Specialized products and fast fashion changes is the norm in the clothing industry. But a Swedish sustainability-focused outdoor brand is pulling in the opposite direction: their design philosophy is to make durable garments with many applications, that can stay with their owner for a long time. To promote this idea, the stores are turned into hubs for circularity.

Houdini’s shell garments are made from recycled materials and can be recycled after use. The treatment of the Corner jacket  is fluorocarbon free. Both the thread and the layers of fabric are made from pure polyester, to simplify recycling. Photo: Houdini Sportswear.

”Being a norm breaker is always a challenge. But on the other hand, we have never wanted to take the easy path; we are dedicated to this and willing to work hard”, says Mia Grankvist, PR & Communications Manager at Houdini.

Is it really necessary to have specific products for every different activity – or can garments be made versatile enough to work in more applications than one? Can they be personal and robust enough to be kept for a long time, so that one rather repairs them than replaces them? Can function be combined with so simple designs and so pure materials that the materials in the garments can be recycled without hassle? These are the kinds of questions that Houdini Sportswear consider and try to answer with their products. Merely asking them challenges many conventions.

”In this case, the design philosophy is derived from our way of life. We are making products the way we want them to be – a small wardrobe of well-designed garments that allow an active, simple, and spontaneous lifestyle. We want to inspire more people to live like that, inspire to consume less but smarter. Our aim is to be a counterweight”, Mia Grankvist explains.

A circular eco-system of business models

To prolong the life of the products, Houdini has developed their so-called Re projects: Repair, Reuse, Rent and Recycle. This means in-store repair services, second-hand sales of their own products, and garment rentals. In 2007, the company began to collect used garments in recycling boxes in the stores, so that the materials can be recovered and circulated into new products.

”We recycle all the polyester garments in Japan, where they are turned into new textile fibers. The process can be repeated over and over without degradation and without adding virgin materials. The garments we make from natural fibers – mostly merino wool – are developed to be pure enough for composting. Wool recycling technology does exist, but not as advanced as for polyester; virgin wool still has to be added to ensure the quality”, Mia Grankvist says.

Repairs were a part of the original concept, and rentals and second-hand were added in 2012. But the development of new business models is an ever ongoing process, and new service solutions are underway:

”One exciting research project we are working on now is a subscription service, where the collective of customers get access to a large Houdini wardrobe instead of everyone owning just a few garments of their own. In the long run, our hope is that this segment of our operations will change our view on consumption, moving the focus from ownership to access to function”, Mia Grankvist says. She believes that a sharing economy would bring enormous sustainability advantages:

”In everything from resource management to control over material flows, which is a key to create the circular flows we are striving for.”

The subscription service is already in pilot testing, and Houdini hopes to launch it within a few years. During the next year, the Re services will also be digitalized, making them more available. There has been a lot of interest in the services, and the company expects them to have strong growth.

Innovative, sustainable lines of products

The Houdini store at Magasinsgatan 22 in Gothenburg was built to be one of the most sustainable in the world. Second-hand sales, rental, repairs and recycling are integral concepts in the increasingly circular business model. More than 70 percent of the Houdini product range is circular today. Photo: Houdini Sportswear.

Developent for sustainability is not just a matter of circular business models. Another important part is design and product development, and Houdini relies on innovation to remove known obstacles with the materials, technologies and processes that are used in the industry. The compostable clothes in the Houdini Menu is one example:

”With Houdini Menu we wanted to prove that 100 percent degradable garments is a real possibility. Most of the wool garments on the market today are mixed with synthetic fibres or treated with chemicals that don’t belong in nature, and thus cannot be recycled or composted”, Mia Grankvist says.

The last three years have also seen innovations such as pattern design based on the body’s movements in the Made to Move collection, and the removal of all bioaccumulative fluorocarbons (the outdoor industry’s long-time go-to solution for water- and dirt repellancy).

”Made to Move brought us one step closer towards eliminating elastic fibers, which would be a major environmental advantage since fibers such as elastane can not be recycled. It is another chance to go from linear products to circular. The phasing-out of fluorocarbons is also a big win, since those substances have no place in nature at all, and we notice that others are following our lead”, Mia Grankvist says.

Approaching circularity

”We have been able to transform every product in our portfolio to be more sustainable, with recycled raw materials instead of virgin, sustainable chemicals instead of conventional, with new systems for recycling, composting and so on”, Mia Grankvist says. ”Reaching 100 percent product circularity is an incredible feat, but we are almost there now.”

More than 70 percent of the Houdini products are circular today. The goal is to reach 100 percent by 2022, and to make all of the processes circular as well by 2030:

”If we succeed, we will not consume any finite resources from the planet, we will only circulate existing materials and use sustainable renewable energy. There will be no waste streams at all in such a system. Everything will remain a resource, just like in nature”, Mia Grankvist says. She thinks that setting an example for others is important:

”The fact that Houdini’s garments will not end up as waste is a small win for the environment, after all. But if we can inspire others to transition to circular processes as well, the impact will be bigger.”

Many seem to appreciate the role Houdini has chosen, as a counterweight to fast fashion. In the last five years, annual growth has been 20-30 percent, and this year, sales are expected to reach 200 MSEK. The domestic market is half of that, but exports are growing. The company is not surprised by the development; sustainability is both an business opportunity and a prerequisite for profit, they believe.

”We are not the only ones that think that; we are attracting interest from others that share our perspective, and customers that love what we do. We are a sought-after partner for innovation, and our co-workers are amazing. All in all, it is more of a movement than a company. A movement of change, determined to contribute to a better world”, Mia Grankvist concludes.

The article was published in December 2018.