Do we really have to own the clothes we wear? Dutchman Bert van Son says no, we don’t. He has witnessed how the clothing industry has increasingly turned into a fast-fashion machine – a trend he has strongly counteracted. At this year’s Kontext Annual in October he will be explaining how he has accomplished this, but our curiosity was aroused and we wanted to find out more beforehand.
In 2012, who would have been able to imagine that the concept of ownership would soon falter to such an extent? Numerous items that in the past had to be purchased (ranging from wine glasses to drills, through to palm trees and designer clothing) can be leased today. It is even possible to lease entire furniture packages that include everything that modern-day nomads could ask for, ranging from sofas to bedside lamps. Dutchman Bert van Son recognised the signs pointing to this trend at an early stage. Netflix was about to expand into Europe, and services such as Spotify and car-sharing had already become firmly established. Bert van Son had already worked in the clothing industry for 30 years, during which time he witnessed the rise of fast-fashion companies, but he no longer wanted to be part of a system that so strongly disparaged people and the environment. So in 2013 he decided to create his own label, which he called “MUD Jeans”. His concept was groundbreaking in that clothing could now not only be bought, but could also be leased. This move made him a circular economy pioneer.
The most popular item of clothing in the world is also one of the least sustainable: around 1.2 billion pairs of jeans are sold every year. A conventionally produced model consumes around 8,000 litres of water and requires 180 metres of sewing thread. And large quantities of insecticides and pesticides are used on cotton fields. These undesirable facts prompted Bert van Son to focus on the use of denim in order to bring about changes where quantities and necessity were particularly high.
MUD Jeans has set itself very high goals in terms of sustainability and ethics. But the “B-Corp”-certified company wants to take things a step further and question the concept of buying per se. Do customers necessarily have to own consumer goods? In the conventional linear economy, an item of clothing is produced, sold, worn and subsequently discarded. Every second, a truckload of clothing items is disposed of. Less than 1 percent of all clothing items are recycled and used for the production of new pullovers, jeans or t-shirts. Bert van Son realised that the most reliable way to recover raw materials is to not sell them in the first place. Thanks to its leasing concept, MUD Jeans retains ownership of the denim fibres, which it is able to collect when the clothing is returned and can thus recycle them and produce new jeans. This means that the raw materials remain in the hands of the manufacturer – which is a basic requirement for a sustainable recycling concept. “Although the concept is unusual, people responded positively to it right from the start,” explains Laura Vicaria, head of Corporate Social Responsibility at MUD Jeans. “We assume responsibility for our products, which we recycle when they reach the end of their useful life, instead of incinerating them. Leasing facilitates consumption without a bad conscience.”
Leasing enables consumption without a guilty conscience.
In the meantime, roughly fifty percent of all online orders placed with MUD Jeans are based on leasing instead of purchase. Leasing costs 7.50 euros per month. After twelve months, customers can keep the pair of jeans or exchange it for a new pair, in which case the first monthly payment is waived. This also applies if the returned pair of jeans is from another manufacturer, as long as it is made from at least 96 percent cotton. Customers can lease up to three pairs of jeans at a time. The reason for this limit is that MUD Jeans stands for slow fashion. Those who want to hold on to their jeans can benefit from a free repair service in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. “Many pairs of jeans are returned to us in very good condition,” says Laura Vicaria, “and we incorporate these into our Vintage Programme. We currently sell them primarily at trade fairs, but from next year onwards we intend to make our Vintage Jeans collection available for all customers.” The longer a pair of jeans is worn, the lower its ecological impact. “In comparison with the current industry standard we are able to cut water consumption by 92 percent and reduce CO2 emissions by 70 percent. We are very proud of this achievement. The better off we are in life, the more difficult it becomes to reduce water consumption and CO2 emissions,” she points out. “There is always room for improvement. For example, we recently started replacing conventional buttons with recyclable ones, and now also want to find alternatives to spandex and polyester yarn. This is encouraging for companies venturing into the field of sustainability: you don’t need to have an answer to everything right from the start. You simply make a start somewhere and then close the existing gaps one by one.”
One of the gaps MUD Jeans would like to close in the near future concerns the production of jeans made exclusively from recycled yarn. At present, the proportion of recycled cotton is between 23 and 40 percent, depending on the model. MUD Jeans is working together with the Saxion University of Applied Sciences (which is based in the eastern Netherlands). The project to develop jeans made of 100 percent recycled yarn is above all a technological challenge: old pairs of jeans are shredded, which results in short fibres and the yarn that is then produced is unstable. In the past, MUD Jeans has compensated this drawback by adding new organic cotton. In the future, the aim is to replace the dependency on new fibres with a perfect mix of mechanically and chemically recycled cotton – something that no company has achieved to date.
It is not necessary to have an answer to all questions from the beginning.
MUD Jeans wants to keep everything else simple: no seasonal collections, no clearance sales, no unnecessary details. All models share the same studs, zips and buttons. It does not attach labels – instead, the logo is printed on the fabric. In other words, as much as necessary – and as little as possible. MUD Jeans is just as consistent in its dealings with supply chain partners. In order to keep the supply chain as transparent as possible it only works together with three companies. Recovertex, a Spanish pioneer in the production of post-consumer yarns, recycles jeans and spins the fibre mix into new yarn. Last year the MUD community collected 14,200 pairs of jeans and thus saved them from the incinerator. Weaving and dying are carried out by Tefijos Royo, which is located near Valencia. This company developed the dry indigo method, which is a dyeing process that does not use water and reduces the use of chemicals by 90 percent. Tailoring, processing and post-treatment are carried out by Yousstex International, which is based in Touza, Tunisia. Instead of sandblasting, which is harmful to health, Yousstex uses laser technology and minimises the use of water and chemicals.
MUD Jeans is currently active in 29 countries. Before long, the leasing concept will no longer be solely available online, but will also be offered by retailers in the Netherlands, Germany, France and Belgium. Here it is the logistics and transport of the jeans collected in shops that represent the main challenge. MUD Jeans is represented in almost 30 stores in Switzerland. For Sebastian Lanz from the fair-fashion store Rrrevolve in Zurich, the situation is clear. If the leasing concept were to be introduced in Switzerland, Rrrevolve would certainly participate. “With a company like MUD Jeans we would be willing to give it a try, even though the logistical aspects could be somewhat complex.” The Swiss importer of MUD Jeans shares a similar view: in her shop, STOOR in Bern, Fabia Mosimann has already successfully carried out a recycling collection. She began to sell recycled jeans when STOOR was founded in 2015. However, for the shop to participate in the jeans leasing concept she says it would be necessary to keep the associated administrative process within reasonable bounds.
But only those who have a certain size and presence in the market can really make a difference.
MUD Jeans now wants to focus on growth: its goal is to increase its turnover to 500,000 pairs a year. This ambitious target is simultaneously the upper limit of its growth target: as a pioneer in the field of sustainability, MUD Jeans does not want to become part of the problem. Laura Vicaria: “In order to have a genuine impact, both in the minds of consumers and in terms of real numbers, a company needs to attain a certain size and achieve a strong market presence.” Saving 300 million litres of water in three years is no mean feat!
* MUD Jeans, Sustainability Report 2019