The scourge of microplastics, including microfibers shed by synthetic textiles, has finally dawned not just on consumers, but the producers of our favorite outdoor gear, too. But outdoor apparel makers have only a few ways to combat the problem. They can produce clothes that last longer, they can use recycled material to keep synthetic materials from landfills a bit longer, and they can limit the amount of synthetic fibers their gear sheds. Swedish brand Houdini Sportswear doing all of the above to make outdoor apparel that works, without being so punishing for the environment. It’s the company’s entire raison d’être.
For the past year or so, I’ve been wearing Houdini’s Power Air Houdi, a synthetic fleece midlayer made with Polartec’s Power Air. It’s a material made specifically to limit the amount of microfibers it sheds by encapsulating the fibers in small pockets. Polartec claims it sheds less than 80 percent of traditional fleece. The Power Air Houdi is also composed of 54 percent recycled polyester. It’s warm, stretchy, feels great against the skin, and looks great. All what you’d want in a fleece; you’d never be able to tell it was doing less harm to the environment while wearing it.
This is Houdini’s entire ethos. Good apparel with minimal impact—but their long-term goal isn’t just minimal negative impact, it’s positive environmental impact. Sustainability is, for Houdini, not enough. As their CEO, Eva Karlsson says, “We find ‘sustainability’ not only a boring phrase, but an underwhelming ambition. To be sustainable should be seen as the bare minimum for an organization’s social and environmental impact. Imagine a world where businesses set out to have a positive impact on the planet, and customers demanded it.”
Houdini has experienced robust growth in Europe and the U.S. without traditional marketing, relying instead on word-of-mouth and betting that outdoor loving customers will increasingly seek companies doing the right thing, while striving to own fewer, better things. Houdini has an unusually dedicated plan to achieving its goals and a refreshingly transparent look at the impact it has now and where it hopes to be in the coming years. You can read the company’s self-administered report, here.
We recently connected with Karlsson over email and came away thinking every outdoor company could apply something from Houdini’s no-nonsense approach. The brand is aiming to be circular within the decade—meaning products are made with recyclable materials and are recyclable into new garments or will completely biodegrade at the end of the product’s life, a closed-loop system that takes and leaves little. Whether that becomes a blueprint for competitors and a beacon for customers remains to be seen.
AJ: How do customers fit in to the circular design in terms of Houdini’s plan? Does Houdini expect the customer to send clothes back to be recycled? How do customers close that loop?
EK: Houdini has been designing for circularity since 2001. Right now around 80 percent of the products we offer are circular by design, either made from organic, renewable and compostable/biodegradable organic materials or made from recycled and recyclable synthetics. We aim to reach 100 percent by 2022. Since 2007 we have a take-back system where we take back all worn-out Houdini garments and send them to the appropriate recycling partner. In markets where we have the strongest presence these recycling units are available at retail locations, in some climbing gyms, for example. The reason for Houdini arranging our own take-back system is that the type of recycling currently possible due to the way we have designed our products (often pure mono materials) is more sophisticated than all-textile recycling systems available at a multi-brand or municipality level.
Parallel to that, we are involved in various initiatives in Europe to collaborate in order to reach the same sophistication at the societal level. With that in place the system could become much more effective (even automated). Natural resources could maintain the same quality level in order to loop back into new products again and again and it would of course be much more user-friendly for our customers. This is part of our plan to have the entire Houdini ecosystem be circular by 2030. A circular ecosystem would mimic the natural system and be based on technologies, processes, and a culture that works in partnership with nature rather than at the expense of it: a waste-free system (no cutting waste, no micro fiber release etc) and a circular flow of natural resources in recycling loops (eradicating the need to take resources from the earth’s crust), a circular flow of products within the system via circular business models like apparel rentals and services to extend product lifetimes, and sustainable renewable energy throughout the system (we are fossil-free in our home country Sweden and we are close to fossil-free in both European fabric and garment production).
In addition, our design philosophy, which is built into every product, is to create lifelong companions that you fall in love with, stay in love with, and care for and repair rather than replace. We did an end-user survey to learn how our Power Houdi is used and got some numbers. An average garment is used 7 to 10 times in the western world. 160 times is the global average. The Power Houdi is on average used at least 1,200 times. Imagine if every garment in the world was designed and used this way—the textile industry wouldn’t be such a burden on the planet. The technologies exist, customers are ready. It’s simply a matter of guts and will power to change course into a more responsible way of designing products, be it apparel, gear, or something else. As a brand we receive a lot more love this way, build trust, relations, collaborations, feedback loops, learning and sharing.
Does the US, or any particular country’s political attitude toward recycling make it more difficult to achieve circularity, or to market clothing made with sustainability and circularity in mind?
Global pricing structures (making it more or less free of charge to pollute, cheaper to buy a virgin rather than a recycled raw material, etc.) and the fact that the linear system is so dominant in society is a greater challenge than any political attitude, although political attitudes either cement the current system or are progressive enough to see how our system can evolve and improve. In that sense, everything we do as individuals and as a business is political and we embrace that and encourage others to do so too. It’s our obligation to be part of shaping our collective future and there’s a lot that needs to be fixed and there’s so much beauty in this world to save an so much to gain if we evolve.
Being circular is all well and good, but as far as encouraging consumption goes, can a brand commit to offering fewer products and simply making less stuff?
The simple answer is yes. The Power Houdi is a good example of this and yes, that is part of our responsibility. Innovation or news for the sake of novelty is nothing that interests us. Our designer’s checklist (below) guides this.
• Does this product deserve existence?
• Will it last long enough?
• Is it versatile enough?
• Will it age with beauty?
• Nothing added that isn’t needed, right?
• Will it be easy to repair?
• Is it durable enough for our rental program?
• Do we have an “end-of-life” solution?
It’s about developing products that make a difference in peoples lives (our own lives included) and about meaningful innovation where technology forms partnerships with nature.
See more from Houdini here.