create a high performance breathable fabric. In the 17 years since then, aside from minor refinements to a silicon gripper here or a rear pocket hem there, very little has changed in the design. Until this year, that is.
By 2025, Rapha hopes to be a carbon neutral business
“We’ve taken Rapha performance Merino and switched over to recycled content,” explains Duncan Coulter, Rapha’s sustainability manager. It’s a subtle and largely undetectable change, as the jersey still uses the same amount of Merino wool. “The Classic jersey was 64 per cent polyester, 36 per cent Merino. Now, that 64 per cent polyester is made from recycled materials. Every product that was made out of that Rapha Performance Merino is now using the recycled version.”
Like many of Rapha’s garments, the Classic jersey and shorts previously used virgin polyester – meaning that the fabric came directly from petrochemicals. The same was true of the previous Classic bib shorts, which now use entirely recycled materials on the upper and 58 per cent recycled nylon on the shorts.
You’d be forgiven for wondering how much difference a few panels of recycled material really makes, especially when considering the kit’s packaging, the factories it is made in and even the methane created by the Merino sheep whose wool it uses. Here we need to dive down the rabbit-hole of defining priorities in sustainability.
“For any apparel business, you're typically looking at around 90 to 95 per cent of your emissions coming from what’s called ‘Scope 3 emissions’, which approximately translates to your supply chain, plus customer use,” says Coulter. “For us, mainly that would be at the raw material extraction, and the processing and construction of your fabrics.
“So at the moment, our biggest contribution to climate change is the fact that we use primarily virgin synthetic polyester nylons in our jerseys, shorts and jackets, that we use conventional cotton, and that we're using non-renewable energy in our supply chain,” says Coulter.
Rapha has set an ambitious benchmark of where it expects to be in the coming years by dramatically improving across the board. “By 2025, 90 per cent of our products, by volume, is going to be made with what we're calling environmentally preferred materials. That is basically recycled synthetics or organic natural fibres and animal welfare standard animal-derived materials.”
Even within the commitment to use recycled materials, there are endless decisions to be made between costs, quality and environmental impact. “The most common form of recycling at the moment is known as mechanical recycling, where things like water bottles are shredded, turned into pellets and re-extruded as new material,” says Coulter. Mechanical recycling is more widely available than its chemical recycling counterpart, but is limited in terms of composition and, arguably, quality.
“The trade-offs need to constantly be assessed through a pragmatic lens, and with a view to making progress as a business. We're always striving to find that balance between delivering the best product experience while reducing our impacts.”
That bears down on the central challenge with sustainability in cycling clothing – maintaining the quality that consumers expect. To achieve its goals, the kit still has to be both desirable and durable enough to offer a lifespan that mirrors its sustainable goals. “Obviously, durability is an integral part of sustainable design,” says Coulter. “If it wasn't durable, because we've switched it to recycled materials, then we're just trading one problem for another.’’
The Classic range potentially lends itself to durability particularly well, as it avoids the trend of loud printed patterns that have proven on-trend over the last few seasons. “That's where you get into the concept of emotional durability. You can make something that will last 50 years, but if you make it in zebra print it is probably only going to be desirable for a certain period of time,” Coulter explains.
“There are certain collections that we produce that are more aligned with that emotional durability, like the Classic range. The fact that the Classic jersey continues to look good, and would continue to look good, in five to ten years time, is a feature that makes it durable.”
While material may make the biggest impact, it still forms just one part of a wider puzzle that extends into every granular detail. That’s why by 2024 the brand will use only compostable or recyclable packaging, and Rapha’s clubhouses and offices will be switching entirely to renewable energy sources by the following year.
If all the moving parts come together, Rapha will become a carbon neutral business in 2025, and by 2030 reduce its emissions in line with a science-based target of 1.5° Celsius of global warming. “That’s the most ambitious level of warming that we could hope to achieve,” says Coulter. “Which is still 0.2 degrees more than where we're at now, by the way, which is terrifying.”
The dream across Rapha and the broader movement in sustainability in clothing is to begin to shift the current pattern of consumption and waste. “What we’re trying to get to here is to create a closed loop system where all materials are fully utilised,” Coulter says. “It's definitely a monumental challenge, but as an industry we have to choose to take it on, and together. There's no option not to.”
Much more than just a relaunch with a few recycled fibres, Rapha’s latest kit says a lot about the direction of travel for the brand and the wider industry, and will no doubt prove to be an enduring Classic.
Produced in association with Rapha