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Can You Eat Old Baselayers? The Swedes Say Yes, Kind Of

Imagine eating a gourmet dinner made from vegetables grown in the soil of decomposed base layers.

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Imagine eating a gourmet dinner made from vegetables grown in the soil of decomposed base layers. In Sweden, it’s reality. In 2018, Houdini opened the world’s first clothing compost for worn-out sportswear in their home city of Stockholm. It’s a permanent test lab for the company’s natural clothing line (made from pure Merino that’s inherently biodegradable), and it proves natural clothes can transform into healthy soil to grow flowers, fruits, and vegetables.

(Photo: Fredrik Ottosson/Houdini Sportswear)

The Houdini Menu project used those vegetables as ingredients for a menu at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Stockholm called Agrikultur. Chef Sebastian Thureson created a four-course menu of dishes like baked Houdini-leek with cress, dill and elderflower, smoked Merino-wool-mushroom broth with pickled egg, kohlrabi and ramson, and baselayer beet baked in salt with Swedish goat cheese, pickled blackcurrant, coriander and ginger.

(Photo: Fredrik Ottosson/Houdini Sportswear)

It’s a tangible win for circular design, or the idea that nothing should go to waste. After all, millions of years of evolution have already led to a system of materials that break down and become building blocks for something else to grow—why not take advantage?

While synthetic fabrics like polyester, spandex and nylon take between 20 to 200 years to break down, natural fabrics like cotton, silk, wool, cashmere and hemp break down easily. But not all have the performance qualities desired for outdoor apparel. Houdini’s Merino baselayers took six months to break down into the rich fertilizing soil that grew the Houdini Menu project vegetables. Tencel, a fiber made from the pulp of eucalyptus trees, starts to biodegrade in around three months once buried in soil. It’s used by companies like Kari Traa and Element Pure for their base layers. U.K.-based BAM makes activewear from biodegradable bamboo. As with wool, both Tencel and bamboo can only biodegrade if they aren’t blended with other synthetic fibers or chemicals.

(Photo: Fredrik Ottosson/Houdini Sportswear)

But before a garment hits the compost pile, Houdini wants it to live many lives. Their system allows customers to share, rent, subscribe, reuse and repair garments. Most recently, Houdini digitized its One Parka to the cloud through a YKK Touchlink NFC zipper pull, which connects customers to digital profiles of products so they can be connected, managed and stewarded across product lifecycles (it also eliminates the the need for wasteful tags and hangtags). Advocates say connected garments increase the success rate of circular business models, such as resale, rental, subscription and recycling. To learn more about Houdini’s sustainability efforts, we interviewed Jesper Danielsson, Head of Design and Product.

How did you make a fabric so clean, it can be composted and used to grow food?
If natural fibers are not blended with synthetics, they are biodegradable. We never blend naturals and synthetics, because then they can be neither recycled nor decomposed. All our garments in natural fibers can be composted, as long as you cut away the details like zippers, cords, etc. If you have a good compost at home, a shredded up wool garment usually decomposes in 6-12 months.

Can you talk about circular design?
The effort started in 2001. We want to create the maximum experience for the end user while minimizing impact. We look to nature as our blueprint, and everything is a resource. Our main goal is to create real alternatives to linear consumption: A circular system, where long-lasting products can be used, repaired and reused, and then finally become new resources.

We have been thinking through different business models and finding ways to extend the lifetime of garments for different users to give them the optimal experience. If you ski one to three times a season, maybe you don’t need to own your own kit. We have offered rentals in our stores in Sweden for close to a decade now, and we are working to scale this globally with smaller ecosystems of rentals, and where garments can be looked after, potentially repaired, then reused.

How difficult was it to make the new line 100% sustainable?
The company’s fall line is 100% sustainable, meaning the fabrics are either recycled, recyclable, renewable, Bluesign-certified or biodegradable.

It was extremely hard, but we accomplished it with focus and determination and without compromise. Moving to circular products is not so difficult, but not compromising on durability or comfort or performance is much more difficult. It doesn’t make sense to use circular fabric if it doesn’t hold up. The balance is a fine one.

(Photo: Fredrik Ottosson/Houdini Sportswear)

How and why are you connecting your garments to the cloud?
We digitized the One Parka through YKK’s new Touchlink NFC zipper pull, and it’s the first parka to be connected end-to-end by the EON Product Cloud. Users can connect with Houdini and access use- and care-guides, customer service, and community engagement opportunities.

Today in the fashion and textile industry, it’s a transactional economy. A consumer picks a jacket, makes a transaction at the store and you never see them again. For a long time, we have been working toward a relationship-driven economy. It starts at the counter, then follows with hangouts, adventures, and community. Digitizing garments connects the consumer to the product and the company and enables long-term two-way communication. We can offer care tips, educate consumers on features and let them know when it’s time to service their jacket. We can also help the user sell, rent, recycle or compost their garment correctly.

We’re hoping the digital experience can help facilitate interconnectedness, feedback loops and natural flows in order to support the critical mindshift needed in order to transition to fully circular.

(Photo: Fredrik Ottosson/Houdini Sportswear)

What’s the future of sustainable apparel and where do you see Houdini in five years?
By 2022, our entire offering of products and services will be circular by design, with all products made from recycled and recyclable or renewable and naturally biodegradable fibers. The Houdini Open Source platform will help companies share knowledge on sustainable methodologies, technologies, and solutions worldwide. By 2030, the Houdini eco system in its entirety will be net neutral, with a completely sustainable and circular supply chain, and on its way to becoming regenerative.

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