Jeans—a history of—opens in San Fransisco, March 1853. German-Jewish immigrant, Levi Strauss, steps out of a steamship around the time of the California Gold Rush. Levi, along with tailor Jacob Davis, goes on to create a material robust enough to fit the rough lifestyle of the American West. Since then, the thread of the garment’s narrative has involved everyone from: gold diggers and cowboys, James Dean and the rebel youths of the 50s to mass consumer fashion.
Over the years, however, its tale has been interwoven with news of disaster and exploitation, namely the poor treatment of labourers in garment factories. But the story of jeans is still being constructed; now the narrative has crossed over the pond to Europe, where Sweden-based brand, Nudie Jeans is working hard to put some love back into the iconic garment.
Launched in Gothenburg in 2001, Nudie Jeans is regularly called the world’s most sustainable jeans brand, offering organic and ethical clothing. We spoke with Eliina Brinkberg, Corporate Social Responsibility Manager at Nudie Jeans.
Tell us about Nudie jeans: how did it begin?
Our founder and creative director, Maria Erixon, wanted to create a product without compromise. A product that respects the environment and human rights at every stage of production.
The idea to take full responsibly for what we do was really our foundation. Sustainability — in terms of vision and everyday practical work — has always gone hand in hand with the business.
Nudie Jeans was started in 2001; how established was the sustainable fashion trend back then? And how would you say it’s changed over the past fifteen years?
For many years sustainability and fashion opposed one another. Clothes made sustainably were often boring and far from fashionable! Luckily this has changed with a growing awareness and adjusted demand among consumers and brands alike.
Today more people regard sustainable brands as a mark of quality and are eager to distance themselves from the stigma of fast fashion.
What challenges have your encountered so far?
Switching to 100% organic cotton for all our denim fabrics took us longer than expected. This was mostly due to the lack in demand for the kind of quality we wanted our organic cotton to have, but this led us to develop our own fabrics.
Another issue was transparency; our suppliers weren’t ready to accept that we wanted to publish audit reports and lists of their sub-suppliers on our website. It was a real challenge reaching the level of transparency we are able to demonstrate today.
What have been the most positive fallouts from establishing a sustainable business model?
It’s a great feeling knowing that we can be a successful clothing brand responsibly and that we have made this possible in an industry where this was far from the norm. Also, realising how we’ve encouraged sustainable behaviour and helped to adjust consumption patterns in a positive way, by making it accessible for our customers to be sustainable themselves and make informed choices.
We’re also proud that by advising customers how to take care of their jeans, offering free repairs and sending out repair kits to those who aren’t close to one of our repair stores, has rekindled the mentality of not throwing clothes away immediately.
This has simultaneously nurtured customer brand loyalty and created a sense of everyone working together to create positive change for our environment and humanity.
How does having a sustainable and ethical business model influence the internal working environment and employee satisfaction?
We have a very low turnover when it comes to our staff. I believe that having the knowledge that you are doing something positive with your work and that you believe in what you’re doing every day is motivational and fulfilling.
It’s also wonderful to see how our store staff engage with the product by doing repairs and understanding the fabrics. They develop a special kind of love and appreciation for the craftsmanship that goes into every pair of jeans as every piece becomes unique over time.
To quote your brand: “Nudie jeans inspiration is found far from the world of glamour and catwalks”. Where do you find your inspiration?
We look to find inspiration all around us. In Gothenburg there’s the harbour and the old working culture. We also find inspiration in quality vintage garments that age beautifully and continue to capture people’s love over time—the kind that stay in our wardrobes and are passed down to our children.
What would you say has been Nudie Jeans’ biggest achievement to date?
The move to 100% organic cotton; conventionally grown cotton is much more harmful to the environment and the people working in the fields.
Our transparency as well of course, the fact that we have demonstrated that it is possible to be open and honest about suppliers and production. And overall building a business that is successful in terms of both sales and sustainability.
How do you ensure that the materials you source are fair-trade, ethical, and organic? And are their plans to further develop and strengthen your sustainable sourcing in future?
We always ask for certifications when it comes to organic cotton and Fairtrade. We don’t conduct our own checks but instead we put trust in the organisations, Fairtrade and Global Organic Cotton Standard.
We’ve come so far today because fair and responsible practice has always been one of our main goals. It takes time and effort to find sustainable materials, to build trust and foster successful collaboration to ensure a strong supply chain. Our CSR work hasn’t been influenced by sustainability being ‘trendy’ suddenly, instead it is at the core of our business and that’s what allows us to do it well.
We are constantly searching for sustainable choices when it comes to materials, but sometimes we are limited when it comes to choice and price. If more brands demanded organic quality options for sourcing then it would grow; so it’s something to keep working on!
If there is one thing you could universally change in the fashion industry, what would it be?
For more brands to know their supply chain and to build a relationship with their suppliers—I think that would make a big difference.
The more brands that work sustainably and raise vital questions with suppliers, the more opportunities there are to improve things, to collaborate and learn from each other. Together we can always do more!
Have a favourite sustainable Scandinavian fashion brand? Tell us about it!
This article was first published Oct 18, 2016.