In an age of mass production, margins and a deep focus on the bottom line, there are still companies out there, who’ve created something so classic it transcends all trends. These are the companies that create products with passion using age-old artisan techniques. We took a trip back in time to the British-born and based saddle specialists Brooks for a lesson on sustainability, the zeitgeist and what a saddle has to do with being a good friend.
Visiting Brooks is like stepping into a time machine. Standing in front of the inconspicuous-looking building in Smethwick on the outskirts of Birmingham releases some serious Marty McFly vibes like you’ve landed in another era. The production hall goes incognito, with some faded signs being amongst the only clues that this old brick-walled building is where the legendary Brooks leather saddles originate from. It’s unnervingly low-key when you consider just how much this brand is celebrated for its hard-to-beat blend of tradition, sustainability and craft.
Green or greenwashing? Tradition or trend?
Sustainability is no longer just a buzzword; brands are endeavouring to innovate and do their bit to save the planet. But while well-intentioned words don’t always translate into action and marketing hype can (oftentimes fairly) be interpreted as greenwashing, there’s a resurgence in artisan production that’s in part reverting the trend of small shops and bakeries having to close up shop. Traditional ways of working are becoming the trend, seeing a renaissance for artisan producers – sourdough bakers – most notably. For Brooks, who appear to be immune to trends, it’s just business as usual.
Society’s emerging advocacy of artisan products is somewhat at odds with how our expectations have changed in recent years, with the notion of instant gratification and smart convenience being the norm. When we want something, we want it now – or next-day at the latest. We want exotic fruit and vegetables to be available on demand, and our Instagram posts to be flooded with likes. Anticipation, sustainability, quality? Hell, no – there’s no time.
That’s not to say that things were better in the past. But we’re overwhelmingly more likely to purchase a new item rather than repair an existing one. It might surprise you, but some products aren’t even designed to be repaired. Yet, being able to fix items is one of the most important pillars of modern sustainability as a way to reduce our impact on resources. And for the record, this is what we previously referred to as quality, not sustainability.
It’s evident in the bike industry when you consider the mass of cheap products. They cost very little and last a very short time. Look elsewhere for longevity because these are designed to work for a certain period before being replaced, not repaired. But remarkably, this same spectacle exists at the high-end of the market too; some of the top components on your bike single-mindedly prioritise performance over durability. When it comes to road racing, they’ve only got to last until you cross the finish line. At both ends of the spectrum, it represents a black mark against sustainability. It’s with these thoughts in mind that we walk around Brooks, watching the skilled workers doing what they’ve become experts at for a company whose history goes back to hand-making saddles from carefully sourced, long-lasting materials as early as 1866. It’d be too much to say it’s life-affirming, but it’s definitely a breath of fresh air in the bike industry. And the sustainability story that they have to tell? That’s real.
The product philosophy at Brooks: A good saddle is a good friend
You’ll go through highs and lows, drama and tears, but after a while a few cracks might start to show. In the eyes of Brooks, both friendships and saddles require a bit of love to keep them in their best shape. The aim in both cases is that you nurture a relationship that will last you a lifetime. But it’s here in Smethwick where the groundwork is invested, spread across multiple halls and departments in a well-oiled process that we’re about to discover.
Without a dedicated visitor’s entrance, we find ourselves on the factory floor within moments of entering. It’s noisy and smells like oil and leather. People, with commitment etched on their faces, scurry between large machines. They’re busy working. There are no breaks taken to upload a #sustainable shot to Instagram because – for them – it’s a way of doing business. We meet Steve Green, the UK Sales Manager who is the picture of Brooks’ ego-free attitude. He’s been with the company for almost 45 years, cutting his teeth originally as a trainee accountant and his father had also worked at the factory.
Before Steve takes us around the halls, it’s worth touching on what we mean when we talk about sustainability. A brand can talk about sustainability without having to produce any concrete or meaningful evidence. For many, it ties into nature and refers to how we can conserve resources – that’s not wrong, either. When the word first came into usage in 1713 by Hans Carl von Carlowitz, it meant only felling as many trees that could grow back in the wood – it was a call for forests to be conserved, a concept that was coined ‘sustainability’. A lot has happened since then, and the definition of sustainability has seen its definition evolve.
The tour starts next to the biggest bits of machinery, which look as though their screws and hinges have seen at least half a century of labour. We learn later that the oldest machines actually date back to the 1920s, although most were custom fabricated for Brooks in the ‘50s. It’s not immediately clear what these bulky, steel contraptions do. But as small metal parts emerge from the belly, a picture is formed. There are machines for saddle rails, the springs, and even for the iconic key that tensions the leather. As we watch the machines, heaving and groaning, some of which are over a century old, you can’t help but think of the industrial revolution that started in England. In every direction, the industrial legacy is still in action, leaving a patina on the wooden stands where the finished saddles are hung, the walls, the old product posters, and the lubricants that are scattered around.
There are 28 people working in the hall, each with their own expertise, but, depending on skill level, they’re trained up so that they can rotate production line positions to stave off boredom. Crafting the leather is an artform, which takes time to develop. Many of the faces here are well familiar to Steve because they’ve been on the factory floor for more than 10 years.
Next door, in a smaller space, is all about the leather, the natural product that’s stored at 21°C in a special refrigerated room and considerately sourced from trusted suppliers. The raw material has to undergo various steps so it’s protected against the elements and able to withstand daily usage. The leather is first cut out using large hand-operated stamping machines; any cut-off bits can be used for other Brooks products or sold on to local producers. The leather is then soaked for 20–40 minutes in a huge bath. Once softened, it’s put in a leather-blocking press to get its initial shape. This is the moment it starts to look like a saddle. It’s then shaved, embossed, and polished before being put onto baking racks and heat-treated in the oven.
Once the leather is ready, we move onto assembly. It’s an intricate process requiring care and attention, involving drilling, welding, screwing and hammering – often by hand to set the individual rivets into the leather to bind it to the rails and nose piece. While one saddle takes 10 hours from start to finish, without including packaging and storage, the well-oiled factory manages to complete around 1,000 saddles per day.
There’s one section that we’ve accidentally bypassed: repairs. These days, it’s often quicker, easier and sometimes cheaper to buy a brand new item rather than get it fixed. But that’s not the case with a Brooks saddle: their life expectancy is 40–50 years, depending on the model, and of course, it requires some care and maintenance of your beloved saddle – treat and tension every six months, if needed. If anything wears out or breaks, there’s a high likelihood that the team at Smethwick can fix it. There are usually around five used saddles coming in needing work and going out as good as new each week. This is the most obvious part of Brooks’ genuine sustainability story, but look closely across the whole business and you’ll see how their way of doing business qualifies as sustainable in all three pillars of the term: social, environmental and economic. You can even argue that Brooks also taps heavily into sustainability’s fourth pillar of culture by being such a bastion of bike culture across all disciplines.
Our visit to Brooks was a glimpse into the future, but it showed us that sustainability is no millennial achievement. It’s a way of doing business through traditional principles and values that certain industries and products have chosen to bypass or simply forgotten in recent decades. Addressing the sustainability profile of our purchases through craft in manufacturing, well-considered functionality, repairability and a long lifespan is more important than ever and that’s part of the reason why Brooks’ saddles have achieved world-wide cult status. That, and the fact that when it comes to comfort, they’re virtually unmatched.
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Words & Photos: Martin Staffa