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Nudie Jeans

The Naked Truth Behind Denim: How One Swedish Brand Is Cleaning Up Its Supply Chain

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By Esha Chhabra

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This Swedish brand is challenging the norms of the fashion industry with its free repair, lifetime warranty on organic denim and shirts. Photo courtesy of subject.

This Swedish company is showing that ethical supply chains and commercial viability can go hand in hand even in the fast-paced fashion world. Nudie Jeans, the Gothenburg-based brand, is basically the Patagonia of jeans.

Though the company now sells t-shirts, jackets, and other apparel, they started with jeans. That is organic cotton types of denim, which come in dry, salvaged, and washed varieties in unisex designs. However, the brand has evolved in the last 10 years from just manufacturing jeans to one that rallies for fair labor practices, organic farming, and toxic-free dyes.

While in the last three years a new crop of fashion brands have been talking about restructuring supply chains in textiles, Nudie Jeans began venturing down this path in 2006 — a decade ago, when the company shifted to using only organic materials. At that point, Nudie was only 20 percent organic. The founder Maria Erixon invited their suppliers to a meeting in Gothenburg where they broke the news: they were going in a different direction. Even though they lost some of their suppliers who didn’t want to adopt the organic cotton practices, Nudie continued. Four years ago, the company announced that they had become 100 percent organic.

When asked if fashion brands can be mindful and profitable, CEO Palle Stenberg says confidently, “Yes, of course, everybody can.”

Members of the Nudie team congregate outside their London location, which serves as a repair stop for mending old jeans. Photo Courtesy of Subject.

Today, the company has an annual turnover of 50 million euros. It employs 230 people around the world, 65 of which are based in Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg. Stenberg says they could grow faster, even double their size in a year.  But that would not be a wise long-term strategy.  “We want to build up slowly and sustainably.”

It’s taken the company 15 years to build a strong foundation, he says. That foundation consists of organic raw materials, like-minded production partners, repair shops, and a company culture that is as much about balance as it is about growth and success.

Most notably, that journey has included an evolution in their supply chain. The company sources organic cotton from two countries: Turkey and India.  For their jeans, it’s primarily from Turkey. For the rest of their line, it’s from India and through one of the country’s emerging co-ops, Chetna Organic.

Cotton is grown on less than 3 percent of the Earth’s surface.  But it’s a crop that’s easily infected by bugs and pests. Hence cotton farmers have to use significant amounts of pesticides; by some estimates, the cotton crop is responsible for almost 20 percent of the world’s pesticide consumption. New varieties of cotton claim to be more tolerant to these pests but are genetically modified and seeds cost more (plus they cannot be reused after harvest).

India, which is one of the world’s largest producers of cotton, has seen the effects of cotton production: farmers are prone to illness from pesticide exposure and have incurred debt due to the high cost of seeds.

Cotton farmer who is a member of the Chetna co-op in India. Photo Courtesy of Chetna Organic.

Hyderabad-based Chetna Organic started an alternative model: organic cotton, a seed bank, a co-op that rewards farmers with a stake in the organization. Funds are transferred directly to farmers for their crop, bypassing middlemen. A small administrative team leads workshops to educate farmers on better practices and oversees new initiatives such as a new seed bank to restore India’s collection of cotton seeds. Over 35,000 farmers are now part of their network.

Nudie Jeans is one of the brands that buys from Chetna. In the spirit of transparency, the entire supply chain is available on their website to track. We don’t mind if people want to contact our suppliers and buy from them, says Stenberg.  “For change to happen, more companies have to participate. We are too small.”

More than 20 companies, mostly European and American brands, purchase organic cotton from Chetna. This open-source approach to manufacturing is similar to Patagonia, the California-based outdoor brand known for its environmental activism to create industry-wide change.

Nudie Jeans offers free repairs on all their jeans. Photo Courtesy of Subject.

Not only does Nudie share its resources, but they encourage customers to bring in (or send in) their jeans for repair for free. If a customer lives too far from one of their brick-and-mortar stores, the company will send you a mending kit:, a nimble, a needle, thread, and some denim patches. For those jeans that are out of style or no longer wanted, the company sells them as used, vintage varieties or repurposes them into new material. More 40,000 pairs were repaired by the end of 2015.

Why?  “Cotton is one of the most poisoning plants to grow,” Stenberg says. Known for extracting more out of the soil than replenishing it, cotton production is tough on soil health.  That’s why even for cotton-based brand, the need for giving it new life, or the longest life possible, is not only trendy but a necessity.

This repair, reuse, and reduce philosophy fits into Nudie’s long-term vision: to change the world, Stenberg says. “This is not something we are doing to pursue an exit.”

In 2001, when the company started, the team (of three then) began with 3000 pairs, manufactured thanks to a 50,000 Swedish kronor loan from the bank. The jeans sold out on their first day at a fashion fair, giving birth to a company and a movement, he recalls.

“If we started the same company today, it would have been a different game. It would have needed more capital to build a brand.” 

At the time there were only 5 to 6 major denim brands, Stenberg recalls.  Now the market is saturated.

But what makes Nudie stick out?  Aside from their Scandinavian minimalism and evergreen approach, a no-compromise attitude. Be it for people, planet, or the integrity of the product, says Stenberg. They’re so steadfast to these ideals that their mission is even written on a patch of fabric and sewn into the jeans itself.

**This post first appeared on The Forbes.

Sustainable or Superficial?

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Fashion’s failure to move beyond the most easily achievable — and easily marketable — sustainability issues puts it behind other sectors, argues Lucy Siegle.

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M.I.A stars in "Rewear It," the campaign video for H&M's World Recycle Week 2016 | Source: H&M

BY LUCY SIEGLEAPRIL 20, 2016 19:14

LONDON, United Kingdom — April 24 marks three years since one of the world’s worst industrial disasters, when 1,134 people — predominantly female garment workers — lost their lives in the collapse of the Rana Paza complex in the Savar region of Dhaka, Bangladesh. As we edge toward that grim anniversary, the question I keep being asked is: “What has changed?” I wish I had a better answer than “not much.”

I suspect what most of us mean by that question is “Which brands are now sufficiently clean for me to buy without feeling guilty?” We are, after all, children of the fast fashion revolution, and breaking away from this phenomenon seems impossible.

But while we’re not short on innovations claiming to be part of the solution to what are politely known as “challenges” within the fashion system, what we’re desperately short of is substantive change.

Almost all the emphasis has been put on brands to lead the transition to a clean, safe, equitable industry. But are they up to the job? Most brands have concentrated on the most easily achievable and easily marketable issues: detoxifying the cotton supply, using non-toxic dyes, or recycling unwanted clothes. This sort of stuff was perhaps impressive 10 years ago, but post-Rana Plaza, adds up to little more than giving the rag trade a light dusting. What’s needed is a courageous re-imagining of a flawed business model and supply chain.

This approach also makes for some particularly weird marketing strategies. I haven’t been shy about my distaste forWorld Recycle Week, launched by H&M — a brand that poses as a leader in recycling, while pursuing growth based on ever-increasing consumption of clothes. Meanwhile, Labour Behind the Label and the Campaign for Clean Clothes have highlighted how, three years on from Rana Plaza, many brands have still not completed safety changes in strategic supplier factories. How can we call this progress?

Three years on from Rana Plaza, many brands have still not completed safety changes in strategic supplier factories. How can we call this progress?

In fact, I’m a big cheerleader for sustainability marketing. When supply chain reform is deep and authentic, green marketing can activate systemic change, and communicating these inspiring stories could be the rocket fuel we need to transition to sustainable consumption.

I also believe we’re about to see a revolution across sectors, driven by an emergent aspirational class of consumers who want to be part of something bigger than just the product. They’re looking for brands that can be leaders, and they’ll sniff out the inauthentic in a heartbeat.

Some fashion brands get this, like Honest, which tells consumers exactly how much it costs to sew on each button; Nudie jeans, which pays factory workers a living wage; or Patagonia, whose latest Worn Wear Tour lets customers bring broken apparel, irrespective of brand, to its mending vans, decoupling the apparel industry from disposability in an authentic way. Sadly, we don’t see much of this percolating into the mainstream, where sustainability marketing is still used to distract from reputational problems and where everything must come second to flogging trends at increasing volume and pace.

In my opinion, this is a crisis. Mainstream fashion is dogged by a paucity of ideas and a failure to commit to deep sustainability and activate real change.

We know this type of change is doable, because we see it happening in other sectors. It requires a greater evaluation of the supply chain and a lot of investment, and is a slow process — but it is doable.

Fashion is not taking the opportunity to reform and we are starting to see a noticeable lag as it falls behind other industries, like tea and fish. Both of these sectors have supply chains with endemic problems, which big brands have taken action to sort out. Both are showing more innovation, better sustainability strategies and activating greater systemic change than fashion. That’s tea and fish eclipsing fashion, an industry world-famous for dynamism and creativity. Tea and fish. I think that’s embarrassing.

Lucy Siegle is a journalist and author focusing on environmental issues.

*This story first appeared on The Business of Fashion

Observer Ethical Awards 2015 winners: Nudie Jeans

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The jean company, winner of the Sustainable Style Award sponsored by Eco Age, on the lasting appeal of denim.

 Jean genius: sales and marketing director Andreas Ahrman photographed at the Nudie store in Soho.
Jean genius: sales and marketing director Andreas Ahrman photographed at the Nudie store in Soho. Image: Guardian

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Andreas Åhrman, global sales and marketing director of Nudie Jeans, bought his first denim from the company back in 2003, when he was still a student. “I knew a guy who worked at the store who got me a discount. I got carried away and tried to buy three pairs and some T-shirts, and my credit card got refused. The staff were so nice they let me pay the difference when I had more money. That was pretty impressive.”

In the 12 years since, the Nudie attitude to suppliers and customers hasn’t changed that much. The company is a member of the Fair Wear Foundation, which strives to improve working conditions in the textile industry. It also works with Textile Exchange – an organisation that supports the organic cotton industry. Nudie only partners with a small, carefully picked group of suppliers so it’s possible to ensure that they comply to the Nudie code of conduct.

As a customer, if you buy their jeans, they’ll repair them for you. If you’re bored of their jeans, hand them into a store and you get a 20% discount off your next pair and Nudie recycles the denim.

Sounds simple, right? Well, it’s not easy to stick to your principles: “It was a huge struggle at the beginning. We wanted to be 100% organic, but we weren’t big enough to buy in that sort of bulk. Now we can buy large amounts and that helps our supplier to sell small orders to smaller companies. It would have really helped if something like Nudie had been around when we were starting out.”

Now, though, Åhrman says the company message is simple: “Buy high-quality product. Look after it and repair it. When you’re sick of it, share it though our repair shop or by giving it to a friend. Keep clothes alive so we can reduce consumption.”

**This post first  appeared on The Guardian here.