A Visit to Sustainable Bicycle Company Roetz Bikes in The Netherlands
Last year on my visit to The Netherlands, I was taken on a multi-day media tour of the country’s bicycle facilities and industry. One highlight (and there were many) was visiting the Roetz Bikes headquarters and workshop. I had not heard of them before, but their unique business model to source, build and brand their bicycles with the utmost attention to sustainability was a story I had to tell. Momentum Mag published a shorter version to coincide with a larger feature looking at the environmental impact of bicycle manufacturing. Below, you’ll find my original piece that takes in the full scope of what they are all about. The fellow you see building the green bike? His name is Seyfettin, and he was recently profiled by Roetz on their site here. A charming man who loves what he does! Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2014. Photo gallery and full article below.
While cycling itself is seen as a sustainable option for moving about our cities, the processes behind some bike manufacturing isn’t always as ‘green’ minded. The Dutch company Roetz is on a mission to influence the industry, building bikes with as little environmental impact as possible.
In an unusual business model, the four-year-old company produces about 1000 bikes per year and they start by scavenging classic, steel Dutch frames. By refurbishing some of the more than one million dead beat bicycles brought to depots around the Netherlands, Roetz gives a second life to old bikes.
Momentum Mag spent some time at their production facilty on a recent trip and met with Roetz’s Mark Groot Wassink to learn more about their goals. “In different countries cycling is looked at as a sustainable alternative to using a car or bus,” says Wassink. “To us, it’s not. It’s just the way you commute. It’s the easiest way. As we don’t see it as a ‘sustainable alternative’ we thought how can we be a sustainable producer?”
With such a high mode share for cycling, the Netherlands is literally awash in bicycles. They are abandoned, left out during winter, or simply rode into the ground. Roetz begins their process by visiting the bicycle depots that take in these abandoned bikes, sourcing bikes that can no longer be used second hand as is. With such a high number of bikes coming in, they can be very selective in choosing the best of the bunch.
Back at the workshop, employees disassemble the bikes, strip the paint and decals, and inspect the frame to insure it is structurally sound. These frames are then cleaned, painted and re-inspected before being built up into one of three Roetz designs on offer. As you can expect, almost every bike is slightly unique but fits into their existing collections.
“It would be difficult to get the same kind of frame if we wanted to, but we don’t really need to,” Wassink says. “We are looking for steel frames that are welded well – they might be old Gazelles, or Unions. It doesn’t need to be literally the same frame as we make a collection out of them. The coloring, the fenders, branding – that makes it a Roetz bike.”
The result is a collection of beautiful, and sustainably re-purposed, bicycles ready for a new life on the city streets. Available online or at retailers in the Netherlands and surrounding countries, the bikes start at € 559 and accessories include beech wooden fenders and chainguards, cork grips, reclaimed-wood crate, and conveyor-belt skirt guard.
The manufacturing process isn’t the only difference in how Roetz operates. They run the business as a social enterprise, employing those sometimes marginalized by societal norms. Production is done in their ‘sheltered workshop’, a space created to include those with special needs or long-term unemployment, and Roetz goes out of their way to make an inclusive workshop for these valued employees.
Wassink explains: “People who come here to work start with no knowledge of bicycles. They start with putting lights on mudguards, then bell on a steer (handlebar). Then they move up to making full bikes – that makes them proud. The beautiful thing is they start in the social workshop, they are taught about the bike, then they leave and get a better position in the labour market and move onto different jobs. We like people to move on as well.”
“We also value the people that make the bikes,” Wassink continues. “We believe that when you buy a bike it feels better to know the person who made the bike.” As such, each Roetz bicycle comes with a tag sharing the name and photo of the builders involved in that particular bike.
Richard Dernison (pictured assembling wheels) had been working in the bike depot for two weeks when we visited, starting by working on wheels before moving onto other parts of the assembly process. Dernison says, “I love to work with my hands, going home and thinking I made something beautiful. Seeing it (the finished bike) leaving the place like that is very rewarding. Last week I saw someone in the city riding, I was like ‘that’s my bike’ and it’s pretty rewarding. I have been riding bikes since I was three – we all cycle – and I thought I knew all about bikes. But there is so much to learn, they have the right tools and it’s very good training.”
Roetz have another lofty goal in sight. “We want to see if we can develop a 100% re-manufactured bike,” says Wassink. “There is a project we do now in which we have a 70% reused, new bike – looks like a new bike, feels like a new bike but with 70% reused materials.
“The way bikes are built now, there will always be parts that are not re-usable. So things have to change on that side first. We can be an influence on that. It’s a hard one (goal of 100%) but it’s a vision and our goal – it’s a good challenge.”
By producing beautiful bikes that people want to ride, relieving old bikes from the ‘end cycle’, and setting an example on both the fabrication and human side of bicycle production Roetz is clear they are out to make a difference.
“Cycling for us is not the sustainable alternative, it’s more,” Wassink says. “But in the industry it’s still sometimes treated as ‘ok we don’t need to look at how to do our production in a better way because cycling itself is sustainable and our customers don’t require us to do that’. Whereas shoe companies, clothing, furniture producers – everyone is being targeted with the questions about how are you producing, who is producing it. In the bicycle industry that’s not so much the case yet, but we want to be the first one to address this issue and show that is can be done in a different way.
“To cut short, our mission is not just because we are personlly motivated to make a beautiful bike in a good way, it’s also to stimulate the bicycle industry to look at production in a different way.”