Issue 4

Where a beautiful lotus flower grows

Mud Jeans

Photos by sigrid reinichs Words by sarah dorkenwald

Bert van Son, founder of MUD Jeans, has a lot on his plate.
After all, he is fighting to implement his vision of a world without waste.

Back in 2012 he founded a textile company on the principles
of the circular economy. The MUD Jeans website posits, “What if we all
clean up our own mess?” This idea gives an insight into the
philosophy that motivates the Dutch company, which hopes to make w
in sustainability and social responsibility.





Lease a Jeans—a simple, yet hugely powerful idea


MUD is different. In essence, MUD wants to get its hands on everybody’s unloved jeans. You know, that old pair shoved at the back of the wardrobe for years on end. Or jeans which would otherwise simply end up in the bin. Because for this start-up, every pair of jeans represents a valuable source of raw material which must be reclaimed and then recycled into a new pair of jeans. In line with this concept, MUD’s slogan reads “Lease a Jeans”. The thinking goes that if cars or washing machines can be leased, for example, why shouldn’t the same also work for the world’s most popular item of clothing? Every month around 3,000 people lease a pair of jeans for a period of one year. After the leasing agreement expires, the lessees either keep hold of their pair of jeans or exchange them for a new pair and continue the leasing arrangement. Alternatively, jeans can be returned in exchange for a voucher. A third of MUD’s business is generated online. Half of MUD customers lease jeans instead of buying them outright—and this trend is on the rise. However, MUD shops and retailers are also happy to receive the precious goods provided that they are 96 percent cotton—and this goes for jeans from other brands too. A discount of 10 percent is then granted on any new purchases.


“… and that’s how everything started five years ago,” Bert explains from his car, somewhere between Belgium and Holland. It was his generation that established the linear economy, he notes. For example, a Philips bulb could last 100 years, but that was never an objective to strive for. Everything was structured to facilitate as many product sales as possible. It was only later on that people realised there was a problem: valuable raw materials were being consumed, and then discarded as waste. “We have to do things better,” Bert stresses, before immediately providing the solution: “The circular economy is an amazing concept. We can continue to produce beautiful things without destroying our planet.” Philips is now also redefining their perception of economic success. Instead of focusing on sales of lighting systems, the company has started to work with architect Thomas Rau on a pilot project, “pay per lux”. This frames lighting no longer as a product, but as a service instead; the architects pay for the light itself, while Philips provides the necessary infrastructure and assumes responsibility for maintenance. As the physical system remains with Philips, it can constantly be further developed and optimised. A true win-win situation for both sides. To promote the concept of the circular economy, MUD works with many partners and is a member of foundations and organisations such as MVO Nederland, a network organisation for corporate social responsibility (CSR), Circle Economy, B Corporation and Social Enterprise NL. These organisations all have one thing in common: they are seeking to work with the environment in a more sustainable manner. The fashion industry is responsible for a significant proportion of environmental pollution; for this reason, major players are holding meetings and exchanging innovations, even among competitors. The aim here is to demonstrate to other entrepreneurs how a fairer, more sustainable world for everyone can be created. The industry is continually on the lookout for technological innovations and attempts to put these into practice. There is always a focus on striving to do things better. In his work with The Fair Wear Foundation, a non-profit organisation (NPO), Bert van Son advises young designers with newly founded fashion labels as well as offering support in terms of implementing socially fair production processes. “Everybody in the fashion industry has realised that something‘s got to change. Even the major brands can no longer afford to make a single mistake.” It sounds like the industry has experienced something of an epiphany. Reason, perhaps, for optimism moving forward.

Bert van Son, originally from the Netherlands, worked in the fashion industry in both Asia and Europe for thirty years before founding MUD Jeans in 2012. The successful businessman quickly realised that there is certainly more to this industry than glamour. It is extremely demanding, especially for the factory workers manufacturing the clothing, but it also makes great demands of nature, and this is where there is a desperate need for change. Together with his team, Bert transformed MUD Jeans into an exemplary company, a poster-child consistently putting the principles of the circular economy into practice. MUD Jeans’ outstanding commitment to this cause has already been recognised in the form of numerous awards including the Sustainability Leadership Award and the Peta Vegan Award.

Fast Fashion


Bert van Son is a battle-hardened business man, one of the industry’s old hands. There’s not a single story he hasn’t heard before. He knows it all, he stresses, right down to the factories in Bangladesh packed to the rafters with child workers. After studying business management, he left to work in the textiles industry in Taipei at the age of just 23. After three years in China, Bert spent three years in Hong Kong before a sojourn in Paris. He founded his first company in northern France and later lived in Belgium. For the past 10 years, Bert has owned a company which is licensed to produce Disney t-shirts and pyjamas. He’s spent 30 years moving from one place to another all over the world, he tells us, and only returned to the Netherlands a couple of years ago—a place where, as he describes, he now occasionally feels like a foreigner. In Bert’s view, the clothing industry has undergone widespread changes in the intervening decades. When he started out, everybody had two or three shirts or pairs of trousers in their wardrobe—and that was it. Bert recalls, “Clothing tended to be functional rather than fashionable. Today, clothes have become something of a status symbol. Production has exploded.”


The fact that clothing is becoming ever cheaper is actually a huge problem which has created false incentives. Consumers buy more than they need. On average, we all throw away 32 kg of textiles each year. Overall, 25 million tonnes of virgin cotton is produced and 3.8 trillion litres of water is used in the production of textile fibres every year. So what can be done? In order to make the circular economy an attractive proposition and map the real costs involved, recycled cotton would have to be cheaper than newly produced cotton, and not the other way around. However, this is not the case—or rather, not yet. Bert explains, “One of the most misleading aspects of the system we have today is that we only take into account employee-related and energy consumption costs as part of manufacturing processes. The costs in terms of environmental pollution or water consumption in extracting or processing raw materials are not factored into the equation.” And, indeed, if only environmental pollution were subject to taxation, a rethink of approach would likely be brought about far more rapidly. But instead, organic cotton remains more expensive to produce than conventional cotton. For the farmers themselves, organic cotton production is an arduous process. Those who want to make the switch to organic production methods are initially forced to wait for two to three years before the ground can be cultivated again. Even then, traces of pesticides often still remain in the soil and the final crop, as these plants present a real challenge in terms of cultivation and pesticides are often used very intensively. Just 1 percent of global cotton manufacturing is currently organic. What would happen if the manufacturers of chemical pesticides and herbicides were forced to contribute financially to treating contaminated soils and waterways? These companies generate 25 percent of their market right here in the cotton production industry. It still seems a fair price to pay.






Mud Jeans Scraps von the Beach

100 percent MUD Jeans


MUD jeans are 40 percent recycled cotton and 60 percent organic cotton. No genetically modified seeds are used to grow organic cotton. Rather than using artificial irrigation techniques, rainwater covers 70 percent—80 percent of the water requirement for cultivation. Recycled cotton reduces water consumption by 40 percent and contains no pesticides or insecticides, all the while cutting down the volume of clothes which simply end up being thrown away. Bert’s dream is to produce jeans from 100 percent recycled fibres. However, for now, the technological basis is not yet advanced enough to make this dream a reality.


In addition to the fact that MUD jeans are recycled, they are also 100 percent biodegradable. What’s more, they can be thrown onto the compost heap to decay as they contain no toxins. I ask Bert what the situation is with jeans that are also recycled by MUD but which were made by other companies, with the inference here being that an “organic” certification surely cannot be guaranteed for these jeans. But of course, Bert has considered absolutely every eventuality. He explains that washing the garments around 20 times removes all chemicals from the fabric—although unfortunately they then end up in the groundwater—meaning that the material can then be recycled guilt-free.


But why is it exactly that jeans made from 100 percent recycled fibres are as yet beyond the reach of production? The answer is that the fibres become shorter every time the material is recycled. New fibres must therefore be blended into the material. The advantage here is that the cycle is endless in contrast to processing a single pair of jeans over and over again, an approach which leads to a very short useful life. However, Bert offers grounds for optimism: “We’re conducting research and hunting for innovative developments.” In principle, there are two main methods: the conventional variant is mechanical recycling, in which the fibres are comminuted and blended with fresh cotton and the resulting pulp used to spin brand-new yarn containing recycled denim. The other method is a recent development; based on a chemical process, it involves extracting cellu­lose using a saline solution. Bert believes that this method may represent the future: a future in which thread could be manufactured from recycled cotton alone. In the near future, jeans may well be made from hemp, linen or bamboo fibres. Each fibre is of interest—provided, of course, that they are natural products and not artificially produced. Nevertheless, Bert does concede that elastane will still be needed to ensure that jeans are comfortable to wear; it is simply impossible to do without. However, MUD has a self-imposed target not to exceed 5 percent of the garment in total. Bert then laments the scandal of how every wash cycle of plastic fabrics rinses out over 20 million plastic nanoparticles ordinarily undetectable to the naked eye, filtering down via sewers not only into rivers and oceans, but also into the fish which we eat, and therefore directly back to us.


Think big!


So who exactly is buying and leasing MUD jeans today? A good question, says Bert, and one which needs to be studied in great detail in order to provide an answer. He describes research conducted at a German university which may have hit upon a theme: vegans are apparently especially interested in MUD jeans—perhaps because of their lack of leather label and their use of organic cotton. A small group, perhaps, but their numbers are growing. Then we have the “liberal intellectuals”. This group lives sustainably, has children, tends to be well-educated, has a penchant for travel and likes to try out new things. They would also be prepared to pay 10 percent more for a pair of environmentally friendly jeans. In total, 12 percent of Germans could be categorised as liberal intellectuals. For this reason, MUD boasts a significant German fan base. “Yeah, but the mass market isn’t ready to pay even a single cent more”, Bert exclaims in a tone approaching anger, justifying why his jeans cost less than EUR 100. “It sounds strange to say that I want to sell more, but I say it in the hope that when I sell a single pair of jeans, our modus operandi could mean that as many as three fewer other pairs are sold elsewhere in the world.” For this reason Bert sells jeans, and jeans only. Because, after all, with three billion pairs of blue jeans produced year in, year out, everyone in the world owns a pair, right? “If you really want to make a change, you have to start by aiming big and then keep up the pace as the idea grows.”


What does it take to turn a good idea into a successful business model? Money. That’s the be-all and end-all. Start-ups can either fall back on financial assistance provided by partners or, as in the case of MUD’s founder, must be able to do without a salary of their own for the first five years. Experience is also key. In the business world, older generations are often willing to pass on their expertise or some words of wisdom to their younger counterparts. Bert then offers a note of caution: it is essential to consider very carefully what you spend your money on. As MUD jeans are produced in Tunisia, each pair costs three times as much as they would if they were produced in Bangladesh. This means that some inventive accounting has to be applied to production calculations and costs must be scaled back at other points of the production chain. Bert is waxing lyrical now, describing how things work at MUD. Nobody drives an expensive car. They use refurbished Apple computers. They make office furniture from recycled materials. Nobody earns a huge salary. There are no teams of designers jet-setting around the world on the hunt for new trends. All of this makes perfect sense at a company which has totally and convincingly devoted itself to the circular economy concept.


To conclude, a final question: how did Bert come up with the name “MUD”? The word, says Bert, has connotations of dirt, soil. However, mud masks can be applied to our faces as beauty treatments. People around the world have made their homes in mud huts. Mud is a wonderful, ever-changing raw material, straight from the heart of nature. The enthusiasm spreads over Bert’s face as he exclaims, “It means also, out of the mud, so that a beautiful lotus flower can grow!”

Mud Jeans