Sustainability isn't all about sustainability, as I found out from Nudie Jeans — embedding it into the culture and telling a story is where it’s at.
Walking past 29 D'Arblay St in London, a window is decorated with the words “Repairing is caring.” What might surprise you is that this isn’t on the outside of a seamstress’s workshop, but a jeans retailer.
Yes, Swedish clothing brand Nudie Jeans is encouraging its customers to repair their denim in a bid to make them last, and subsequently, help them hold off buying new ones for a little bit longer.
“Encouraging our customers to break in and take care of their denims have always been part of Nudie Jeans,” says CSR manager Henrik Lindholm. “This is a way to bring out the unique and beautiful character of the denim.”
It seems that bringing jeans ‘to life’ is very much woven (excuse the pun) into the company’s culture. Whether jeans have been on the road, like Swedish rocker Kent Norberg’s pair (“From Svalbard in the north of Norway, down to Italy, by way of Holland, Belgium, Germany and all the other Nordic countries”); or whether you’re like Nudie office worker ‘Melker,’ who even after painting his flat and having a little one around didn’t make him give in to washing his jeans since he bought his pair one year, four months ago. “I just turned them inside out and hung them outside,” he says.
By offering its customers a repairing service, Nudie takes this culture even further, bringing the jeans that have had a life, back to life.
From the company’s home town in Gothenburg to Melbourne and London, worn jeans owners can pop to their nearest Nudie Jeans store and have their denim fixed — free of charge. If you’re not based near one of the stores, the company will send you a repair kit instead for a bit of DIY.
And it seems to be working. The repairing service is very popular with customers, says Lindholm. “We can see that by how well used [it] is.”
While it strikes me as an unusual concept for a company that lives in a consumerist industry, it’s not unheard of. Nudie isn’t the first to embark on the not-so-travelled-by path of marketing on a long life — last year, Patagonia focused on buying well rather than often, and experienced a dramatic uptick in sales as a result.
So how does Nudie Jeans balance the nature of consumerism within fashion and the sustainability or making things last? “I don't know if we do or if we try to do,” Lindholm admits. It was Maria Erixon, founder and creative director of Nudie, who said that the company “was a dream about not having to compromise.”
Inspired by her father, who retreaded old tires instead of selling new ones, the clothing brand emphasizes the value in wearing and repairing — rather than throwing them out and buying new ones.
“It was a dream about bringing a consideration for the environment and human rights into every aspect of the production," Erixon continues.
Because while consumers do make up for a huge part of the lifecycle process, there’s a lot more going on below the surface. Which, as it happens, isn’t so below the surface anymore, as the company strives to be 100 percent transparent. What does that look like? I ask.
“We want the consumer to be able to see exactly where and how their clothes have been made,” Lindholm explains. “The production guide is an attempt to show supply chain all the way down to the cotton field.”
So whether you’re buying khakis or a jean jacket, Nudie’s production guide shows exactly where they’re coming from on a neat map graphic. Using these examples, your khakis are 100 percent from Tunisia, while your jean jacket is mostly likely from Romania (52 percent) but it could also be from Sweden (20 percent), Portugal (14 percent), Italy (12 percent) or Lithuania (2 percent).
The jeans collection itself (which comprises 70 percent of Nudie’s total sales) is also 100 percent organic — a step the company achieved back in 2012. But it wasn’t easy.
“The difficulty was in finding the supplier producing the organic fabric,” Lindholm explains. “During the economic recession several manufacturers stopped developing organic fabrics and Nudie Jeans had to start developing our own organic fabrics together with our suppliers.”
This move was pioneered by the company itself, rather than prompted by consumer demand, and it absorbed the price difference between organic and non-organic sourcing itself.
I wondered whether there are some metrics that have proved this model successful — in popularity of the service, or customers sticking with the brand.
“We have not done any market survey on our customers to check if they are more prone to stick with our brand since we started the repair service,” Lindholm admits. ”But judging by the positive feedback we get, it seems to be the case.”
They must be doing something right — in 2010, the company sold 1m pairs of jeans in 27 geographic markets.
And those in the office have been joining in on the spirit of keeping their denim away from the washing machine (a practice touted with equal conviction by Levi Strauss).
“There are countless stories about the jeans that we wear in the Nudie Jeans office,” the CSR manager says.
Take Fiona Rooke, who’s only washed hers a few times since 2006. “You get them off the shelf looking just like the jean beside them, then you bring them to life.”
Maybe I’ll think again before putting my pair in the laundry pile.
This post first appeared on the 2degrees blog on June 13, 2014.