A field guide to “bikewashing”

Bikewashed snack crackers
(and they’re natural!)

What is “bikewashing”? The word conjures up an image of a bucket of sudsy water, sponges, and people raising money by washing bicycles. It’s a valid use of the term, but there’s a better one.

Bikewashing is also the two-wheeled equivalent of greenwashing — the practice of marketing some product or company by using environmentally friendly images despite that product or company’s near lack of actual environmental friendliness. Grocery store products packaged in brown and green colors and labeled “natural” is one kind of example. Oil companies touting their environmental responsibility is another. The Lorax selling cars is another. Get my drift?

As bicycling becomes more popular, there’s been a shift in the bike imagery used in advertising. Sure, there are still ads suggesting that you’re a loser if you ride a bike, but there are a growing number using bikes to convey a sense that the company cares about the values of active transportation, health, and localism.

An ad campaign that ran in my local daily last year is one example. The ads (I regrettably can’t find an image) depicted a smiling woman riding a hybrid bike down a neighborhood street and text describing the company’s care for its employees’ health and well-being. Never mind that this company’s stores are the ultimate driving destination; it depends for its existence on the spread of the most hellishly bicycle-unfriendly built environments imaginable, through which its goods are transported by truck and which its customers and employees must traverse. By centralizing shopping outside of residential centers, and turning grocery getting into a bulk endeavor, companies like this one certainly have played a direct role in the blighting of suburban neighborhoods and the debicyclification of North America.

Another grand example is car companies using bikes to sell cars. Car companies successfully compete with bicycling for transportation infrastructure funding, and the policies that make it easier to bike for transportation directly conflict with the ones that produce demand for private cars. Yet one company has made much of its partnership with national biking organization Bikes Belong. A major auto lobby group has worked with the League of American Bicyclists on share the road campaigns, while actively campaigning against funding to make roads safer to share.

In summary, bikewashing is the use of bicycling imagery to promote a product or company as healthy, community-minded, or simply fun, even if it is not bicycle-friendly, and especially if it is actively hostile to peoples’ ability to ride bikes. My instinctive reaction is distaste for the practice, particularly since in so many cases the greenwashing seems to be accepted, even by bicycle advocates, as an alternative for actually improving conditions for cycling. But when I brought the idea up on Twitter this morning, several people commented that any increase in positive imagery around cycling is a good thing. What do you think? Feel free to discuss, debate, and add your own examples below.

This post has been translated into Spanish and is available here.

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15 Responses to “A field guide to “bikewashing””

  1. Chris July 31, 2012 at 9:50 am #

    I am really getting annoyed with the McDonald’s ads during the Olympics. Its the same thing. Big Macs don’t help you win gold. Same with Coca Cola. High fructose corn syrup doesn’t craft chiseled abs and build highly efficient muscle mass.

    I’ve noticed a few car ads that use bikes. Can’t think of them by name, but I know I’ve seen them. I hate them.

  2. rand July 31, 2012 at 10:34 am #

    the first example of this that i noticed was a bank in my town (pretty sure it’s one of the bigger ones) with window adverts for low rates featuring smiling, not-sweaty people on bikes. i laughed, just like those cute crackers make me laugh.
    my gut tells me that there are worse things to get mad about BUT

    AAA playing both sides is really not cool. wonder how often lobby groups do that sort of thing?

  3. Erik Sandblom August 1, 2012 at 1:51 am #

    I once bought some laundry detergent with a picture of two kids cycling on the back. Bike-washing in a literal sense. It portrayed cycling as a dangerous activity, primarily for children, which dirties your clothes. I did not approve and did not buy that detergent again.

    But I would buy the cycling goldfish, yes. Despite the choice of headgear. I don’t think the cycling goldfish would make anyone feel that we don’t need bike paths. I usually like it when I see bikewashing because I think it means that cycling is becoming mainstream again.

    Could bike superhighways be called bike-washing? They sure are hyped and they sure don’t live up to it, neither in Copenhagen nor in London. On the other hand, bikes are being hyped! Yay! Activists from The Netherlands moan that their paths are much nicer, but they are not hyped. The Dutch are not proud of their excellent work. I think that’s sad! I see the same tendency in Sweden. We have several world-class biking towns with over 30% mode share (Malmö, Lund, Linköping, possibly Uppsala) but people are uninformed and don’t appreciate that it’s something special to be proud of and take good care of.

    Here’s a related link:
    Bicycles in product branding – Lovely Bicycle!

  4. John Stehlin August 1, 2012 at 7:09 am #

    Thanks for this post Elly! To me, the bikewashing of high-priced infill condo developments is even more insidious, because it directly connects gentrification and cycling in a way that is starting to become common sense. A sleek but hastily built condo complex (http://www.299valencia.com/home), starting in the $400s, just went up down the street from my work at 14th and Valencia, once a relatively run-down area of the Mission. On their website, the first image you see is of bicycles, and their ad copy touts the “locally owned” bike shops nearby, as well as “artisan haircuts” and “raw denim,” making bicycle-friendly space (which Valencia is) into a bourgeois amenity that sells real estate. Yet as I understand it the building still abides by 1-to-1 parking minimums, and I don’t see any special accommodations for bicycles (though I haven’t gone inside).

  5. ladyfleur August 1, 2012 at 9:49 am #

    Did anyone else see the humor in the Goldfish packaging as it relates to the feminist slogan “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle?”

    Back to the topic: I’ve seen bicycles used for years to signify a pleasant neighborhood (say for real estate) and healthy living (drug sales for older folks). The bicycles are in the context of a quiet neighborhood street, a country lane, or a coffee shop. Cars are usually excluded from the image–for obvious reasons.

    • Elly August 1, 2012 at 10:30 am #

      I will never be able to look at this Goldfish picture again without snickering. Thanks a lot.

  6. Stephen August 1, 2012 at 11:41 am #

    I’m not sure that bikewashing is that significant. Regarding the pic of the goldfish box, you have to remember who those are mostly marketed to (kids, including my 13yo) and by whom (young marketing types, mostly, some of whom probably ride a bicycle, and probably a MTB).

    A larger issue is the marketing of bicycles and associated sundries as racing machines for thrashing, gnarly, awesome dudes and dudettes who would never be caught dead riding in anything other than Lycra, clipons, and ti frames. And 9 out of 10 of ‘em drive to the trailhead.

    But even then, is it such a bad thing to use bicycles to market, well, things other than bicycles? Bicycles and bicycle-related imagery, including (ahem) comely women on bicycles, have been used for a century here, Europe, and elsewhere to market stuff. You can easily find classic posters on the internet in 30 seconds. And I wouldn’t be the least surprised to find one or more academic papers studying this. Is it bad? Is it good? Who knows? Personally, any imagery of a bicycle in popular culture and/or mass marketing can’t always be a bad thing, can it?

    BTW, I love goldfish crackers, even if there are no fish riding bicycles (apologies to Gloria Steinem).

  7. Not going back! October 5, 2012 at 7:46 pm #

    I just saw a Hostess display of a 13ish year old girl eating a ho-ho or whatever while riding her bike (riding is healthy, so by association Hostess desserts are also healthy?) at the store, about a minute before security got on the intercom to tell me my bike was parked wrong.


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