Chemicals are all around us. They’re in everything from hygiene products to scented candles and a lot of them are in our clothes, things we wear directly against our skin. Some of them are naturally occurring; some do us no harm; others we’re not so sure about; several have been found to cause damage, to us and the environment.
What makes things tricky is that chemicals can go from being safe or relatively safe to being harmful as we garner more information about them. At Fjällräven, like many other brands, we work with a set of chemical guidelines, a long and complex list of restricted substances. This list is created by a third party, SWEREA, and it’s completely independent. SWEREA updates the list twice a year and keeps us in the loop of any changes.
But we’ve gone a step further. We’re always looking ahead. Perhaps it’s Swedish pragmatism. Perhaps it’s because in the long run we want to reduce our environmental footprint. We don’t just adhere to the bare minimum.
“We are trying to be as proactive as possible,” says Christiane Dolva, Fjällräven’s Sustainability Manager. “Our approach is to look at what chemicals can be potentially harmful, not just at the ones that are harmful right now. If we don’t feel 100% sure about their safety – regardless of whether they are restricted or not – we won’t use them.”
Knowing what chemicals we can and can’t use requires painstaking checks with SWEREA and the latest research, then relaying this all to our suppliers. That’s why we have dedicated members of our team looking into both the materials and the chemicals we use.
Felix Aejmelaeus-Lindström is our chemicals specialist. It’s his job to spot-test our products, communicate with SWEREA and Christiane and then be the go-to contact person for our suppliers. “It takes a lot of time and attention to detail; basically our ambition is to be proactive, as Christiane says. But we also have to be realistic. There are substances that are used and suppliers that use materials that we don’t want to use. And that takes a lot of time to root out. We run compliance tests, but we need to look for new and better solutions to help us uphold basic compliance.”
SWEREA runs tests for us and looks for chemicals that are restricted but also those that are bad for the environment and people’s health. Each year we look into new materials, often from new suppliers, and evaluate which ones we want to investigate further. This is true even if our suppliers have signed our restricted substances lists. We want to ensure our products aren’t just following the law. We want to make sure they go above and beyond this basal line.
“If you’d ask us at any one time whether we’re sure 100% that no harmful chemicals are in our products, we’d be lying if we said yes. Things slip through. And we can’t be 100% sure what our suppliers are doing all the time. But it is our ambition,” says Christiane.
We should point out that we have some of the strictest requirements in the outdoor industry. For example, we have the same chemical requirements on all our jackets that other brands only apply to their kids’ collections. But just because we’re doing pretty well compared to our peers, doesn’t mean we’re there yet.
“When we’re looking for new alternatives, like we did with Eco-Shell, we need to make sure these alternatives are actually better and this takes a long time. But we believe it’s time well spent,” says Christiane.
Getting the formula right is not easy. A lot of things are hard to control. Especially when you’re mixing nature with man-made substances.
“It’s like baking a cake,” says Felix. “All the chemicals you add are made to react with something, but you can’t be 100% sure if this goes as planned due to changing production conditions.”
Thankfully, most of the time our “cakes” turn out ok. This is because we are cautious. The potential consequences on your health and the environment definitely give us pause for thought.
Text: Sarah Benton