In North America today, when construction workers look for clothing – functional, durable, well-designed, sustainable clothing – they look to Blåkläder. Since 1959, the company has brought the longest-lasting workwear to industry professionals across Europe and North America.
We spoke with Marcus Carlberg, President of Blåkläder North America, which serves U.S. and Canadian markets from sales headquarters in Sarasota, FL, who gave us our first Swedish lesson. The company name, he explained, is a compound word, comprised of ‘blå’ (meaning blue and pronounced ‘blui’) and ‘kläder’ (clothing) — hence ‘blue clothing’, or as it’s come to mean in Sweden, ‘workwear’.
“It’s a generic term, he says, “the way Kleenex™ stands for any paper handkerchief, because when people are going to work in Sweden, they might say, ‘I’m putting on my blåkläder,’ whether it’s our construction workwear, or not.”
But more likely than not, the workwear donned in Sweden, a country renowned for excellence in functional design, is Blåkläder’s. The roots of the construction-clothing company, headquartered in Svenljunga, go back to 1937, when the father of current owner, Marcus Gustavsson, started making men’s and women’s unbranded, 100-percent cotton, blue coveralls and coats for factory workers, under the name GEFA.
“It was very basic,” says Carlberg. “Then in 1959, we started getting into pants and shirts and that was when we re-branded as Blåkläder, and in 1985, when the founder’s son took over, he decided to take the company in a new direction. We were quite small, manufacturing and selling only in Sweden, but he built the manufacturing capacity, and the marketing sales force.” The company was the first to run television ads for workwear.
As a result, Blåkläder products, which include men’s and women’s workwear, including weather-resistant outer wear, shoes and boots, socks, gloves, belts, knee pads and other accessories, are today sold in 17 countries, including the U.S. and Canada.
The highest labor standards
At first everything was manufactured in Sweden, but in the 80s the company moved production to Portugal and in 1992, to Vietnam. In 2006 Blåkläder purchased its first factory in Sri Lanka, and in 2018, one in Myanmar.
While horror stories surround manufacturing in third world countries, such is not the case with these factories. “We are quite proud of what we do and how we treat workers in our factories,” says Carlberg. “A lot of companies do exploit workers, but we were the first workwear manufacturer to attain SA 8000 Certification, which is basically a certification that guarantees human rights for workers,” he explains.
“We guarantee no child labor; we have good working hours, good working conditions in cooled factories. We provide meals, transportation, health care, and vision-care programs, and we have doctors on site. The SA 8000 certification is quite difficult to get, but we have it in our factories,” says Carlberg.
“Any company we work with is welcome, at any time, to go and visit our factories. We have several large company accounts that do just that, because even though we have the papers, they need to see with their own eyes. Some will go twice a year, unannounced, to visit our factories.”
Cornerstone 1: functionality
The company’s output is firmly anchored by its four cornerstones, the first of which is functionality.
“Functionality,” Carlberg says, “is not only about extra pockets or built-in knee pads. It’s also about the fit of the garment, the choice of fabric. We keep the worker in mind when making decisions about pockets and accessories. A lot of our decisions come from the workforce itself. We have direct communication with the workers on the ground and we encourage and invite feedback. If they say, ‘this isn’t good here’ or ‘we’d prefer that’ or ‘we’re doing this type of job and we need this,’ we take notice.
“We are constantly adjusting and improving ourselves in terms of functionality based on the communication feedback we get from the workforce.” One such functional change, for example, involved the introduction in 2019 of an entire line of flame-resistant workwear, compliant with National Fire Protection Association’s standards.
Cornerstone 2: quality
“In terms of quality, we have a long history of making the products ourselves, rather than sourcing them, which basically allows us to control several things,” he told us.
“We have an incredibly strong quality control because we make quite difficult and complicated products. Owning the process and having our factory workers continuously make only our products, which are more complicated than those of our competitors, keeps the quality high, because they are difficult to learn how to make.”
Among the quality control procedures to ensure excellent quality is brutal testing of the raw materials ability to withstand wear and tear; of their rip and pull resistance; and of colorfastness and shrinkage.
It’s not only stringent control procedures that guarantee quality, however. Quality is directly proportional to the well-being of the people who make the products. As Carlberg pointed out, the employees, who number approximately 5,500 worldwide, are well taken care of. “A happy employee will be a better employee, and that goes for our manufacturing and our sales staff.”
Carlberg himself has worked for the company for the past 14 years. He came to the U.S. from Sweden in 1981 “as a little guy with my family,” when a company in Sweden transferred his father. However, it was purely coincidental that he “ended up doing a project in Sweden in 2004 where Blåkläder sponsored our crew. So, when I came back to the U.S. and was using their garments, I was getting a lot of questions about them.”
It seems that the high quality of the garments was speaking to Americans. As a result of industry interest, Carlberg contacted the Blåkläder office in Svenljunga and asked if he could sell Blåkläder products in North America. He started as a salesman in the northeast and worked his way up over the next few years to lead the company, working closely with the designers in Sweden to ensure the safety garments meet North American standards. (See locator map on the company’s website for outlets and retailers that carry the Blåkläder line).
Cornerstone 3: design
“But,” he continues, “just because we have a quality, functional, and durable garment, we don’t believe it should be ugly, so we purposefully made it a cornerstone that our workwear should look good as well. A lot of companies want their workers to feel confident and look good on the job site, and they also want the product to be used as a company marketing piece.
“Often, the company or the DOTs who have chosen to use our product will brand them with their logo, so they become a walking billboard and they need to be good-looking garments.”
Another aspect of design involves workwear for women, as women are the fastest-growing segment in the industry. “We’re happy to see them and we welcome them,” he says, with clothing that is specifically designed for women’s bodies, including maternity pants with a stretch panel.
“Some manufacturers have made some type of women’s wear, but often it is just cut smaller and made pink. However, women in construction don’t want pink – they want what everyone else is wearing, and they want it to fit properly so their garments are functional for them.”
Furthermore, “we design everything in such a way that it helps our product outlast other products, based, for example, on how we do the stitching, where we place the stitching. Do we put the bellows in the pocket, versus a seam on the bottom? That’s often done, not because it looks cool, but because it will add to the longevity of the garment.”
In fact, Blåkläder is the only workwear manufacturer that offers a lifetime warranty on its seams. If one splits, as long as it has not been torn by sharp edges or tools, the company will repair or replace the garment.
Cornerstone 4: sustainability
“I can talk about this all day,” says Carlberg. “We believe in sustainability and our goal is to leave the earth in a slightly better condition than previous generations left it to us. We are striving in every way to do our part.”
What that means in practice is that Blåkläder’s facilities have received LEED certification through the Green Building Council. The newest factories in Myanmar are 50-percent solar powered. There are water-purification treatments at all factories to ensure no chemicals are dumped into streams and eventually the ocean. Containers shipped to Europe and North America are filled to capacity. “You are creating emissions during transport, so every inch should be utilized,” he says.
“But the biggest argument we have is that our garments will last two-to-five-times longer than any of our competitors’. Even if you take the lower number, two-times longer, that means only half the number of garments will be going into the landfill on an annual basis. If you make a quality garment, it benefits the environment. In the next 50 years, 25 percent of the pollution we have will be coming from the garment industry – and the fashion industry is horrible for that – and so we are doing our part to control that waste.”
Even though Blåkläder has been in existence, in one form or another, for well over 60 years, Carlberg describes it as “a young company in many respects. It’s a fast-paced company, quick to make decisions and respond to needs, because there is not a lot of middle management.
“Everyone is a decision maker and the best idea leaves the table, no matter who it came from, whether it’s the owner or the new guy. Everyone makes an impact on what happens. We all work hard and we’re working on building this company in North America.” Carlberg currently has a staff of 10 and is looking at three new positions in 2020.
“Another big thing that makes us what we are – apart from all the things we talked about – is that Blåkläder is a privately-owned company. Of course, we’re in business to make money, but we can also make decisions that are good for the world, because we don’t have to make shareholders happy on an annual basis.
It’s nice to work for an owner who makes a decision that may not be the smartest financially for that year, but long-term is definitely the right thing to do, and that sits well with me as a person. I know this company will always do the right thing.”