Ethical shopping guide to Bicycles, from Ethical Consumer

Ethical shopping guide to Bicycles, from Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.


Do bike manufacturers live up to the bicycle's potential?


The report includes:

  • Best Buy recommendations
  • Reasons to cycle
  • cycle hire
  • whether to buy new or second hand
  • directory of bike projects and workshops
  • Spotlight on The Halford's Group


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Our ratings are live updated scores from our primary research database. They are based on primary and secondary research across 23 categories - 17 negative categories and 6 positive ones (Company Ethos and Product Sustainability). Find out more about our ethical ratings


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Best Buys

as of August 2018

As our ratings are constantly updated, it is possible that company ratings on the score table may have changed since this report was written.


If buying new, we recommend going to a local independent bike store and seeking out a steel bicycle. 

The only brand eligible for our Best Buy label is Pashley. It prioritises UK manufacture and seeks to source parts from within Europe wherever possible.

We recommend buying a well-built second-hand bike from a local DIY bike project.

Last updated: August 2018 






Cycling as a mode of transport is always preferable to a car from an environmental perspective, as “the bicycle’s Green House Gas (GHG) emissions are over 10 times lower than those stemming from individual motorized transport”, as one study reported. However, how a bike is made and used also matters.

This guide to bicycles explores the ethical policies and practices of the UK’s top selling bicycle brands (plus a few British-made bikes), to identify the ‘greenest’ bike of them all. We include brands that make a range of different bike types, from mountain bikes to sporty racers and folding bikes.

Mountain bikes remain the bike of choice for people in the UK (26% of cyclists own one), followed by the traditional ladies’ or men’s bike (19% of people own these). However, folding bicycles, gravel bikes and electric bicycles have seen a surge in popularity. 


Image: bikes


Although it constitutes a small part of the UK bicycle market at present, demand for electric bicycles is increasing fast and is expected to increase a lot more. We have therefore created a separate electric bicycle guide which rates the top ten electric bikes as rated by ‘A to B’ magazine, plus those offered by the biggest bike brands in the UK.



Time to cycle?


Bicycles present themselves as simple, elegant tools for pedalling out of a number of environmental and social potholes, including air pollution, climate chaos, the obesity epidemic and poor mental health. 

And yet only 34% of UK consumers regularly cycle and the proportion of women classified as ‘current riders’ has dropped from 32% to 27%. Furthermore, when time spent on the saddle is broken down, 70% is spent cycling for leisure and only 30% for commuting purposes. Why aren’t more people commuting by bicycle?

Barriers to greater uptake of cycling are complex, but poor cycling infrastructure across the UK appears to be key, with cycling on roads perceived to be dangerous. A number of campaign groups are working to overcome these barriers in the UK.

Transport blending is also becoming increasingly tricky as the UK public transport system continues to create barriers to travelling with a bicycle. Increasing numbers of UK train companies now require travellers to book their non-folding bicycles ahead of travel. Hiring bicycles at either end of your journey, or acquiring a folding bike, are potential work-arounds to this issue.

The following companies in this guide offer folding bicycles: Dahon, Halfords, Giant, Brompton, Raleigh (owned by Accell Group), Avocet Sport, Muddyfox (owned by Sports Direct), Dawes (Tandem Group Cycles), Woosh (e-bikes only), Rally Design Limited (e-bikes only), KwikFold Bikes Limited (e-bikes only), and Karbon Kinetics Limited (e-bikes only).


What is the greenest bike of them all?


Of the 57% of the UK population which owns a bike, 16% have two and a further 13% have three or more. Ethical Consumer will always preach the less-is-more line, recommending having one multi-purpose bicycle that has a long lifespan, is fit for purpose and is regularly used.

In choosing a green bicycle, you need to consider a number of things:



1. Buying second hand or new?


A well-made second-hand bike can outlive a cheap new one, and is environmentally better from a resource point of view. When it comes to buying a second-hand bike, we recommend seeking out your local DIY project and asking for advice. See our DIY directory to find some of the UK’s great bike projects.

If buying new, we recommend seeking out your local independent bicycle shop and getting advice on size, usability, etc. We also recommend trying out a bike before buying it – to ensure it is right for you. You can sometimes hire or borrow a bicycle that you are considering buying, to try it, just ask the store about your options.


2. Hiring a bike?


If you aren’t going to cycle often, why not consider hiring a bike if the option is available to you?

A number of public hire schemes have rolled out across the country, a few of which are highlighted below. Some involve a fee for using the service (annual payment for example); but many just charge for each journey.

Dockless bike sharing is the new rage in the UK with Chinese-owned ofo (available in London, Cambridge and Oxford) and Mobike (available in Newcastle, Manchester, Stockport and London) being the first to enter the market. To access the bikes, you need a smartphone with the relevant app downloaded on it, plus a credit or debit card. You then locate a bicycle on a map, visit it and scan a QR code to unlock it and you’re off. Once finished, you just leave it somewhere safe.

This ‘floating hire’ model is fairly new to the UK, and teething problems have occurred with some bicycles getting vandalised, stolen and left clogging up walkways or canals. A list of other dockless bike hire schemes can be found on Cycling UK’s website.


Image: Santander bikes


Boris bikes, now known as Santander cycles, use docking stations that are dotted around London. The scheme is aimed at people wanting to make short trips. You pay a “£2 bike access fee for 24 hours, you can make as many journeys as you like within that time, and the first 30 minutes of each journey is included. Longer journeys cost £2 for each extra 30 minutes or less”.

The bicycles are now being made by Pashley Cycles, and are maintained by Serco (Ethiscore of 5) and are sponsored by Santander (also has an Ethiscore of 5). A number of similar schemes have sprouted up in other cities around the UK. To find out about these and e-bike hire options, see Cycling UK.

Bromptondock has 40 dock stations around the UK and encourages medium and long-term borrowing, allowing you to take bicycles to work and home. Cities hosting the scheme include Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, London, Guildford, Oxford, Didcot, Stoke, Southampton, Norwich, Portsmouth, Peterborough and Woking. One condition to be aware of is that if the bike is stolen whilst in your care you will be charged £350 to replace it.


3. Materials


The materials used in making a bicycle can affect both the environmental impacts associated with manufacturing and the bicycles longevity. Ultimately, we want to keep old bicycles in use and support the production of new bicycles with a long lifespan. A robust frame is therefore key.

The most common (affordable) frame choices are steel, aluminium and carbon fibre. All come with different price tags and weights, but all are energy intensive to produce, involve pillaging the earth for minerals, and all have complex global supply chains. Although some studies have started to look into the life cycle analysis of bicycles, none compare different bicycles’ environmental impacts like-on-like. Comparing impacts is also made tricky by the supply chains of minerals, especially recycled alloys, being hard to trace to source.

In a report commissioned by bike manufacturer Specialized, the aluminium frame came out worse than the carbon fibre frame from a carbon perspective (about 170 kg of carbon dioxide equivalents per kg of bike vs. about 60 kg). Water wise, aluminium was better, using around 1,490 litres of water per kg of bike compared to 2,160 litres of water per kg of bike for carbon fibre.

Steel and aluminium environmental comparisons for bicycles appear non-existent. One article stated, “in general, producing steel emits less carbon than producing aluminium –1.8 tons of CO2 per ton of steel to 2.2 tons of CO2 per ton of aluminium”, referencing a 2011 aluminium industry sustainability report.

In terms of longevity, steel comes out best if cared for. Steel and aluminium are also easier to recycle and use in making new bicycle frames.


Image: bamboo bikes


One material to watch in future may be bamboo, which has the potential to create bicycles with a very low carbon footprint. However, bamboo bikes are currently labour intensive to build, resulting in high price tags. If interested in exploring this option further, visit the Bamboo Bicycle Club’s website which runs courses on making your own bamboo bicycle.


4. Maintenance


The better you look after your bike, the longer it should last and the less waste you should produce. So, remember to keep your chain lubed, your tyres inflated, your brakes well maintained, and protect the bike from the rain if kept outside. In addition, the simpler a bicycle is mechanically, in theory the easier it is to maintain.

When asked “what is your most environmentally friendly bicycle?”, Halfords responded: “REAL Singolo Fixie – this is based on the bike being made from steel with no gears and a minimalist design and therefore lower carbon emissions to manufacture.” However, obviously, the lack of gears would limit what you can do with it.




Score table highlights


Bicycles may be ethically benevolent when you are riding them, but the manufacturing still needs to catch up. As highlighted in the Ethiscore table above, most companies score a worst in the Environmental Reporting and Supply Chain Management categories, with little improvement in reporting compared to 2012 (when we last reviewed bicycle manufacturers).

Most companies also lose marks under the Pollution and Toxics category for retailing Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), as campaigners have for years raised concerns over the toxic issues related to PVC.

Companies that retail leather without a leather sourcing policy also lose marks under the Pollution and Toxics and Animal Rights categories. Leather, as the hide of a dead animal, naturally decomposes, and to prevent this decomposition the leather industry uses a cocktail of harmful chemicals, including trivalent chromium sulphate, sodium sulphide, sodium sulfhydrate, arsenic and cyanide. Tannery effluent also contains large amounts of other pollutants, such as protein, hair, salt, lime sludge and acids. These can all pollute the land, air and water supply, making it a highly polluting industry.


Improved ratings


As always, some exceptions to this poor practice do exist.

The Accell Group, for example, has improved its Environmental Reporting score to a middle by setting environmental reduction targets, including reducing waste by 2-4% per bike per year and CO2e emissions by 1.5% annually. Accell group also monitors its energy efficiency, CO2 emission and waste reduction programmes on an annual basis.

Halfords improved its Supply Chain Management rating to a middle, and Pashley received a best rating in this category. Both have relatively good supply chain policies and show a commitment to long-term relationships with suppliers.

Pashley also seeks to manufacture components in-house and sources locally wherever possible, stating it is “currently supported by almost 100 British component suppliers and over 85 British service and utility companies. In addition to using British-made mudguards, chain and seat stays, cables and wheels on our cycles, some other notable suppliers we have a long-established relationship with are: Brookes Saddles, Reynolds 531 Steel for frames, Sturmey Archer Hub Gears.” 


Conflict minerals


With the rise in popularity of electric bicycles come ethical concerns over mineral sourcing for electronics components, especially as no company covered in this guide publishes an adequate (if any) minerals sourcing policy. Many companies in this guide also make electric bikes – see our electric bike guide.

Tantalum, Tin, Tungsten and Gold (3TG for short) are key components of electronic devices and are commonly referred to as conflict minerals - minerals often mined in conditions of armed conflict and human rights abuses, notably in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is not clear whether these minerals are used in electric bicycle manufacture. 

However cobalt is definitely needed to create lithium-ion batteries, its mining has been linked to dangerous and unhealthy working conditions, deaths and widespread child labour. 

Ethical Consumer expects companies manufacturing electric bicycles to publish a mineral sourcing policy that shows a commitment to conflict-free sourcing, with ongoing due diligence and support for conflict-free initiatives in the DRC region. No companies that sold electric bicycles in this guide had an adequate minerals sourcing policy, and so were marked down under the Habitats and Resources and Human Rights categories.



Recycling your Bike


No matter how well you maintain your bike, there will always be some waste.

A number of the DIY projects welcome old bicycles, particularly if they are in relatively good condition or have salvageable parts. Halfords runs a bicycle take back scheme, as does Evans Cycles who offer up to £350 off your next bicycle if you trade in your old one.

Old inner tubes can be re-used as bungee cords for strapping things to a bike. They can also be turned into a wallet or posted to Cycle of Good, Krizevac Project, Atlas Works, Paragon Road, Longton, Stoke-on-Trent, ST3 1NR. Cycle of Good aims “to save every single inner tube in the UK from going to landfill”, turning them into bags and wallets that are made by tailors in Malawi. Finished products are then shipped and sold in the UK.

Old tyres and other bike parts are harder to re-use. They require some more creative experimentation: old tyres can be turned into belts, old chains into bottle openers or key rings...




Company behind the brand

The Halfords Group recently acquired online retailers Tredz and Wheelies, responding to an ongoing consumer trend towards buying bicycles from online retailers as opposed to bricks and mortar shops. It has also formed a long-term partnership with UK charity Re-cycles; collecting and diverting customers’ unwanted bikes from landfill and donating them to people in the UK and in Africa.

In 2017, Halfords faced criticism from cycling groups and employment rights campaigners. It was the target of the Twitter campaign #Boycotthalford after being accused of providing “anti-cyclist ammunition” to mainstream media by stating there was a ‘convincing’ argument for cyclists to carry number plates.

Regarding employment rights, it was criticised for employing young jobseekers without pay under the government-backed ‘workfare’ scheme. Halfords ran a “two-month scheme in partnership with Qube, which involved 25 hours a week working in store and three at a training centre”. Gail Cartmail, a Unite assistant general secretary commented on the scheme: “The fact that well-known brands are operating these schemes to boost their profits is especially alarming. These schemes are a worst-case scenario and fall far short of the assurances Unite was given when these traineeships were introduced.”


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