Islabikes’ radical new plan means you may never need to buy your child a bike again
The Guardian, by Emily Chappell
Imagine Project sets out to cut waste in the industry by renting rather than selling bikes, which can then be returned and refurbished when the child outgrows them
The idea had been nagging at her for years, but Isla Rowntree went to the ends of the earth before she was finally ready to go ahead with something she hopes will revolutionise the way the bicycle industry is run.
This is the Imagine Project, currently being developed by Rowntree’s eponymous firm making children’s bicycles, Islabikes. It offers a simple but hugely innovative solution to reducing waste – bikes will be rented to customers rather than sold, and returned to the factory for refurbishment when their young rider outgrows them.
It began earlier this year when Rowntree found herself in Grytviken, a remote settlement on the mountainous island of South Georgia, one of the most southerly scraps of land before you reach Antarctica. She already knew what to expect, having read about Ellen MacArthur’s epiphany on South Georgia (which prompted her to turn her back on professional sailing and establish the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, to encourage a so-called circular economy), so this was really something of a pilgrimage.
“The message of Grytviken is that we plunder the Earth’s resources,” she says, and goes on to talk of the whaling station set up there in 1904, by Norwegian Carl Anton Larsen. At first, the seas around South Georgia were heaving with so many whales that ships barely needed to leave the harbour. By the 1930s, they were having to sail 700 or 800 miles in order to make a catch. Grytviken’s whaling station finally closed in 1966, and is now just a small collection of rusting equipment and slowly collapsing buildings, thousands of miles from anywhere. The whales never came back.
Britain’s abandoned whale hunting stations – in pictures
Rowntree was finally facing up to the message she had been half-ignoring for years: that the earth’s resources are finite; that sooner or later raw materials will run out, and that the bicycle industry, as much as any other, will have to change the way it operates.
Rowntree returned to the UK in April, and almost immediately announced the Imagine Project.
For the last 10 years, Islabikes has made its name selling high-quality children’s bikes, initially unique in that they were ergonomically designed to fit children’s bodies and riding style, with lighter frames and a whole host of innovations, from a narrower bottom bracket, to brake levers especially designed for tiny hands.
Rowntree proposes to phase out the model which has proved so successful for her company. Within a few years, she hopes, the rental model will see bikes return to the factory when the child is ready for a bigger one, or if it’s simply worn out.
“We will get it back, fully service and refurbish it, and rent it to the next person,” she explains.
Gone are the days of outgrown bicycles rusting away in the shed, or tossed into landfill sites. But will parents really be happy for their children to ride a bike that is effectively secondhand? Won’t they consider it safer to buy them one that’s brand new?
Rowntree’s eyes begin to gleam – this, it turns out, is the real beauty of the idea. The new ‘circular economy’ gives manufacturers an incentive to make products of far higher quality than they otherwise would. The more people Islabikes can rent a bicycle to before it has to be retired, the better they’ll do commercially. It’s the opposite of planned obsolescence – products will now be designed to last forever.
But of course, kids put their bikes through a lot of punishment, and even the strongest components will eventually start to wear out. Rowntree has an answer for this too.
"So, you design for longevity, but you also design for separability. We’ve designed, from the start, [so] that we’re going to be able to separate the raw materials really easily. So for example the metals aren’t mixed up, so they can go into other industries. You’ve got your main circular supply chain, between the manufacturer and the consumer – and then you’ve got all these smaller circles going round the edges, with all the interdependent industries."
She draws these circles in the air as she speaks, and I have a momentary – and gratifying – vision of all the different manufacturing industries pivoting around each other like a set of cogs, each factory using the cast-off materials of another, and passing on their own by-products in turn, wasting absolutely nothing.
This idea is – has to be – far bigger than just Islabikes; bigger than the bicycle industry itself. It’s a new, collaborative way of doing business, and it won’t work unless everyone comes onboard. Islabikes are consciously setting themselves up as evangelists for this new system.
“What we’re doing is embarking on a journey to find out how to do this,” explains Rowntree. She has five full-time members of staff working on the Imagine Project. As yet, no other bike companies have adopted this new sustainable model, but several component companies are on board, including Reynolds, who have developed prototype tube sets for the new bikes.
“And if we can get those components companies working with us, when other cycle companies are ready to adopt this model, the components will already be there for them.”
This is truly a sharing economy – where all parties benefit the more they collaborate. And it has to happen soon, insists Rowntree. The cost of raw materials is set to rise steeply in the next few years.
“So that might mean that at some point in the future a bike that I sell for £300 might be £1,000 – or £2,000, or £4,000. And at that point it’s not accessible for most families to buy – so children don’t ride bikes any more, because nobody can afford them.”
It first occurred to Rowntree three years ago that her current business model might no longer be viable. And for a while she pushed the thought away, knowing that she could well just carry on making bikes as she was, then walk away before things went wrong.
“But I started to feel responsible, not only for myself, but for the people I work with, who are much younger than me – they’ll still need jobs. And that feeling of responsibility turned into feeling irresponsible for not doing anything about it.”