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 denims, which come in dry, selvaged, 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.”
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.
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.
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 in 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.