Real Sustainability Superheroes: H&M and ELLE Conscious Award Winner Houdini Sportswear

From the Houdini Menu, the world’s first dinner grown from old sportswear, to creating an open-source method for assessing business from a Planetary Boundaries perspective: the H&M and ELLE Conscious Award winner Houdini both challenges and inspires others in the field of sustainability. All that while making us feel and look great when we adventure and play in the open air. 

Words: Meri Frig

  Photo: Niklas Lindgren / Southern region of Iceland

Photo: Niklas Lindgren / Southern region of Iceland

Houdini has challenged and inspired others in the sportswear industry from the very beginning. Can you reveal the story behind how Houdini became a pioneer in sustainability?  

Interestingly enough, we've never really thought about sustainability as a separate goal to work towards. Rather, it's been a part of Houdini's vision to offer Holistic Comfort - clothes that make you feel good on all levels. As far as history goes, Houdini was started by women, who where passionate about the environment. From stretch fleece sport bras that offered warmth, without limiting freedom of movement, to wanting to focus on experiences, without having to worry about clothing that didn't work. It felt like a natural step ahead that we would build a company along the values that we all held close to our heart as climbers and skiers: we want nature to be around more many years to come. So we had to adapt our business model to that. The result was a vision towards becoming a regenerative company: not only minimising the environmental impact, but also contributing to the world. To be honest, I would've thought we, as an industry, would have come further in 2017. Sadly, most major brands are still struggling to go beyond having a separate sustainable line and are not embracing the concept fully. 

When, for instance, have you felt the impact you have achieved in the industry?

There are some moments that make you feel extra proud. One was when we were able to develop a fully recyclable membrane. It allowed us to pair it with recyclable fabrics and take closed loop recycling into the holy grail of outdoor clothing: shell layers. Last winter, when we were awarded the ELLE Sustainability Award, we began to notice larger players were looking our way for inspiration. When we get approached like that, and companies truly want to be a part of the Houdini universe, that's the ultimate reward. We don't want to take on this journey ourselves, we want others to join in. Although the Houdini way might not be applicable in other sectors, where the supply chain and market is different, I think it's important we as companies strengthen each other, rather than compete on this matter. It all comes down to having the courage to act in accordance with our values: doing good, playing hard, pushing boundaries and having fun along the way. 

"It felt like a natural step ahead that we would build a company along the values which we all held close to our heart as climbers and skiers: we want nature to be around more many years to come."

Houdini: Sustainable Sportswear #Savant

Photo: David Kvart / White Mountains New Hampshire USA

Who are the Houdiniacs? 

Houdiniacs are our friends, family, stakeholders and everyone in between. It's a person who values simple things in life, and cares about the surroundings, be it people or the environment. Basically, that's someone we design garments for, and someone that keeps us on an even keel in what we as a company venture into. When you're working on multiple projects all the time, we find it useful to have a conceptual target group to which we can evaluate ideas against. When you have a really knowledgeable following like we do, every step must be pre-approved. If our next move isn't something our core group would approve of, we probably should think twice before taking it forward.  

You are innovative on various levels. From the Houdini Menu – the world’s first dinner grown from old sportswear – to bravely bringing attention to microplastics within the industry and among consumers. How do you find and choose the means to break new ground? 

Well, The Houdini Menu was really about showing the beauty of the circularity of natural fabrics. Our biosphere is in a way a perfect system and it is the one we always try to mimic. With nature holding the blueprint of good design, that's where most of our ideas stem from. For this particular project, we worked with the creative agency McCann Stockholm. They approached us questioning, if we could go the full circle and actually eat what was grown on the soil that our composted garments created. Even though this project was new to us, for example, we've never had to take growing pace of mushrooms into consideration before, it was still a classic Houdini project in the sense that we did together with likeminded people. Everyone, from composting expert Gunnar Eriksson, filmers and photographers, to star chef Sebastian Thuresson, got involved because of pure interest and passion, but in their respective lines of work. I think, co-operating with people from other paths of life generally brings out the best ideas.

"With nature holding the blueprint of good design, that's where most of our ideas stem from."

  Photo: Christian Åslund / Torö 

Photo: Christian Åslund / Torö 

Houdini collaborated with the non-profit organization Albaeco to create an open-source method for assessing business from a Planetary Boundaries perspective. How has the initiative advanced?

It's been an ongoing project for quite some time now, but we are getting closer each day. The aim is to go live with it by the end of this summer. What strikes me the most is how complex it is to try and weigh in all different factors and come up with a definitive output number for Houdini. The strength of the Planetary Boundaries framework is it's overarching design, but that also brings a whole other level of difficulty in what impacts what, and at what level. Where we stand now is that we feel like we almost have a final product. But one of the key learnings is that a report of this kind is an ongoing process, not a single event you partake in and then move on. Quite the contrary actually. Now, we know more about our bright and dark spots on a macro level. For the second version of the report, which we will start working on instantly after publishing the first, we will instead zoom in on one area at the time, most likely starting with wool. One can sometimes feel frustrated about the time-consuming nature of scientific reporting, but at the same time it's a good reminder that thorough work takes time. Something this industry probably needs to be reminded of from time to time. 

Houdini has made waves in the industry due to its sustainability approach. And, originally, because of being a small, irreverent company run by women in an industry that is largely dominated by men. How is gender equality promoted in the company?

It's true that Houdini has always been run by women, but foremost we're a company built by passionate people who love being outdoors. I think that trickles down into the company more than anything. But surely, we are not ignorant, and so we realise that we're kind of like few unicorns in that sense. When you're at trade fairs and events, it's apparent that this industry is quite heavily male dominated, and that's not good. For us, the challenge, if anything, has been to have more men working here. Now, we're at a 60-40 split, but with women representing the 60 percent. For Houdini, diversity is something we think about from an holistic perspective, including having a broad spectrum of people in different stages of life and backgrounds working here. In some aspects, we've come a long way, and in some there's still work to do. Therefore, we include these parameters in our reporting, to see what we can get better at. 

How has being based and founded in Sweden affected the company's sustainability efforts?

Sweden as a country has come a long way in terms of thinking responsibly when it comes to environmental impact. Maybe owing to that, our Swedish costumers has been very supportive in our efforts from day one. It gives you confidence as a brand to have a strong, loyal core group of users that understand what you do, and why you do it. On policy level, the Swedish government has been adamant in both emissions elimination and working towards making corporate sustainability reporting mandatory. Houdini is a Stockholm-based company, so we're very fortunate to have amazing surroundings right around the corner. We can go kayaking in the sea 20 meters from the office and after biking 10 minutes, we have the local skiing hill. The city also offers great food and a bustling music scene. On the other hand, I also love leaving the city and experiencing the vast mix of landscapes Sweden has to offer. That connection and closeness to nature has a direct effect on us wanting to care for the environment. So yes, it has affected and keeps affecting Houdini for sure.