A field guide to “bikewashing”

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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.