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Business |INTERVIEW

Swiss bag brand Freitag: 'Circularity is anchored in our DNA'

By Ole Spötter

2 Apr 2021

Sustainability is becoming more and more relevant in the fashion industry, with even big brands like H&M and Asos working on greener ranges. Swiss bag brand Freitag, on the other hand, is not advertising a sustainable collection. It does not need to, as following a circular economy is firmly secured in the company's DNA.

“We are generally everything that has to do with circularity: Bicycles are circular and our first bags were messenger bags. So we were born with the DNA of the bicycle,” said Oliver Brunschwiler, creative director at Freitag.

FashionUnited met Brunschwiler at the opening of the new Freitag by Selekteur store in Amsterdam and spoke to the former snowboarding pro about why the Corona-related restrictions on air travel in particular are an obstacle for the brand, how Freitag is politically engaged and why '100 percent circularity' is almost impossible.

You were a professional snowboarder yourself, does this fact play a role for the brand?

Brunschwiler: We don't have a direct connection to winter sports - we focus on urban transport dilemmas, not those in the snow. But at the very beginning, when Daniel and Markus [founders Daniel and Markus Freitag, editor's note] were still sewing bags in their first studio, they asked me if I could test a snowboard bag. It was called Stenmark. Stenmark used to be a slalom skier from Sweden. I tested the bag and took it to Japan, because I was a pro there, and travelled around the world with it.

You are not only a former snowboarder and creative director, you also hold several other positions such as lead link, strategic planner and member of the board. Can you explain the wide range of positions in more detail?

It's what we call our self-organisation system, which means that you can have different roles. For this interview, I am speaking from the role of “apostle”, which has the “purpose” of representing the Freitag brand “to the outside world”. When I'm talking in the role of creative director, I'm at the concept approval stage of a retail store. It's called holacracy and it is our organisational model.

So we have actually also done away with these classic hierarchical levels. I do have roles that are held by the management as a whole, but depending on the project, I wear a “professional hat”. However, other staff members can also wear this hat, depending on their area of expertise. We want to empower our employees to make their own decisions.

Are you planning more DIY experiences like the ‘sweat-yourself shop’?

p>Whether it is digital or physical, it is a new DIY product that we’re bringing back that's a little bit smarter, that recycles a little bit more of the leftovers that come out of cutting. We actually want to close the loop and produce even less waste.

Does the new product complement the DIY range?

It's the replacement. We're very pure about it, there's always just something you can do at that location at that time, and we like to experiment there. We have determined how many pieces there were of the first product and we weren't quite happy with it ourselves, especially in terms of the waste and also the design features - it was a prototype. Now there is a re-development of the product and improvements in terms of DIY character are also coming.

Has the pandemic driven digitalisation?

It’s not rocket science, is it? It is the same for everyone. It showed that this exogenous shock simply has to make one constantly alert as an organisation and that is healthy, isn't it? Because exogenous influences are something that accelerate your transformation. I see this as a positive push towards digitalisation.

People will continue to do retail. We are making noise from Jeju (Korea) to Amsterdam and continue to open new stores with our partners. But the shift to e-commerce will not simply make up for the lost sales of the Corona era.

Many companies in the fashion industry suffered particularly from the lockdown-related shop closures and made losses. How did Friday fare during this time?

We have grown strongly in the last few years. Of course, I have to say that we are limited to grow organically, because we cannot call some factory in China and say: we are doubling quantities. It's all used tarpaulin material that we buy from European shipping companies and it involves numerous manual production steps.

We are also self-financed, which means we work without bank loans and it is only ever our profits that we reinvest at our own pace in innovations that match our philosophy. With such value-driven projects, we in turn attract exactly those employees who fit our brand.

As a self-financed business, has a lack of revenue stopped you?

Of course, we still had very ambitious goals at the beginning of last year, but in February 2020, the early warning system was already on because we are very present in Asia and saw how things are going. This enabled us to correct our high ambitions at an early stage and to adjust as well as possible.

Because we are self-financed, we had to put the brakes on costs because many of the planned projects were not focused on a shift to e-commerce, but were rather playful and the risk of failure was very high. But we did not have to cut jobs. We are still doing very well, although our overall drop this year will be around 15 to 20 percent from the initial ambitious target.

How did you deal with having to apply the brakes?

Because the whole company is very agile, we were able to change the strategy immediately. We have set new priorities and that has worked at our size, it took hold and that is how we can get ourselves through longer periods of recession or a pandemic.

Freitag recently opened many stores. Can you tell us a bit more about the expansion strategy?

With the so-called “F-Store by” concept, where we have strong, motivated sales partners or those who sell the brand via limited licences, it often comes down to opportunities. We don't proactively ask anyone: ‘Do you want to open an 'F-Store by' for us?’ It is actually the other way around, and it is the trusted partners who ask us.

The two to three stores that we usually open ourselves per year have been put on hold for the time being. There are many opportunities in the real estate sector at the moment. But we are still very cautious because an important driver for us in retail is tourism traffic.

Have the Corona-related travel regulations become an obstacle?

Air travel has a big impact on traffic in Freitag stores. It is the biggest influencer for brick and mortar stores at Freitag because our customers are mobile and they are bag hunters, which means they travel around and hunt for unique items they can't get among the usual mass-produced products.

Are there any markets that you would like to enter into at the moment?

There has been a lot of interest from the US lately. Our customers are located especially on the West Coast and in the Northwest of the country. That's why we were interested in a US expansion plan again. However, that is such a huge thing if you do it right, so I am also a bit glad that we have been slowed down and are focusing more on where we are best.

We would like to close the loop - the globe - because we are closing loops. The challenge would be very long distances logistically, and we always want to avoid that. We don't do ‘returns’ or offer ‘free shipping’ because this kind of logistics is anything but ecological. But we have time to close the loop globally and don't have to take advantage of every opportunity - we are growing slowly.

Foto: Lukas Wassermann

Apart from bags, there is also a biodegradable clothing line. Why does this not have a strongly presence in the stores?

It is really more of a hobby and we originally did it for ourselves. There was a short-term ambition for a business line, but we dropped it. We wanted to prove to ourselves that we can develop a clothing line that is made in Europe and leaves nothing harmful behind at the end of the product life cycle.

We distribute our clothing line where it makes sense - exclusively in Europe, where it is also made, and online - but it's not like we have ambitions now to make ‘F-abric’ a business as big as our bag business.

Actually, it is all about fabrics. We launched the clothing line seven years ago, it is 100 percent recyclable, cradle-to-cradle, no toxic ingredients at all, no irrigation-intensive cotton either, but European bast fibres and modal. Accordingly, it is also quite limited, without synthetics, one can't make every cut out of it.

What other goals is Freitag striving for in terms of sustainability?

Our purpose is to become 99 percent circular, which is what companies like Microsoft are now aiming for, in ten years. But they compensate for that, don't they? There are whole sciences for measuring 'sustainability'. We don't even have the word 'sustainability' because it's all part of our DNA. Whatever we can do ourselves in the area of materials, whatever we can influence, we want to drive towards 99 percent, because 100 percent is almost impossible - in our generation at least.

Are there other topics that you would like to push forward?

We got involved politically for the first time. In Zurich, we started to [understand] traffic regulations, which are about bicycle traffic. We actually want smart cities to become more bikeable, not only because it's in our DNA. That's why we are starting to get political as a brand and employer, city-by-city, and to get involved, but only in this area.

It is something that is always a bit tricky, because you also represent other employees when you express a political position. And then you quickly find yourself in a corner, mostly with the Green Party, when it comes to bicycles. We actually represent the circular economy, that is a new vision that we have set for ourselves, independent of any commercial ambitions.

This article was originally published on FashionUnited.de. Edited and translated by Simone Preuss.

Fotos: Freitag | header image: Oliver Brunschwiler by Roland Taennler