Bringing Not Sexy Back

So as you might know I write marketing copy for a number of companies and players in the bike industry. The folks I work with are all US-based, not because I planned it that way, but over time, those are the stories I seem to be best at telling and the products I understand most clearly. 

When we are talking about how to pitch their products, they want to focus on durability and sustainability. They want to emphasize the importance of investing in quality up front, and then keeping those quality products a long time. And they want to talk about the measures they’ve taken to produce things in the cleanest, best possible way. The word sustainability is often thrown out, but what we’re really talking about is clean manufacturing practices, clean operating procedures, etc.

Here’s the thing, though. Just about no one buys a set of wheels or a frame because it has the smallest carbon footprint. Durability, pretty much everyone acknowledges, is the least sexy feature of any product ever. So there is a disconnect between their corporate values and their desired customer’s values, though let’s be clear, if you ask consumers if they want durable, sustainably produced products, they’ll say, “Yes, of course.” And yet, when it comes time to key in the credit card number, those values tend to go by the wayside, or at least they count for much less than a perceived discount or a really cool color.

In a hierarchy of buying criteria, durability and sustainability consistently come in fourth or fifth on the list.

But Lahaina, Maui just burned down. On the East Coast we’ve gotten a dose this summer of wildfire smoke, a curse West Coasters have been familiar with for a while. It’s the hottest summer on record, not just here in Boston, but everywhere on the planet. Everywhere you look the evidence of global warming is piling up, those irascible chickens coming home to roost much sooner than we expected.

So I’m not trying to scold anyone, and obviously I have a clear stake in people changing their buying habits in this way, so I’m not high-horse riding avatar of pure intentions here, but what I am trying to do is wonder aloud when things like durability, sustainability, low carbon footprint, etc., become really dispositive values in the buying process.

When do we consider the ultimate destination of the stuff we buy? For example, can your bike be recycled? Or does it go to a landfill? I haven’t thought too hard about these things until recently, and I own some stuff whose only current path is to the trash heap. I therefore owe them a duty of care and service that will put that eventuality off as long as possible.

I was talking with a friend of mine recently who is a scientist working on hazardous site cleanups, and she was saying that a lot of her work these days is in mitigating forever chemicals, PFCs and PFAS. These are chemicals that just don’t break down. They have to be filtered and sequestered to keep from entering the water system.

These chemicals are in every piece of waterproof gear you own (with the possible exception of Patagonia stuff, which uses a new chemical that is currently thought to be better than PFAS).

This was fascinating to me, because I think of myself, as a cyclist and outdoors person, as an environmentalist by extension, but my buying habits might not back that self-perception up, and that just brings me back to ideas of durability and sustainability and wondering if now isn’t the time (actually, probably 50 years ago was the time, but…) to reassess what I’m buying, how I’m going about my favorite activities, to bring it in line with my values.

Do you think about these things? What, if anything, about the consumption side of the cycling ledger bugs you?

Join the conversation
  1. alanm9 says

    Actually durability is near the top of my list, but more because I’m cheap. My wife and I have the same metal frame bikes for years, drive 10 year old cars in great shape, reuse and recycle, I bike to work most days and she works from home, etc. You know, all the smug stuff. We could do more I’m sure, but on the bell curve I think we’re well down the slope.

  2. Jeff vdD says

    Wait, “not sexy” was gone?

    I over-index on convenience, because of how I value my time. I care for my drivetrain, but might immersion wax extend component life by half again? I’m a sucker for new kit, need to be better at passing the still perfectly good older items along to someone else so there’s one less purchase of new. I drive to a lot of rides. And it’s been year (not a typo) since I purchased one most recently. I can do better on these fronts.

    I tend to keep my bikes, and most are metal, so, there’s that. I patch the few tubes on the few bikes that still wear them. My commute for work (on the rare days I go in) and my local errands are almost always by bike.

    I’m fortunate to be at a point where I’m willing and able to pay for sustainability. Please keep working with producers to pay attention to this. And get me to pay attention.

  3. Ransom says

    I’ve tried reusable veggie bags and beeswax coated cotton storage wraps; unfortunately, avoiding food waste via the impossibility of crisper settings seems to involve a dismaying amount of plastic film. This was made clear to my by our recycling service’s collection bag which we fill biweekly despite our increasing alarm. To drag this into the current context, while all my bikes are metal, I’m not sure anyone should torture themselves about two pounds of carbon and epoxy that will bring them great joy for a few years. We should all be looking for ways to do better by the world, but there’s still a lot of low-hanging fruit, and no shortage of opportunities to question our decisions.
    In the fraught conversational climate, please do not take this as any suggestion that you’re worrying about the wrong things; only that in this worthy endeavor you remember to be gentle to yourself and the other folks on the ride.
    With apologies for one last fragment, I often wish we were better at selling “works reliably, and will do for five years” as the peak of luxury. To make “just works” sexy, and not in the Apple “comes with drivers for the latest peripherals” sense.

  4. khal spencer says

    I think I have ranted and railed on this site about the rise of “planned obsolescence” in cycling stuff. Maybe it is not planned to be shitcanned, but when there is this move to “ok, we can slam one more cog into that rear triangle” and leave the rest of us fruitlessly scrambling for replacement parts for our old ten or nine speed rig, that bothers the shit out of me. One, because I hate wasting equipment and two, because philosophically, I think bicycles should be the mark of sustainability.

    Of course if bikes and their bits last half a century, you don’t necessarily sell more of them, so I get that. So where do we land? I don’t race, so I don’t count every gram or every third decimal place of wind drag and I suspect most of us actually don’t need that. So what do we need?

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