Today is Earth Day - a global call to take action against climate change and make a change to our world. We're not a huge company, but we're an ambitious one - we value our planet as much as you do.
The story that you're about to read has come around from our ambition to make headway in the sustainability of our products - first step, our casual range. Currently, every item in our off-bike collection is made with 100% organic cotton, it's printed here in the UK with only water-based inks and is designed to last. We're proud of this range, but it's only a start. The next stage in our sustainability journey began with a trip to Blackburn and a 235km ride. Here's David to take you along the journey:
What better way to honour Earth Day than to ride from Leicester to Blackburn. You're probably thinking, "I think there are better ways of honouring Earth Day." Bear with us, it will make sense. For clarity this happened almost exactly four years ago, in a pre-pandemic unlocked-down world. We were five, me (David Millar), Patrick Grant, Roger Seaton, Peter Denton and Stuart Clapp, a motley crew of intrepid adventurers, committed to a journey into the unknown, via the Peak District.
So, why were we doing it? Well, there was method in our madness, we've been working with Patrick Grant for over a year to develop a new line of CHPT3 casuals that are sustainably sourced, then dyed, woven, cut and sewn here in the UK. Patrick revived the Saville Row tailors, Norton & Sons, rebooted the brand E.Tautz, and rescued the famous Cookson & Clegg factory and founded Community Clothing. He remains the key person in all four of those businesses. He knows a thing or two about the clothing business, he is also one of the leading activists in waking people up to the damage that fast fashion is doing to our planet, watch his TED Talk here.
It was in late 2018, during initial conversations with Patrick, while he was educating us on the processes and people whom would be involved in this new manufacturing process that one of us came up with the idea of riding between factories, because if we really wanted to understand it properly then we had to actually go, in person. Not much more thought went into it, apart from back slapping about the brilliance of the plan, a plan bonded to our absolute belief it would happen.
Britain once produced half of the world's cotton cloth, without growing a single scrap of the plant, the raw cotton was mostly imported from India and later America, it was then spun into yarn and woven into cloth in Northern England. This stronghold on the market was due to the invention of machines that could spin and weave on an industrial scale and spearheaded what we now refer to as the Industrial Revolution, sadly slavery and child labour were also key components to the massive expansion. The reason this happened in Northern England was because this is where fuel to power the machines was most readily available, first the rivers of the Pennines that turned the watermills, then the coal mines (serendipitously also found near the Pennines) that fuelled the steam engines. In 1803 there were 2,400 looms in England, fifty years later there were 250,000. Nowadays there are only a handful of companies weaving in the entire of the UK, Patrick introduced us to one of those, Aristo Fabrics in Leicester. Rajen, the owner, was kind enough to welcome us at 7am on a Bank Holiday Monday to show us around and explain the workings, and it was from here that we were to begin our journey, the same journey our new casuals will undertake.
Only our casuals won't have to battle a headwind for over 200km, then there's the fact we did 235km because we got lost. Add to that we didn't plan our route well (we didn't plan it all apart a look on google maps the night before over curry), this was mainly due to the fact we were completely reliant on Roger "Pathfinder" Seaton to lead the charge. We forgot to inform him of this. A good chunk of our initial miles were spent on a busy dual carriageway in a team time trial, actually - I did a time trial and the team sat on. Our first fuel stop was at a motorway-sized petrol station, it was not how we'd imagined it. Then the final pièce de résistance was that nobody knew each other, Patrick, Roger, Peter, and Stuart had met for the first time the night before. There's nothing like a random expedition to expedite relationships, or Stuart Clapp. Stuart is from Essex, he's the sort of person who could find morale in Chernobyl, it comes with a running dialogue because of some strange genetic predisposition that means his inner monologue is externalised. Around 80km in I remembered I had five disposable cameras, one for each of us, Stu went through his in approx 5mins, his explanation "There's art everywhere, you just have to look." Peter Denton kindly gave him his, that lasted 5mins more.
One of the reasons to ride between factories, beyond meeting the people and learning more about the process, was to prove that it could be done within a bike ride. Because although CHPT3 has always sourced biodegradable organic cotton and used water-based ink, we have learnt we can do better, and that means trying harder, and looking closer. As it happens that means working towards bringing everything as local as possible. Since starting CHPT3 in 2015 I've had to learn a lot, one of the most eye-opening lessons has been understanding the damage fast fashion is doing to our environment, the six minute video below is a beautifully simple explanation:
One of the challenges of our ride was crossing the Peak District, that makes it sound easier than it was, our route meant we had to traverse from the southern extreme to the most northern point. There was slight (misguided) relief that we'd be leaving A-roads and civilisation behind, so to celebrate we had a fuelling stop in the village of Tissington. The sun came out, it felt like we had the wind at our back and the sun on our side (we had neither for the duration apart for those 15mins), and so it made total sense to create a photoshoot in the graveyard opposite us. Unfortunately this was a clear indication of delirium, and we were totally oblivious to it.
It's safe to say that for everybody Tissington was the high point, and we hadn't even entered the High Peak, from then on in it got complicated - weather and wear. By a quirk of fate our route was going to take us through Hayfield, my home for 18 months back in 2005/6. I made a call to my Hayfield friends, Rob and Vicki Hayles, we go way back, they'd lived in Biarritz back in the old Cofidis days when we'd been team mates and were one of the reasons I'd moved to Hayfield 14 years previous. It ranks as one of the greatest ever respite stops in the history of cycling.
From here on in it got grippy, and we became aware that time was not on our side, we were now "racing" against the clock to get back before sunset, destination Blackburn, some 90km away into a headwind. Textile manufacturing in Blackburn dates from the mid-13th century, and in a weird cycling connection, the industry was developed by Flemish weavers who settled in the area in the 14th century.
From the mid-18th century to early 20th century Blackburn became known as the "weaving capital of the world" with a population that increased from less than 5,000 to over 130,000. It was at the beginning of this period, 1860, that Cookson & Clegg began operating. Their initial speciality was leather, from boot uppers in Victorian times, to flying helmets and other leather products for the British Army in the 1930's. Somehow they managed to survive into the 21st century when the vast majority of other Blackburn businesses withered and died as contracts moved to the far east. This was achieved by applying the know how and skills to cut and construct military grade outerwear in both woven and modern technical fabrics and use it to produce premium apparel. That wasn't enough though, Patrick bought the factory in 2015 when it was on its deathbed, even then he couldn't save it, and had to temporarily close it in 2016. Since then he has managed to reopen and offer it a renaissance that so few similar companies have had.
We hope it now makes more sense why on this, Earth Day, we chose to tell you the story of our bike ride from Leicester to Blackburn in 2018, or more accurately from Aristo Fabrics to Cookson & Clegg. Now in 2022 we've seen Cookson struggle to survive, we moved to a Scottish company called Hancock, then they went into administration shortly after receiving all our fabrics and components. Now we've shipped everything to a London factory; and that's where our Elysées range of apparel will be made, it's taken us years to do this right. Now finally it feels like we're at the beginning of the sustainable journey, and we hope you'll share it with us, although we won't make you ride from Leicester to Blackburn in order to appreciate it. Although we'd recommend you do.