A Conversation with Fjällräven’s Head of Sustainability

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„Sustainability Is A Journey, Not A Destination“

Sustainability and being environmentally conscious about our actions plays more & more of an important role in our everyday lives. Fjällräven, the Swedish company that specializes in outdoor equipment, makes this their main task, and yet again translated this important message into its latest responsible collection. With a new take on their historical Expedition Series down jacket, Fjällräven introduces feathers that would otherwise end up in waste bins, and reveal the woolen sister of the brand’s famous backpack.

We spoke to Christiane Dolva , Head of Sustainability at Fjällräven, who disclosed why we should get our hands on their latest Kånken Re-Wool and why sustainability is an approach to life, not just a problem that will one day be fixed.

What inspired the Kånken Re-Wool?  

Wool has always been one of Fjallraven’s core materials. But like most outdoor brands, we used it to craft base layers and sweaters. A few seasons ago, we decided to try using wool in different ways – such as in jacket padding and to create a molded backpack backplate – and because we were so pleased with these results, we brought wool to one of our most popular series: Kånken .
Wool is a very functional and durable material, and when we were able to use recycled wool, it felt like a perfect match to our needs – both using functional materials, and re-using materials that are already out there at the same time.  

I saw that the wool used for your latest Kånken Re-Wool backpacks is traceable. Where exactly is the wool from?  

That recycled wool story is pretty special. Known as Re-Wool at Fjällräven, this recycled wool comes from both pre- and post-consumer sources across the globe, manufactured for us in Prato in Italy. It can be defined as old garments or spill wool from the wool industry that has been color-sorted, shredded and re-spun to make new garments. This means it saves water and energy, because there’s no need to re-dye it, and it is made of a material which would typically land in waste bins and landfills. Furthermore, it brings appealing color nuances to our Re-Wool sweaters, hats and backpacks.Just to clarify, it is important to understand that when we use virgin wool, we always strive to have traceability all the way down to farm level to ensure animal welfare conditions. With the recycled wool, that is not possible, since the input material has had a life on its own prior to ending up in our products,  

Would you say that the Kånken Re-Wool is as durable and robust as the others?

The weave type is called Melton. It was first developed in Britain and is used historically for its durability and weather-resistant qualities. It has a smooth, felt-like surface. We think it gives Kånken a lot of personality while telling a really great story about recycled wool, and it is of course fulfilling our high demands on durability and robustness. That being said, it is hard to beat the durability of the original Kånken material that really has proven to withstand the test of time since the 70s.  

Why is wool a perfect material for bags?  

Natural materials have always been the preferred choice when developing our products. Wool has some great functionalities that are not only relevant for clothing: Wool is renewable and in its natural form it is also biodegradable. It is durable yet soft to the touch and has temperature regulating properties. It is odor resistant while effectively wicking away moisture. This makes it a perfect material for bags!

The simple design of the Kånken is what caught my eye and made it my favorite backpack. What inspired the Kånken’s design in the first place?  

We agree, this small square backpack is probably one of the biggest small backpacks we have. It really can fit most needs. The Kånken was launched in 1978 in direct response to the growing trend of wearing shoulder bags among Swedish children. They would carry heavy books and folders in single-strapped bags over one shoulder, which seemed to correlate with increasing incidences of back pain. So, Fjällräven founder Åke Nordin used his experience in designing comfortable, functional backpacks for trekking to create a robust but lightweight school backpack for children. The main requirements were to hold A4 folders, hardback books, and to be appealing enough to draw school kids away from the fashionable shoulder bags of the time. 

Like many products that have become icons over the years, Kånken follows a rule of timelessness and simple design. So it happened that our Kånken became an official piece of art. Svensk Form, the Swedish Society of Arts and Crafts (a non-profit membership association that is tasked by the Swedish government to promote Swedish design at home and abroad) has added our humble little Kånken backpack to its list of protected pieces of applied art. Svensk Form remarked that Kånken is something more than just a functional object. Its design has its own identity. 

Why is there a seat pad in the back of each backpack?  

The seat pad that is included in some of our backpacks (including the Kånken) fulfills two functions. On one hand, it prevents the contents of the backpack from poking against your back. On the other, it is always within reach for when you need to take a break and sit down, wherever you may be – to enjoy nature.  

You are also transparent about where the downs for the Expedition series come from. With using a by-product which normally gets thrown away, the brand has a great impact on the environment. How did Fjällräven come to that idea? Tell us a bit more about it.  

Fjällräven has three guiding principles and one of them is to act responsibly towards nature, humans and animals. So a huge part of Fjällräven’s sustainability big-picture approach is traceability. If you know where the material has come from, you can more easily find out under what conditions it was produced. One of its biggest traceability success stories – indeed one of the outdoor industry’s best-in-class sustainability stories – is Fjällräven’s Down Promise. Prior to the implementation of the Down Promise, long chains of production meant we didn’t know exactly where our down was coming from. So to ensure the animal welfare standard lived up to our strict requirements, we decided to take a closer look at our down supply chain. After years of work, the result was the Fjällräven Down Promise, regarded as the best and most transparent in the outdoor industry. Launched in 2014, the Fjällräven Down Promise covers everything from traceability to animal welfare. We established a production chain with strict and repeated controls of our suppliers and sub-contractors. The birds‘ wellbeing is its top priority and this means no live plucking and no force feeding. Fjällräven’s down is a by-product of the meat industry and with our strict quality control we also ensure only the highest quality down is used in our products. 

What inspired the color way of the Expedition Series?  

The bright colors blue, red and yellow are certainly an acknowledgment of the original colors from the Fjällräven heritage, but those colors were used for a reason – to stay visible in the mountains – and that function is just as important today. 

What distinguishes the jackets from the Expedition Series from the other jackets that Fjällräven has to offer? 

The story behind it! There are so many Fjällräven products with a great story behind them, but how the Expedition Down Jacket became an icon is special. The key factors are functionality and simplicity. Our founder Åke hated being cold. So he designed a jacket that insulated against freezing temperatures better than any other jacket on the market. He made it blue because blue was his favorite color. He made the hood laces yellow because yellow and blue together reminded him of the Swedish flag. And then this bulky jacket has since been designated a work of art by a court of law and now – 46 years later – it has been the inspiration for a whole collection – not a bad outcome for someone who simply wanted a garment to keep him warm , right?  

A lot of the material in winter jackets is either from downs or synthetic fibers. Which one would you say traps the body heat best?  

 Both materials have their benefits depending on the conditions. Down is a truly outstanding insulator . Its ability to trap your body heat in tiny air pockets and keep you warm is virtually unparalleled. A down jacket is also very light and highly packable once you press the air out of it. But down isn’t the best option if it gets wet. That air-trapping, warm-keeping ability is strongly reduced if those down filaments that create the tiny air pockets are exposed to moisture / water. Consequently, down insulation is the ultimate choice for cold and dry weather. The synthetic insulation in our  Expedition Series , for example, is made from 100% recycled polyester using free fiber technology. This means it is constructed to mimic the air-trapping features of down better than regular synthetic padding. Since the polyester fibers absorb very little moisture, they keep their air-trapping capabilities even when they’re wet. And although a jacket with synthetic insulation weighs a little more and won’t compress as supremely as a down jacket, it will dry much faster. Consequently, synthetic insulation is the ultimate choice for cold and wet / damp conditions. 

What does sustainability mean to the outdoor brand?  

What’s so exciting at Fjällräven is that sustainability isn’t treated as a separate project; it’s at the core of everything we do. Everyone here is striving to make sustainable choices. As an outdoor company, we are acutely aware that everything we do has an impact on the world around us and the people and animals that inhabit it. This is why we do our utmost to keep our environmental footprint as small as possible. We consider the environmental impact when we design, choose one material over another, and when deciding where to produce our clothing and equipment. But it’s not easy. We know we are by no means perfect.  

However, we have achieved quite a lot already. Our Down Promise covering animal welfare through 100% traceability has been in place since 2014. We have been PFC-free since 2015. By 2019, 61% of our materials were rated good and excellent – mostly because they are either organic, recycled or fully traceable. We are members of the Fair Labor Association and the UN Global Compact. And, of course, we have been designing for lifetimes of wear – the most important yet often less talked about aspect of sustainability – since 1960. A well-worn jacket is ingrained with memories. It is also better for the environment. We design products to last – and with a little customer care – for a lifetime, hopefully several lifetimes. We use materials that are tough and durable. We create products that are easy to repair. 

What should we look out for? What are the brand’s future plans?  

Sustainability is about balance. The pure definition of sustainable development is meeting our needs today in a way that does not compromise the future generation’s ability to meet their needs, too. As we move forward, we are looking at material developments, enhanced production methods, the possibility of renting gear, and furthering education to equip its customers with the tools they need to preserve their gear and the nature around them. Fjällräven has come a long way, but it’s not there yet. As Åke Nordin said, “We’ve been trekking for more than fifty years now. I hope we never get there. „ Sustainability is a journey, not a destination. But it’s a journey Fjällräven is committed to continuing. 

Interview by Barbara Anthofer
Images Courtey of Fjällräven

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