Nudie Jeans Case Study: How Can the Denim Industry Become More Sustainable?

Introduction

When my love of shopping first developed as a young kid, I have to admit that the sustainability of a clothing brand did not rank very highly on my priority list. But, in recent years, I have become more and more aware of the effects that textile production has on the environment.

The fashion industry is one of the largest sources of pollution in the world, second to only the oil industry. According to Sustainyourstyle.org, the fashion industry impacts water pollution, water consumption, microfibers in our oceans, wastes accumulation, chemicals addiction, greenhouse gas emissions, soils degradation and desertification, and rainforest destruction.

Among the most detrimental items to produce are jeans. According to Goodonyou.eco, over 2 billion pairs of jeans are produced annually worldwide. The main material used to make a pair of jeans is cotton—a material that requires an abundance of water to produce. A single pair of Levi jeans requires approximately 3781 liters of water to manufacture. Aside from staggering amounts of water needed to make denim, cotton also “accounts for 26% of all the insecticides and 6.8% of all herbicides used worldwide”. Not only is the use of pesticides harmful for the wildlife surrounding farms, but with cotton farming only taking up 2.5% of agricultural land, the dense use of these chemicals creates a toxic environment for workers.

Not only does the production of jeans require a surplus of water and toxic pesticides, but the dyes used in the manufacturing process can be carcinogenic. Many popular retailers also use a technique called sandblasting in order to create a distressed look on their jeans. This is exactly what is sounds like; jeans are blasted with high volumes of sand to give the appearance that they have been exposed to the elements for a long period of time before entering a store.

So, if brands are aware of the environmental impact just one pair of jeans has when produced with traditional means, why is it that seemingly few companies are taking steps to change this? There are, of course, fashion brands that claim they are environmentally conscious in their production systems. However, not all brands carry out plans to uphold this effort, or if they do, many times they are unsuccessful.

The impact of the fashion industry on the environment is daunting and cannot be reversed by the actions of one person or one company. There lies the question, how can the fashion industry, denim production specifically, become more sustainable?

While it seems like an impossible fix now, the founders of Nudie Jeans are taking initiative to inspire the rest of the world to make manufacturing denim more ethical—they are doing so by changing preconceived notions of owning jeans, and by prioritizing sourcing organic cotton.

Here’s a breakdown of the topics we will be discussing in this article:

  1. Nudie Jeans’ Origin
  2. Nudie Jeans’ Sustainability Efforts
  3. Nudie Jeans’ Effects on Consumer Behavior
  4. Conclusions

1. Nudie Jeans’ Origin

As stated on the Nudie Jeans website, the company began “based on an idea” that owning a pair of jeans should be a more sustainable process. Most consumers had not yet embraced the concept of owning “raw” denim, or untreated denim before the company was founded. Organic cotton had been used in moderation, but the founders of Nudie Jeans were determined to create a line of jeans created from 100% organic cotton. So, in 2001, Maria Erixon Levin started Nudie Jeans in Gothenburg, Sweden.

The brand is focused on the Swedish word, “lagom”, meaning “just the right amount”.  The “lagom” the brand is trying to achieve is a balance between ethical production means and a love of jeans, a mix of both purpose and passion. The company website states that the brand consciously made the choice to produce a previously unethical fabric in an ethical way, which the founder sees as “an opportunity every company is given, but too few take”.

This concept of a brand being originated in order to fight for a cause is a relatively new concept, one the business world has been labeling an “impact first” business model. Many companies will traditionally design a line and focus on building the brand first and put let activism come later down the line. What impact first brands do, however, is build the entire brand around an effort before anything else. This might mean having a longer lead time to get products to consumers or having a more costly production process.

But, in the long run, brands will build a better competitive advantage over those brands that just have some corporate social responsibility policies thrown onto their website. By fighting for a cause at the center of the company’s operations, a business will build a brand loyalty with their customers that is impossible for any competitor to replicate.

Nudie Jeans is a quintessential impact first brand. Since its founding, the company has held its promise of only producing 100% organic cotton jeans and has grown its consumer base year since.

2. Nudie Jeans’ Sustainability Efforts

Creating a sustainable brand does not happen overnight. Nudie Jeans takes sustainability into account in every aspect of production, from sourcing to ensuring high quality working conditions. There are three main aspects that Nudie Jeans measures when thinking about sustainability: materials, production, and products.

Sustainable Materials: Nudie Jeans ensures that the majority of its materials are sustainable at the source by producing most of its merchandise with organic, fairtrade or recycled cotton. A grand total of 93.8% of all fibers used in their garments are made from this sort of ethically sourced cotton. However, Nudie Jeans does not want to stop there. The supply chain teams are constantly exploring new fibers that can fit into their sustainability standards of over 97% of products being considered sustainable. To ensure that all fibers fit with the company’s goal of eventually producing 100% sustainable products, they have created the Nudie Jeans Material Tool “to guide [its] designers and product developers” while achieving this goal. The tool classifies sustainable fibers as Class 1, Class 2, or Class 3, and supplements these classifications with guides on non-sustainable fibers as well as a category called “Do not use”, which includes materials like feathers, fur, and conventional silk. Nudie Jeans also emphasizes the idea of reusing fibers from their own previously owned jeans in the manufacturing of new products.

Sustainable Production
: While Nudie Jeans is not a completely vertically integrated company and does not own the manufacturing plants where its garments are produced, it is dedicated to creating a sustainable production process. The brand only works with manufacturers that also prioritize “providing a safe, fair and ethical working environment for everyone involved”. It does so through its membership of the Fair Wear Foundation to ensure that no workers involved in the production of its clothing are never denied basic human rights. Another way that Nudie Jeans maintains sustainability in its production process is by working to provide all workers in the production process with living wages. Currently, Nudie Jeans produces 60% of its garments in Europe, where the minimum wage is already livable. However, not all of the countries that are involved in production have the same reality. Nudie Jeans is working with the FWF to ensure that the raised wages that the company is actively trying to provide for workers are actually getting to them and satisfying their needs. Nudie Jeans recognizes that money is not a solver of all problems. So, it is committed to using less toxins in the production process to create a safer working environment. Not only are less chemicals used, but less water is used in the manufacturing process. Many of the countries involved in cotton production have very hot climates and have minimal clean water sources to begin with. Add in water-intensive material production, and you leave these countries with limited water. Nudie Jeans’ dry denim process has the potential to cut down water consumption with 91%, according to the company’s website.

Sustainable Products: Nudie Jeans are designed to last a lifetime, unlike jeans from most companies (especially fast fashion ones).  The company encourages shoppers to not wash their pair of Nudie Jeans for at least six months. This is because indigo is not meant to stain cotton forever, so, when worn consistently without washing, the pair of jeans will fade in a way that is unique to the wearer’s body. Not only does each pair of jeans promise a unique look, but they also promise free repairs forever. Unwanted Nudie Jeans or ones that are damaged beyond repair can be sent back to the company. In 2019 alone, Nudie Jeans repaired 63,281 pairs (which stacked on top of each other would be taller than the world’s tallest building, by a lot) and collected 11,573 pairs of jeans that were resold or used for patching material. Those recovered jeans saved 443,000,000 liters of water that would have been used in producing the same amount of new jeans.

3. Nudie Jeans’ Effects on Consumer Behaviour

Nudie Jeans is in the business of not only producing jeans, but forever changing the way that wearing jeans is perceived. Most shoppers, myself included, see a pair of jeans in an ad or on social media and if they like them, they’ll look to find that exact pair. However, Nudie Jeans markets the idea that each pair of jeans produced is unique to you. The jeans are customizable in the sense that you can choose when to wash your jeans for the first time, and this will determine how they will wear in the future. The marketing team at Nudie Jeans encourages you to challenge yourself to see how long you can go without washing your jeans by suggesting that the buyer not wash them for the first six months of ownership. Nudie Jeans wants their merchandise to surpass fleeting trends though its repair policy as well. Each pair comes with a lifetime guarantee of free repairs.

The brand’s mission is not to change consumer behavior in a way that only benefits the company, but also benefits the environment in both the short and long run. The idea of jeans creating a signature look for the consumer based on their lifestyle and the durability of the jeans, gives the consumer a sense of personal style, while also helping to lower the environmental impact that a pair of jeans has in its lifetime.

4. Conclusions

Nudie Jeans has been revolutionizing what it means to be a sustainable business since its opening in 2001. While manufacturing denim has been historically one of the most environmentally detrimental production processes, Nudie Jeans is challenging other brands to follow their lead in terms of ethical jean production. All products made with cotton use ethically sourced, organic cotton, which was the goal of founder, Maria Erixon Levin, when the business began operating about 20 years ago.

Approximately 97% of all products that Nudie Jeans manufactures are sustainable, meaning that at least 70% of the fibers used are sustainably sourced. The founder of the company does not want to stop there, however. The next long-term goal the company is to reach 100% sustainability in its raw materials. The brand plans to achieve this by using its Nudie Jeans Material Tool to ensure the materials used are ethically sourced. The brand also places importance on providing good working conditions and livable wages for those working in every step of the supply chain.

Nudie Jeans is also revolutionizing the idea of wearing jeans. The brand focuses on how each buyer can personalize the jeans’ wash by waiting about 6 months before washing and drying them. The “dry denim” will have never been treated before, so if an owner waits to expose their pair to water, it will experience different patterns of wear for each person.

By putting sustainability efforts at the core of its business, Nudie Jeans is a prime example of an impact first business model. The brand is actively building customer loyalty by putting environmental safety and ethical practices at the core if its operations.

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Nudie Jeans Case Study: How Can the Denim Industry Become More Sustainable? Nudie Jeans is going above and beyond to change the way customer use and wash their garments, take a look at our case study.
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