The Fjällräven Kanken is a popular bag produced by Fjällräven (“The Arctic Fox” in Swedish), a Swedish brand specialising in outdoor equipment. It was founded in 1960 by Åke Nordin. The Kanken was originally developed as a reaction to a 1977 study of the increasing number of reports that Swedish school children were developing back problems from their more traditional bags. The lightweight and rectangular yet spacious backpack, which was released in 1978, was Fjällräven's attempt to solve this problem. The Kanken was awarded the Guldknappen Accessoar design prize in 2018.
In order to decide what materials to use for their products, Fjällräven uses a Preferred Materials and Fibres List that grades materials in terms of their impact on the environment. On their website, they state that this list is constantly updated, reflecting new research and new materials. They also have a vague statement on their website that, wherever possible, they use organic, renewable, and recycled materials. They also say that they prioritise traceable natural materials. However, they still use some unsustainable materials. They have a materials classification system. This includes excellent materials, like recycled wool, organic hemp and Tencel; good materials, such as recycled polyester, G-1000 Eco and traceable wool; OK materials, like polyamide, cotton, metal buttons; and bad ones they don’t choose to use, such as PFCs, PVCs and angora wool. Therefore, they are aware of where they could choose better materials, are open about which ones they use that aren’t the most sustainable, and actively avoid the most unsustainable materials. This is good evaluation from them, but there is of course room for improvement to only choose optimal materials. In addition to these materials classifications, they also have a guideline for chemicals, called the Fjällräven Chemical Guideline, that they say they constantly update and revise as they find out more information. This is done with support from the Swedish Chemicals Group, of which they are members, that’s overseen by the Swedish Research Institute for Industrial and Sustainable Growth (Swerea). Additionally, fluorocarbons have long been favoured by the outdoor industry for their water and dirt resistance. However, they have a negative environmental impact. Therefore, Fjällräven’s decision in 2012 to switch to fluorocarbon-free impregnation throughout their product range is an incredibly positive move, providing commitment to sustainability. Fluorocarbons can’t readily break down in nature. They are often transported vast distances, stored in living organisms, and may work their way up the food chain. They can also affect reproduction and hormone production in mammals and are suspected carcinogens. However, these compounds are still incorporated in their zips, as they have had difficulty in finding an alternative. They are blogging currently about ways to remove fluorocarbons completely from their bags. Fjällräven has also stated that they are committed to animal welfare and try and use practices that harm animals as little as possible. They have a strict policy (implemented in 2014) for their products containing down, ensuring no animals are plucked live. However, the fact that they use animal products in the first place is not ideal, as that industry contributes globally to sustainability issues and has associated cruelty.
Further sustainability steps have been the production of the Re-Kanken, released in 2016 and made entirely of polyester from recycled plastic bottles, and the Tree-Kanken, released in 2021 and it's made from Pine Weave, a unique fabric produced using more sustainable methods from certified Swedish trees grown close to Fjällräven’s hometown of Örnsköldsvik. There is a lack of information about how the bags are specifically produced, but they have their main manufacturing facilities in China and Vietnam. In Vietnam, both migrant and informal workers often face poor working and living conditions, with low and insecure incomes, long working hours, and precarious employment. In addition, many migrants and informal workers are not able to access social services such as health care and education. In China, there are approximately 150 million internal migrant workers who, because of their status, do not receive any state benefits or protection. They must endure poor working conditions such as excessive and forced overtime, denial of social security rights, and failure to provide employment contracts, as well as severe health risks. The outsourcing of production to factories in these areas is therefore contentious and unsustainable. There are also greater emissions associated with manufacturing internationally, as the product must travel greater distances. This, combined with the lack of information about the production of the bags, warrants a low score on this front for the Kanken.
Fjällräven has a Code of Conduct. This document is based on the Fair Labour Association’s Workplace Code of Conduct and covers human rights, animal welfare, environmental protection, sustainable development, and anti-corruption. Fjällräven states that they provide training and support to ensure our suppliers fully implement their Code of Conduct. They, along with third parties, audit and regularly visit their suppliers. Fjällräven is also part of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). This is an industry-wide group of more than 80 leading clothing and footwear companies and NGOs. Together, they both share information and best practices, to work towards reducing the environmental and social impacts of their industry. In 2013, they joined the Fair Labour Association (FLA). The FLA is also a multi-stakeholder organisation, but its focus is on promoting workers’ rights and improving working conditions globally. This could potentially help them provide better working conditions in China and Vietnam, but the lack of transparency of the exact locations of their factories in these countries means it is hard to determine this. Fjällräven has also signed onto the UN Global Compact. This is a partnership between businesses and the United Nations. Members are committed to aligning their operations and strategies with 10 universally accepted principles relating to human rights, labour, anti-corruption, and the environment.
In summary, whilst the Kanken is a sturdy and long-lasting product, there are a few issues with transparency about production, and they use some animal products. Although Fjällräven are committed to maintaining high animal welfare, it still poses a concern.