Presca is the world’s first climate-positive sportswear brand. Which is why we’re delighted to be partnering to deliver our Abundance and Stewardship Editions. But what does it mean to be climate positive? And is it all as rosy as it sounds? We enjoyed an honest conversation with Presca CEO Rob Webbon.
When Rob started getting serious about endurance sports a decade ago, the industry scarcely acknowledged sustainability. His first Ironman was “an orgy of waste,” and it was virtually impossible to find sustainable clothing for those sports. There were no sustainable fabrics being used, and “zero transparency” about where clothing was made or by whom.
“As an industry cycling is considered to be very green,” says Rob. Bikes provide environmentally friendly transport, after all. “But actually, when you look at it, it has a lot of work to do.” Clothing manufacture has improved somewhat, although polyester still accounts for around 60% of clothing fibres worldwide - and far more in the cycling industry, Rob asserts - only a tiny fraction of which is recycled. But there is very little transparency around where the hardware is made, and “it’s a pretty safe bet that there’s quite a lot of sweatshops making bikes around the world,” Rob says.
With a background in sustainability - coastal science, renewable energy, energy efficiency and carbon management - Rob, along with Presca co-founder Guy Whitby, looked at the industry and felt they could do better. “How hard could it be?” Rob thought at the time. “Really, really, really hard!” as it turns out.
'As an industry cycling is considered to be very green. But actually, when you look at it, it has a lot of work to do.'
It’s taken nearly a decade to see Presca’s clothing starting to generate sustainable traction in the cycling, running and triathlon industries.
Outlandish as it sounds in 2022, one challenge has been convincing customers that sustainability matters. Only in recent years have conversations around plastic pollution, climate change, fast fashion and the links between environmental issues and pandemics turned the dial, Rob says.
But the biggest challenges stem from Presca’s determination to be ‘climate positive’ (a term it prefers to ‘sustainability’). This means producing garments that actually reduce atmospheric carbon over their lifecycles.
Presca achieves this, but Rob isn’t satisfied. “Whilst we're technically climate positive at the moment, if I’m being totally honest, we still have a lot of work to do to get to the point where we are actively locking up emissions through our operations and clothing,” he says.
Presca calculates the lifecycle emissions of its clothing, from the energy required for bottle collection (some Presca garments are recycled from plastic bottles) through manufacturing, transport emissions and energy consumed while using and washing the item.
The company then offsets any carbon surplus through a gold-standard offsetting scheme. It’s this offsetting that dissatisfies Rob. Offsetting is divisive for good reasons, he acknowledges. It is often seen as “paying somebody else to take your sins.” At the same time, he argues, “we have done everything possible to reduce our emissions to a minimum, but we can’t ignore that we still have an impact. So if we can pay someone in Rwanda to use a cleaner cooking stove, which reduces their emissions by 80%, then in my mind it's better than doing nothing.” Either way, he doesn’t see it as a long-term solution.
'Whilst we're technically climate positive at the moment, if I’m being totally honest, we still have a lot of work to do to get to the point where we are actively locking up emissions through our operations and clothing.'
He has similar reservations about how tree planting is being rolled out by many companies as proof of their ‘sustainability’. Presca plants a tree for every purchase, newsletter subscriber and five hours logged on its Strava leaderboard. “Tree planting in the right place with the right trees is really positive,” Rob says. Its benefits are “far wider than just climate impacts; there's a whole load of ecosystem services they provide. But far too often it’s seen as a way for companies just to say, ‘It's okay, look, we did plant trees, so we're fine.’” It’s a nice touch, not a solution in and of itself.
Rob is perfectly open about Presca’s imperfect climate positivity. “We are very happy to stand behind that,” he says. Acknowledging imperfection is key to Presca’s ethos - something that made us keen to collaborate. “I'm also very happy putting our hands up to say: ‘This isn't the long-term answer, but it's a very positive step along the route.’”
'I'm also very happy putting our hands up to say: ‘This isn't the long-term answer, but it's a very positive step along the route.’'
Perfect climate positivity wouldn’t require offsetting, and this is Presca’s ambition, hopefully in the next five years. But how?
Part of the answer is renewable energy sources, and there is work to be done here. All of Presca’s tier-one factories are using renewable energy, but further down the supply chain, some aren’t. And it’s proving tricky to find renewable solutions for some parts of the supply chain - notably dyeing houses, which use a lot of energy. Presca would also like to have its own solar-powered office in time.
Building a transparent, high-quality, climate-positive manufacturing chain is also a huge challenge. Ignoring the advice of one advisor who, demonstrating the problem Presca was founded to address, recommended manufacturing in China and simply turning a blind eye to secret outsourcing, Presca’s supply chain now spans the EU and the UK.
Rob is pretty happy with it, but is the first to acknowledge that shortcomings remain. Which dyes and dye houses to use crops up again. “Dyeing and finishing fabrics is one of the biggest impacts in the supply chain,” he says. “We are constantly looking at ways to improve our understanding of this area and make better choices. There aren’t any perfect solutions in this space right now, to be honest.”
Presca has also worked with anti-slavery campaigner and Ride for Freedom Founder Gordon Miller to try and identify blind spots. The further along the supply chain you look, the harder it becomes to know who is involved in the manufacturing process. That’s why Presca prefers European sourcing wherever possible, but Rob remains clear that this in itself isn’t a cast-iron guarantee, and there is always more to do to understand the supply chain.
But the biggest challenge of all, when it comes to climate positivity, both technically and in terms of the impact, is identifying “the right kind of materials” for use in Presca’s clothing. The aim is to transition to materials that “actively lock up emissions in their growing and manufacture.” Rob has recently been exploring hemp as a solution, alongside bio-based materials from sources such as algae and agricultural waste. There’s also a big buzz in the industry about regenerative agriculture, which is believed to lock up more carbon emissions than it produces. There’s no clear winner yet for Rob, but the pace of development is exciting.
Trickier philosophical questions also accompany the technical debates, two of which Em Hartova poses in this Edition. I put them to Rob in turn.
Firstly, does using recycled plastics not in practice help validate plastic production and perpetuate waste? It’s an important question, Rob says, and to some degree is probably true. “But I would say, as a civilisation, that we are nowhere near recycling even half the plastic we produce. We're at about 20% of all plastics.” Such a huge waste stream needs a medium-term solution, and reusing plastic is an important part of that.
The bigger problem here, he argues, is the incompatibility between much plastic design and recycling tech. Demand for recycled plastics can help close that gap by creating value from low-value waste streams. He points to the fact that most clothes go straight to landfill - a huge and continuing problem. Presca is partnering with companies working on clothing-recycling systems to help solve this. Circularity is starting to become a reality, he says. “Still some way off a commercial reality, but it’s coming.”
The second question is tougher. As a company, does Presca’s impact not rely on stimulating the very consumerism that it claims to oppose? “This is the bit I struggle with most, to be honest,” says Rob. “To be a successful company to then have the greatest positive impact, we need to sell our clothes. And the world doesn't need more stuff!”
Presca’s response is twofold. First, says Rob, “the question for me is: are we pushing more sales just for the sake of it, or are we displacing clothing made by companies from worse materials and potentially less ethical manufacture? We focus on quality and longevity to create clothing that will stand the test of time and won’t need to be replaced each year.” Presca focuses on iterations in line with climate positivity, for example when better natural materials emerge. It feels reasonable to assume this improves consumption choices, but it would take detailed research to confirm.
'The question for me is: are we pushing more sales just for the sake of it, or are we displacing clothing made by companies from worse materials and potentially less ethical manufacture? We focus on quality and longevity to create clothing that will stand the test of time and won’t need to be replaced each year.'
The second part of the response is Presca’s workshop, which offers replacements, repairs, returns and adaptations. Presca is the only UK company offering repairs on chamois pads from any brand. It repairs Presca kit for free and adapts Presca kit for free for customers with disabilities. The company has also made a commitment to take back any garment it has ever made when no longer wanted, to repurpose, resell or recycle it at ‘end of life’ wherever possible.
If the early response is anything to go by - and this aligns with what Rob has heard from other outdoor brands offering repairs - demand looks set to be high. It’s a promising sign of a changing industry.
'Spend time researching brands who align with your ethics then invest in high-quality products and really fall in love with them. If you develop an emotional attachment to your clothing, you will go to far greater lengths to keep it going as long as possible.'
Presca’s message to outdoor customers is ultimately a call to change the way we consume. “It’s time we all adopt an approach of conscious consumerism,” says Rob. “Sure, we need the right clothes to do the sports we love, but do we all need more?”
We all have a role to play here. “Look at your wardrobe of sports kit and work out what you really value,” Rob suggests. “Gift or donate the clothing you will realistically never wear, and try to repair damaged clothing (putting a ripped jersey into the clothing-donation bin is not cool). If you genuinely need new kit, stick to the old adage of ‘buy well, buy once’. Spend time researching brands who align with your ethics then invest in high-quality products and really fall in love with them. If you develop an emotional attachment to your clothing, you will go to far greater lengths to keep it going as long as possible.”