On the occasion of our SUSTAINABLE ISSUE, we talked to several experts and insiders that are dealing with sustainability in fashion to shed light on as many topics as possible from different perspectives. Two of them were co-founders Palle Stenberg and Joakim Levin from swedish brand Nudie Jeans, who told us about the possibility of repairing old jeans and embracing capitalism at the same time.
What makes Nudie Jeans different
People who are still in possession of all their senses and want to protect the environment would have to avoid buying any new denims at all. For it is well known that existing production processes have nothing to do with sustainability. That all changes in the case of Nudie Jeans.
This not just because the Swedish denim brand has been boasting about organic cotton since it was founded in 2001 and has been making the whole collection out of it since 2012. The strategy of the three founders, Maria Erixon, Joakim Levin and Palle Stenberg, to take care of their men’s and unisex pants long after they have left the shop is much more exciting. The key concepts here are dry jeans, jeans repair and recycling.
Since its humble beginnings Nudie has worked its way to annual revenues of around €50 million–about 1,500 multibrand retailers and nearly 30 monobrand stores (most of them operated by the company), as well as the Nudie online shop accounting for over 15% of sales revenue, contribute to this success. The business behind Nudie Jeans is on solid footing. “We are profitable, we have money in the bank–we reject inquiries from potential investors, because we three founders want to decide on our own where we are heading, and not have to adapt to the demands of investors,” says CEO and co-founder Levin. He continues: “Nudie was always our dream.”
We must finally start talking more about what we are doing here.
In no way does that mean he has lost touch with reality. Growth is not a goal that Levin, once a drummer in a punk band (whereas Erixon and Stenberg have backgrounds with Lee and Levi’s), has any problems with. “Well, you could say it’s a like looking after a garden–you want it to thrive and flourish. Let’s say we are embracing capitalism. We act pragmatic, we work hard, we do not live in a utopia.” Only at Nudie it is not a matter of growth at any price, even though the revenue growth curve is continuing to go up: “We can be the biggest player in the area of organic denim, but in the big denim world we are a small player. That’s one thing, but for how long can you wear a pair of jeans anyway? For life? Definitely not,” says Stenberg, co-CEO and co-founder, who is also responsible for sales.
Expanding the lifecycle loop
Building on this, Erixon, Stenberg and Levin are investing more time in closing the lifecycle loop for a pair of jeans. “We don’t believe ‘throwaway’ and ‘jeans’ are words that belong together. Just the opposite, jeans are a piece of clothing that ages and grows more beautiful with the wearer, and are worth wearing out and mending,” is what their website prosaically states. Or as Levin asks: “People have everything repaired, from their cell phone to their car. Just not their jeans. How come?”
Nudie provides just this service in its own mini-tailor shops or so-called “repair shops.” Customers can bring their ripped Nudie jeans and have these mended for nothing–a method for slowing down increasing consumption. A new repair shop has just opened in Los Angeles and others are already open for business around the globe–from Amsterdam to Tokyo, from Melbourne to Berlin, from London to New York, and naturally in Gothenburg where Nudie Jeans first got its start. Without providing more specific details, there are more repair shops being planned: “We decide step by step. It has to be a perfect fit for us, and so I can’t give exact numbers, but at some point we would like to have repair shops in all major European cities,” says Levin.
The service also includes those who do not live near a repair shop: Nudie Jeans is sending mobile repair shops on tour, which stop at retailers and offer the repair service. In the future, Nudie Jeans representatives will be equipped with sewing machines so that they can darn and stitch.
Those who cannot be helped with repairs and would rather buy a new pair of jeans are introduced to the topic of “recycling”: the customer can return his old trousers to a repair shop and get a 20% discount on a new pair. The old pair are washed by Nudie and restored so that they can be sold in the shop as secondhand jeans. These used and mended jeans have been recognized by the Swedish Good Environmental Choice ecolabel. Since April the jeans specialists have gone a step further and are now selling secondhand Nudies in their own online shop, too.
Repair shops and Nudie’s dry jeans concept
Nudie’s dry jeans concept has existed for a considerable time already: the best thing to cater the character of the garment would be to buy new fairly untreated denims (“dry jeans”) and wear and live in them as long as possible (at least six months) without washing them. In this way consumers are not only encouraged to protect the environment when washing clothes at home, but are familiarized with the real philosophy of denim: it is a living material that with the passage of time ages together with its wearers and what they do.
It is precisely this characteristic of denim which makes it difficult even for Nudie to do without cotton: “Cotton has a deep heritage when it comes to denim. The way you wear your jeans, repair them and use them over a long period of time is very much connected to how the cotton is aging and acting over years. We like the feel cotton denim has and how it grows old with you. I can imagine that a combination of other fibers such as Tencel could make the construction a bit weak, leading you to not wear the garment for as long as you would have liked to. During the years we have tried other options, to mix cotton with hemp, paper, bamboo, etc. The result is nice, and we are happy to try new things, however, since it always need to be a mix, for durability of the fabric, we do not see that we can replace cotton totally in our denim in the near future,” explains Stenberg.
We all know that we have an impact on the producing countries.
Combination of coolness and sustainability
And so Nudie is trying to reduce the negative effects of the total use of GOTS-certified organic cotton on the production of new jeans. This is combined with a high level of transparency concerning countries and places of production, which Nudie makes public, including the sustainability report on its website: “We all know that we have an impact on the producing countries where our garments are made and on the people living there. At Nudie Jeans we want to lower those negative social and environmental impacts as much as we can–or even contribute to positive impacts. We try at least by having transparency down to the cotton farmers, by engaging in responsible sourcing of the cotton through grassroots organizations, by paying for fair trade organic cotton and by paying our share of living wages to our suppliers in India and elsewhere.”
In their capacities as CSR manager and environmental manager in the Gothenburg headquarters, Sandya Lang and Eliina Brinkberg focus exclusively on checking and maintaining Nudie’s rules. These include not only environmental protection, but fair treatment and payment of employees and workers at suppliers based in countries such as India or Tunisia. In cooperation with the Fair Wear Foundation, Nudie is also expected to ensure fair wages are paid and that workers are treated fairly or employed in accordance with prevailing safety standards.
In the meantime, some of these approaches are spreading in the denim world. However, Nudie Jeans is also playing a pioneer role in other areas: where many others are not succeeding, the brand is achieving the combination of coolness and sustainability, or as Levin put it, “rock ‘n’ roll and eco.” On the one hand, there are the Scandinavian outfits with a minimal no-nonsense style, which disregards short-lived trends but have a unique look, and at the same time a company striving to harm the environment as little as possible with what it does.
Levin, Stenberg and Erixon know that this is not the final word on the matter, but they are helping to drive this development forward. However, Levin sees one weakness: “We must finally start talking more about what we are doing here.”
Read and see more interesting stories and insights in our new Sustainable ISSUE here.