Tougher legislation, complex traceability and deeper CO2-calculations are just a few issues sustainability teams need to tackle – with the global environmental polycrisis as backdrop. How can outdoor companies find their ways, and not get swamped in daily operations? In this new interview series, Suston reaches out to industry changemakers to hear their long-term perspectives. First up, David Ekelund from Icebug.

Gabriel Arthur: As a journalist, I’ve been following developments in sustainability and the outdoors for almost twenty years. Apart from a few early pioneering companies, the issues started to become more important in the industry around 2010. Some pioneers have disappeared over the years, others have emerged. But a clear pattern is that almost all pioneering companies have personally committed main owners – like you and your co-CEO Tom Nilsson. What are your personal driving forces?

David Ekelund: I was young when I first got into the shoe business, with the goal of making a big pile of money in a limited time and then retiring to write novels. Before long, the desire to make products that we could really stand behind grew and we started our own brand.

But nobody goes into this business with the sole purpose of having as little negative impact as possible – because the most logical thing to then do would be to close down the business completely. Reducing the negative impact must be combined with an attitude of contributing as much positive as possible! We are really adding that dimension now. Our vision is to be a changemaker for a society where people can thrive on a planet in balance. This is not meant as some abstract effect of our work. This is the work.

 

You and Icebug have started using a term for this positive impact thinking: Being a Solutions Provider. What does that mean?

It comes from the UNFCCC’s Mission Innovation program, which we have been working with for over a year now. Their mission is to find solution providers for a World where 8-11 billion people can live flourishing lives on a regenerative planet – which aligns very well with our vision. They see Icebug and the outdoor sector at large as a potential part of the solution towards the climate and biodiversity crisis. Not because we’re such a big part of the problem – we actually don’t cause that much emissions – but because we can be such a big part of the solution if we broaden our perspective from the negative impact of individual products and brands to also include the positive impact on the systems level. Mission Innovation wants to put data on the positive impact to quantify it. This is currently a missing piece of the full sustainability picture.

 

Can you give examples of what you mean by “system level,” which the outdoor industry should focus more on?

A first example deals with the supply chain. If we contribute to a factory switching to renewables, others producing there will benefit as well. That’s pretty much in line with what we have been doing already. An interesting side note here at Icebug is that we see the bank as part of our supply chains as well, where we look closely at our financed emissions and urge our bank to green our cash.

A second example of systems impact is working towards smarter, smaller wardrobes. Imagine if we can help move more people from a fast fashion consumption pattern to having fewer but more versatile and long-lasting garments that support their lifestyles. The effect on avoided emissions and land use of this is much larger than decreased emissions in our supply chain.

And the system effect is even greater still if we can make high experience, low footprint lifestyles the thing people strive for. If we can be a part of a revaluation, where more people prefer to spend a weekend exploring new trails around where they live, rather than flying to New York to go shopping, the system effect on avoided emissions is huge!

Of course, this is not something that a footwear brand could achieve alone. We need a wider business eco-system around us, so a fourth area to work on is building collaboration and influencing society.

 

If you discuss entrepreneurship at the systemic level, sooner or later you end up discussing degrowth, the idea that companies need to stop focusing on growth and actively reduce their production. How do you see it?

Clearly, we need to reduce our overall use of resources. But we need to deepen this discussion: Should all companies really reduce their emissions equally? An oil company and a solar cell manufacturer? If we are honest and look at the big picture, some industries should disappear completely, while others should actually continue to grow.

Which category you belong to depends on your business objectives. If you want to have a reason to exist, the world must be positively affected by what you do. At Icebug, for example, we don’t have a financial growth target, it has no value in itself, but the business target we have set is measured in number of uses per year. We know that getting people outside more contributes to healthy lifestyles. Our business goal therefore has not only a dimension of sales that drives our financial sustainability, but also to really find a customer who can use our stuff for a long time.

As I see it, there is an important choice all outdoor businesses must make: We could learn the tricks from the fashion industry to maximize our sales. Or, we can keep a clear line of sight and design our sales processes and business models so that we don’t trigger over-consumption, but instead try to provide people with what they need for meaningful activities.

If we clearly stand for something other than fast fashion and see our customers primarily as users of products, then I believe it is actually positive for the world if we as an industry grow.

Images: Icebug

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Gabriel Arthur
gabriel.arthur@norragency.com
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