- Buyer's Guide
Bergans Expedition 2020 :: The Road to Sustainability
Bergans of Norway are packing their bags and heading on a four-year-long expedition. It’s not a physical summit they’re trekking towards, but a metaphorical one. Before you tap out thinking we’re about to get all cosmic about spiritual enlightenment, hold up - this is about working towards sustainability.
Expedition 2020 is a long-term project Bergans have launched that will take their already solid base of environmental considerations towards the astral plane of “clean and ethically sound production”. They’ve set some very ambitious goals too, like making sure that 75% of their products are bluesign approved, that 70% of their products are made from more sustainable raw materials and that they’ll have a verified environmental footprint for Bergans' products and operations.
Given that we often feature Bergans' bags on Carryology, we wanted to catch up with their sustainability manager, Felix Ockborn, to talk about what this really means for the company, the product and the customers. Here’s a Q&A that digs a little deeper into the program. Keep your eyes out for the anecdote about when the Queen of Norway sent in her backpack for repair. It’s a ripper...
Thanks for the time, Felix. Can you tell us a little bit about where the idea for Expedition 2020 comes from?
Sustainability has been embedded in Bergans' corporate values from very early on. For this program we basically gathered representatives from all over the company and said: “Given where we are now, where do we want to go? What’s the vision?” Because until now it hadn’t been written down. It’s like we want to do good things and we are doing good things, but where exactly do we want to go? It was that discussion that started Expedition 2020. What’s the best way to take on a challenge? Go on an expedition. That was kind of the thinking.
"Sustainability has been embedded in Bergans' corporate values from very early on."
What are the foundation goals or values behind the program? How do you split things up?
We have three areas of influence inside the company and three areas for outside the company. Externally, our first goal is to enable people to enjoy the outdoors. Of course, our products are made for that but we also need to work with partners to enable people to get out there. We think that builds respect for nature among everyone, and builds momentum among people to protect the environment. That also goes in line with the second goal which is to engage in conservation of those areas. The third one is to promote education and health. For example we support iCare, which is directed a bit to Nepal where they’re doing operations on people who are unnecessarily blind. That’s a little bit connected with enabling people to live a full life and enjoy the outdoors if they like. I see all these different goal areas connecting together. All of those things are important to both our staff and our customers.
Internally we have three areas. One is responsible quality, one is positive impact in the value chain and the third one is to inspire actions. I think the responsible quality is really the heart of Bergans and the goals like bluesign goals and sustainable material goals come under that. They’re probably for the company the most challenging, because we are able to set very measurable goals.
"I think the responsible quality is really the heart of Bergans and the goals like bluesign goals and sustainable material goals come under that."
On that, you want to hit 75% bluesign approved products by 2020. What’s your base now?
We’re at about 20% of our product styles right now containing bluesign materials. So there is a way to go. There are some categories that we can move faster and get to 100% and then there are going to be categories that are going to be difficult to create bluesign products. It means that 90% of the fabrics in the product need to be bluesign approved and 30% of the trims. Finding all those suppliers that meet those criteria in kind of a technical jacket, or a backpack for that matter, is difficult. But, that’s the challenge we’ve taken on.
What does moving towards more sustainable, or towards bluesign materials, mean for the quality of the product?
We see that quality is one of the most important sustainability values that we can offer, in the sense that our products last for a long, long, long time. We’re not ever going to step down on quality, so we need to work more long-term. The challenge we face with bluesign is not getting the bluesign approved fabrics themselves, but to find all the different types of fabric qualities we need as bluesign approved alternatives. With backpacks for example a big challenge is that there are no bluesign approved mesh and foam suppliers today for the qualities we need. As these are close to skin they need to be bluesign approved in order for us to create a complete bluesign backpack product. Price differences are also a challenge, but we are steadily able to narrow that gap through consolidation of order volumes and negotiation. As the prices become more competitive we incorporate more and more of those bluesign approved fabrics into our products, with the aim of being able to offer the majority of our backpacks as bluesign products by 2020.
"With backpacks for example a big challenge is that there are no bluesign approved mesh and foam suppliers today for the qualities we need. As these are close to skin they need to be bluesign approved in order for us to create a complete bluesign backpack product."
With making product last, are there any other programs you have going to make sure things are used for longer?
We have a repair service in our office in Norway, which we’ve had for many, many years. Customers do send in old products that they want repaired. Once the Queen of Norway sent in her backpack from the seventies. She wanted it repaired and Bergans was like, “Well, there have been some developments since then, you might be interested in this new backpack.” She refused, saying “I like this one. It’s great for what I need.” We were like “Sure, we’ll repair it. Here you go, Your Majesty”.
"Customers do send in old products that they want repaired. Once the Queen of Norway sent in her backpack from the seventies."
Yes! That’s brilliant. What about end of life considerations for product?
That kind of circular thinking, or cradle-to-cradle thinking - that’s a new space that we’re entering. We’re doing training with our designers. This is one of the bigger areas that we can learn a lot more from, to shift our way of design and really embed the kind of end-of-life part of sustainability. I would say the continued life part of sustainability where the products can get a new life, that’s really something that we hope to be working a lot more on. It’s kind of design from our side, but also following whatever industrial innovations are out there for supply chain partners.
"That kind of circular thinking, or cradle-to-cradle thinking - that’s a new space that we’re entering. We’re doing training with our designers."
We also need to get the customers, especially those who are interested in tech, to understand - you bought an amazing product with a lot of functionality. To make that last a long time, you also need to treat it the right way. Perhaps wash it to make the membranes stay active. Take care of it. Also, when you’re done with it, make sure it doesn’t end up in landfill. Make sure it goes to the next user. We’re working on how to better inform people how to do that. There is a lot of work that we can do in that space.
"We also need to get the customers, especially those who are interested in tech, to understand - you bought an amazing product with a lot of functionality. To make that last a long time, you also need to treat it the right way."
And what about inside the supply chain itself? As one of your big three internal focuses, what are you doing to improve production from an ethical standpoint?
Human rights is an area we’re trying to work on with more directed projects with our suppliers. Instead of setting a very measurable goal on that, we say we’re going to drive five supplier projects a year in areas that we feel can bring value and have a more positive impact in our value chain. Social dialogue is one such project. Last year for instance, we teamed up with Ethical Trading Initiative Norway and had two suppliers in Vietnam join our project to improve social dialogue in the factories to give both the worker representatives and the factory management the right skills to have an effective dialogue, which isn’t always the case. There’s a lot of suspicion between these two groups and it’s positive to help them sit down at a table and deal with their different issues in a constructive way. We want to build a capacity in the factories to deal with the issues related to worker rights or labor rights, or other aspects of the human rights. Factories need to be able to deal with that on their own. We want to support our supply team with those types of projects. To be able to really get in there and drive the positive impact, it’s a big challenge. There are areas where we might not always have perfect insight, but we need to try. That’s how we’re getting at it.
"Human rights is an area we’re trying to work on with more directed projects with our suppliers."
It’s great to see you’re working it from an environmental and people perspective. Where can people go to read more about Expedition 2020?
There’s a page on the website that goes into all the details, like measureable goals, projects we’re working on and more. We’ll also be telling the story of our learning along the way via social media, so if you’re interested you can also follow there.
To read even more about Bergans' Expedition 2020 program, check out this landing page.
*Note the questions and answers in this interview have been edited for brevity. If you want to read the raw 16-page transcript for full context, you can check it out here.
This article was written by Tim Hawken. Writer, surfer, and all-round exceptional dude.