Maximum Safety, Minimum Impact: An Interview with Gonz Ferrero, Klattermusen CEO
At the end of Earth Month, 2021, we were able to talk with Gonz Ferrero of Klättermusen about the past and future of sustainability in the outdoor industry.
Could you talk about Klättermusen’s origins and how they relate to owning fewer, better things?
Klättermusen was started as a workshop collaborative in the north of Sweden more than 45 years ago. In the US, the 60s and 70s are famous for being the birthdates of iconic brands like Patagonia, Black Diamond, North Face. It was a time of exploration and going back to basics and climbing as a mindset really took off. In Sweden in particular, we had a very similar movement around the same time but with one big difference – ecological thinking was a cornerstone. At this time, Swedish universities had already started offering degrees in forestry and environmental studies and so there was a new generation of people wanted to explore the nature and the outdoors but with a deep knowledge of what nature was, how to take care of it and how to appreciate it.
The origins of Klättermusen were really a result of this. ‘Maximum Safety for You, Minimum Impact on Nature’ was the ethos that hung on the wall from the first day the Klättermusen Workshop opened its doors. This generation of informed contrarians worked to construct their own products because there was really nothing available at the time. But the way they did it – with attention to the sourcing of materials and construction – was truly unique. They made it all about product development – Klättermusen wasn’t even incorporated as a business for another 10 years and the only way you could get a Klättermusen product was to come into the workshop and rent one of the sewing machines and patterns.
This resulted in a constant sharing of ideas and empirical knowledge from field testing materials, details, constructions. Likeminded people talking about things they liked and putting that passion into product making. So, the perception that when you make a product you forget about it never really settled at Klättermusen. A product was always a prototype in a way; it was refined when new solutions or fabrics became available. We call this permaculture now, but its older than bread!
How does Klättermusen go about sourcing sustainable materials? How do you balance performance against environmental concerns?
We are very fortunate to have been demanding in the sourcing of sustainable materials from when our company was very young. The relationship we have with fabric suppliers in Japan, Korea, Switzerland, etc. is based on an understanding that we are always looking to make something that doesn’t exist yet. It’s a process that by definition cannot be seasonal. Our partners in material developments know that they need to show us things they are working on or considering to work on for the next 3 to 5 years. They bring their technology and scale and we bring our product and functionality know-how to the table. I think this approach to working together is crucial to being able to create something that is truly innovative. It’s not about us sourcing materials, but rather us co-creating materials. We often have conversations about collaborations from other brands, and I always take the position that our strongest collaborations are with material suppliers!
The balance between performance and environment is always shifting. A big part of it is educational – if you don’t know what you need, you won’t know how to use it. And there are of course many misconceptions today, like the fact that organics are less technical than synthetics, or that you need a 3-layer waterproof shell to go hiking or skiing. As Klättermusen, we come to this balance from two different directions. First from a materials perspective – is this new material something that opens the door to applying it for a specific needed function? Secondly from a function perspective – can we evolve this trekking wind-proof mid-layer in a way that minimizes its impact on nature?
Is there a fabric or a product or a process that most excites you from the perspective of improving how the outdoor industry relates to the environment?
Absolutely, our Katla® Cotton is something you guys know very well and that I think marks a very clear line between today and tomorrow. It goes directly in the face of one of the worst misconceptions of our industry in that natural materials cannot be as technical as synthetics. There have been several decades spent on the development of synthetic materials for outdoor use and many of the techniques and lessons from these processes can now be applied to organics and natural fibres. This is what we have done with Katla® cotton, taking organic cotton and pressurizing a ripstop within the fibres so as to get the lightness and wind resistance of a synthetic but with the touch and feel and silence of cotton. In our Ansur series of hiking and trekking products, we take this even further by constructing the seams on the outside of the garments, so as to highlight the next to skin feel you get from cotton.
This is something that was truly unthinkable to us as little as two years ago and that now opens the door to so many interesting uses and applications. We have gone through waves of materials, from recyclable to recycled to bio-based. I hope this new chapter of naturals with synthetic properties propels us forward as an industry.
What are the biggest industry changes you anticipate in the next five or ten years as outdoors companies further adapt to be more environmentally friendly?
Firstly, I must start by saying that there is little doubt in my mind the outdoor industry and outdoor brands will continue being the forefront of environmental consciousness in the coming decades. Even in the brands or companies where this wasn’t embedded in their DNA from their foundation, it has become so today. In this day and age and in our society today, you simply cannot survive as a brand as a hypocrite.
Perhaps what sets us apart is that our approach to minimizing our impact on nature is that we take it holistically for our entire range of equipment and backpacks. Yes, new innovative sustainable fabrics or products are important. But if they are only one of many products, or if our best seller is not sustainable and our PR or marketing product is, well, we wouldn’t really be moving the needle in a meaningful way.
I would like to see more brands taking the same level of environmentalism into 100% of their collection – evolving carry-overs as much as developing new styles. This won’t only raise the bar for everyone in terms of materials; it will mean everyone needs to stop developing on the basis of cost – because the only reason you wouldn’t chose a more sustainable material is cost. The side effect is that we will then be forced to communicate and educate our customers properly, and they will in turn appreciate that they are ‘investing’ in outdoor equipment and not ‘buying’ outdoor clothing. A very important difference in my opinion!
What do you think consumers of outdoor gear could do or think about differently to minimize impact on the planet?
So obviously I am consumer of outdoor gear myself, so I can answer this from my own perspective. Over the last year, between travel restrictions and the realities of being in the midst of a global pandemic, we’ve been forced to appreciate more what we have in front of us. A year an a half ago, when I was going into the ski season, all of my skiing plans were to great destinations requiring 2 to 4 hour average plane time. This year, I traveled only by bus and train to every one of my ski trips. I have had better skiing and better adventures closer to where I live. And l’ve also enjoyed the journeys to get there and to get back much more – the people you meet, the food you eat on the way. Noticing more details and giving things more consideration. I have a habit of keeping journals for these types of adventures and I was surprised I was writing more on them this year than the last three.
I know from close friends this has been the case for them as well, and I hope every one of us ‘outdoor heads’ continue to see the appeal of their local adventures.
All photos courtesy of Klättermusen.