With the right equipment you defy the weather
BY ANJA FAHS
In 1950, the 14-year-old Åke Nordin from north Swedish Örnsköldsvik set off on a tour into the mountains. As he was not happy with the comfort of his rucksack, in the basement of his parents’ house he constructed his own model with an innovative wooden frame for better weight distribution. In doing so, he laid the cornerstone for his company, Fjällräven, which he founded officially in 1960 and which became one of the leading suppliers of outdoor equipment and clothing in Europe.
With pioneer spirit and a wealth of ideas, he continued the development of additional outdoor equipment such as tents and of course clothing which he wanted to take with him on his hike through the north Swedish mountain landscape. Always striving to optimise things more and adapt them better while finding sustainable solutions.
These maxims also apply to the product developers of Fjällräven today. Just as the brand still takes its inspiration from nature and puts its products to the test in the wilderness. In doing so, it supports sustainable innovations for an environment which remains untouched.
We spoke to Fjällräven CEO Martin Axelhed about how the brand has committed itself to the active protection of man, animal and nature and why outdoor companies have a particular responsibility which requires concious and sustainable thinking and trade.
What is special about Fjallraven’s corporate philosophy?
M. A.: Ever since the company was founded just over 50 years ago, we have always stuck to our original concept, namely the development of outdoor equipment which allows nature to be experienced up close. Real friends of the outdoors are motivated not to leave a trace behind them. Just as we leave our base camp so that others can enjoy the beauty of untouched nature, so we as a company are motivated to keep the negative environmental effects of our trade as low as possible.
Many years ago we already dedicated ourselves to protecting people, wildlife and nature. As an outdoor company with many friends of nature among our employees, this seems completely natural to us. We are proud to be able to offer our customers timeless, durable and functional outdoor clothing and equipment. We are convinced that products that last longer are better for the environment than trendy items that only last one season. Of course, we are also careful to ensure that our products are manufactured correctly from the start. Therefore, we are constantly striving to optimise processes, select suitable raw materials and decrease our consumption of water, energy and chemicals.
Competition in the international outdoor market is very tough. Is it even possible for a company to behave ethically, produce in an environmentally friendly way and still operate profitably?
M. A.: Our brand is a good example that it is absolutely possible to take on responsibility for people, animals and the environment as a profitable company. I would even go so far as to say that especially in the outdoor branch, where nature is an important part of our business model and the customers have an awareness of sustainability and environmental protection, it would be counterproductive and in the long term uneconomical not to deal with resources and the environment responsibly.
The changes in our climate and the effects of human impact on the environment can no longer be ignored. Do you notice that, for example, the customers are more critical and are more interested in where a product originates from and how it is produced?
M. A.: Absolutely. And we’re more than happy that customers are increasingly interested in the topic of sustainability and are starting to ask for environmentally friendly and responsibly produced products. With our transparent down promise, Fjällräven’s standard for ethically gained down of the highest quality and our new fluorocarbon-free impregnated hardshell series ‘Keb Eco-Shell’, we offer answers to the topics that have recently been in the media spotlight and created a public debate.
As you’ve just mentioned the topic of the ethically-produced downs: a few years ago you and some other companies were under immense pressure. What happened?
M. A.: In 2009, the entire outdoor and fashion branch was heavily criticised for its non-transparent down production. For many companies, this brought negative press first of all, but it also caused many to rethink.
We have been working with high-quality down for 40 years at Fjällräven and in 2009 we were already able to prove a good control system for monitoring production on location. Our diligence and the current state in 2010 was praised by the Swedish ‘Tierschutzverband’ (Animal Welfare Association). We took the insights of that time as an occasion to put our production chain completely to the test and worked for several years on our own fully transparent production process, where all the steps from breeding to the end product are completely traceable. We were recently awarded first place for the results of our efforts by the animal protection organisation ‘Vier Pfoten’ (Four Paws) in their cruelty-free down challenge.
The application phase is currently running for an adventure expedition “Fjällräven Polar”, in which interested outdoor enthusiasts can apply for a 300 km sled dog tour through the Arctic tundra. What other events or activities are a part of your marketing strategy?
M. A.: With this event we want to bring ‘ordinary’ people, with ‘ordinary’ jobs, the fascination of winter outdoor touring closer and prove that in principle, everyone can be open to to an unforgettable adventure in an untouched winter environment, as long as he has the right equipment and the necessary knowledge. In addition to this we host a really popular event called ‘Fjallraven Classic’ that has been established for years. It is a 110 km long hike in one of the world’s most beautiful settings – the Kungsleden hiking trail in Swedish Lapland. It is a hiking event for everyone – from curious beginners to experienced mountain foxes.
If you look at the figures in Scandinavia, it is significant that above all the outdoor brands are very successful there. Why is it so difficult for brands from other countries to get a foothold in your home market?
M. A.: Scandinavian countries are expansive but in terms of the number of inhabitants, quite small, the retailer structure is correspondingly manageable. On the market there are strong regional or domestic brands which are not only bought by end users for local patriotic reasons but also because these brands can live up to the particular requirements of Scandinavian trekking and meet the style and design of Scandinavian taste. An exception amongst Scandinavian countries however, is Denmark. In the hunting segment there are strong, deeply-rooted brands, but in the outdoor segment there are no large domestic manufacturers. As a result of this, the market was open to foreign manufacturers early on. Therefore, in Denmark, many brands of non-Scandinavian origin have meanwhile become well-represented.
How important is the German market for your company?
M. A.: The German market, which is also influenced by the most demanding users of outdoor products, is the largest and most important market for us. While other outdoor clothing brands see things from a lifestyle angle, German end-users place great value on quality and functionality as they really use the products for intensive outdoor activities. Correspondingly, we find many specialised retailers and just as many brands and producers who have a large know-how and offer high-quality solutions.
The design of your products are kept simple, functionality is clearly in the foreground. Are you seen as a lifestyle product anyway?
M. A.: Fjällräven has grown to become a strong international brand and it is clear that many customers would like more colours, trendier cuts etc. In order to raise the turnover in the short term and to create new target groups it can make sense to meet these demands. But that is not the path we are taking. Picking up on short-term trends and putting suitable fashion products on the market is not a big challenge in itself. However, remaining true as a brand and developing functional and durable equipment requires years of experience and know-how.
You have known the brand and the company Fjällräven since you were a child, as your father worked in the company. What do you do in order that you do not become ‘blinded’ by the company after all these years?
M. A.: Fjällräven is an international brand, and working internationally means getting input from the most diverse of brands, working together with many different people from different countries and cultures and of course travelling a lot. When new positions are to be filled, I try to get get people from other branches on board who can see things from the outside. This mixture makes my work very diverse and it is almost impossible for me to be blinded by the company. Beyond this, I like to take our newest equipment from the development department in order to put it to the test in the great outdoors and reflect on what the brand depends on: staying curious and always striving for the best solutions.
Martin Axelhed’s father worked for Fjällräven for 15 years. The brand with the Arctic fox has accompanied him throughout his Swedish life, while hiking, climbing and dog-sledding. He already got to know the company founder Åke Nordin when he was a young adult. Åke made Martin Sales Manager in Sweden at the age of 25 and Managing Director at just 29. Parallel to this, he is Vice President of Fenix Outdoor, the Swedish parent company of Fjällräven.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue Q4 2015. Picture credit © Fjällräven