Suston’s Editor-in-chief Gabriel Arthur reflects on what it takes to design a sustainable product: a degree, or personal, dirty, knee-deep experience in the outdoors?

A few years ago, it was time to retire one of my favorite outdoor items: a graphite grey, medium sized backpack from the Swedish brand Klättermusen – one of the Nordic sustainability pioneers. When I bought it in 1998 it was a big investment on my part. But the backpack’s designer – who was also the company’s CEO – shared in an ad that it had technical solutions that made it suitable to both ski mountaineering, climbing, Nordic ice skating and other activities. A multi-backpack that would last for decades! Which it did.

Over the years, this backpack has joined me on countless adventures, from Lofoten in northern Norway to Belize in Central America, always just as trustworthy. I only needed to repair it once.

But over the years, some of the details became outdated. I bought a pair of new backcountry skis, for example, which were too wide for the strap on the back. Nor was the backpack able to adapt to the latest Nordic ice skate safety measures.

After around two decades, with a heavy heart I said “thanks for everything” and acquired a new, modern backpack for my outdoor activities. Together we had travelled far – with an increasingly lighter ecological footprint.

Ascending Norway’s National Mountain, Stetind. (Photo: Henrik Witt)

Learn something new – and remember the roots

The role descriptions of designers in the outdoor industry have changed in recent years, apace with sustainability becoming ever more important. When we talk about sustainable design, circularity and the four “Rs” Reduce, Reuse, Repair and Recycle often come up. Renewable materials and energy efficient production are of course also important. Not to mention lifecycle analyses.

These are good ambitions, but I think we risk forgetting an important aspect: the outdoor industry’s unique heritage.

How many brands haven’t been born when a passionate climber or hiker has thought “I could make this gear so much better myself”? And then proceeded to get started with the sewing machine or in the workshop. Tested it, taken it on a trip, received new insights, then altered, adapted and step-by-step refined the product. Individuals who spend more time in nature than in a study hall.

Designers with a sense of adventure

Many of us in the outdoor community that use our products again and again learn to appreciate genuine quality and function. We find our favorite gear and apparel, which we then trust in all types of weather. We don’t just keep them for the sake of the environment – except because they function so well.

Klättermusen was founded in the 80s by the Swedish climber (and biologist) Peter Askulv, with the goal of making clothing and gear that was suitable for climbing in tough conditions of the Scandinavian mountains. The company went bankrupt in 1995 but came back with a clear focus on sustainability. Many Scandinavians still use their durable products from this period.

In fact, I couldn’t bring myself to give away or sell my old backpack after its retirement. I instead let this faithful servant get a new, simpler task: travel backpack for shorter train vacations. In its new role, I suspect it will last another couple of decades more.

To the list of design competencies required for today’s outdoor industry, I think this should be added: Get out, deep into nature, in all sorts of weather. Consider it a “fringe benefit” of the job.

 

Lead Photo: Erik Abel

Gabriel Arthur
gabriel.arthur@norragency.com
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