It has been used for decades and has won the hearts of people all over the world without changing its timeless design. And now a new version of Kånken is being released with only one thing that is different: the fabrics used in Re-Kånken are 95% made from recycled materials, and are recyclable themselves.
Kånken in its original form is already a product that has relatively little negative impact on the environment. Thanks to its simple, straightforward design, it produces a lot less spill in its production than more complicated backpacks. It is hardwearing, and it has a look that has proven to be popular in the long term. So when the idea came up to try to make the most sustainable backpack ever, we had to find a new approach.
“We went back to the beginning with everything except the classic design. The challenge was in achieving the lowest possible environmental impact while still meeting demands for a durable and functional product,” says Svante Björkroth, product developer at Fjällräven and the man behind the project.
While the original Kånken was made from three different materials – one for the backpack itself, one for the inner pocket and one for the straps – Re-Kånken is made entirely from one kind of material that has been woven into fabrics of varying thicknesses.
The material we are talking about is recycled polyester. A total of eleven PET bottles are used to make one Re-Kånken and the project developers have been careful to check that the bottles really have been used and left at a recycling centre before being used again. Because this is the whole idea behind recycling. But starting over with material selection is a job that takes time.
The first step was sourcing recycled fabric that could live up to the durability demands we have. It is not enough to just do durability tests in a laboratory. The backpack has to be constructed and tested in real life as well. The straps need to be pulled and yanked around, it has to be rubbed against the back and used in everyday life.
When you take polyester from PET bottles it can be quite like plastic, and not as matt and rigid as the original Kånken fabric. But by brushing the recycled fabric so the outer threads were roughed up a bit, the fabric got a more pleasing feel that Svante and his colleagues wanted. It is really quite like the original, except for a few details that are different.
“Re-Kånken needed to have its own identity. The round badge is still there, but Re-Kånken’s badge is embroidered instead of sewn on,” says Svante Björkroth.
In addition to the recycled element there is a large environmental gain in how the fabric is dyed. Conventionally, fabrics are dyed at the end of their production process, after the yarn is spun and the fabric is woven. The bolts of fabric are then immersed in vats of chemicals, rinsed in water and dried in large ovens. The process requires huge quantities of chemicals, water and energy.
When Svante and his colleagues were looking for more sustainable production methods, they fell for a technique called SpinDye®. In this process, the dye is added when the recycled polyester fibres are spun into yarn. This means that large quantities of chemicals, water and energy are saved. There are also other, non-environmental benefits with this process. When you conventionally dye fabric, it is the surface of the fabric that absorbs the most colour, but with SpinDye®, the dye goes all the way into the core of the yarn. In this way, the colour wears better and doesn’t fade in the sun so readily.
SpinDye®, however, is still more expensive than conventional dyeing. The reason for this is that there is still little demand for it. Suppliers need large orders for each colour before it is worth their while, but with Re-Kånken, Fjällräven has dared to take the step.
For a product to be easily recyclable, it can’t contain too many types of material. Today, it is only the buttons, zippers and plastic buckles on Re-Kånken that are not made from recyclable polyester. And these details are all easily removed. The backpack would be recyclable already today if only the infrastructure for textile recycling was in place.
“The backpack is suitable for recycling, but it is still a durable product that will last for a long, long time,” Svante Björkroth points out. For him and his colleagues, the time they have spent on Re-Kånken has been more than worthwhile.
“There isn’t a manual for how to make a product as sustainable as possible. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. We had to create a process and find our own way to reach our goal. If other companies wanted to do the same, we could create a demand for spin-dyed yarn made from recycled plastic. The costs would decrease and more products could be made using this technology.”