Shopping for sustainable jeans: Long-lasting or leased?

11 April 2016

Mud and Hiut Jeans

One of the challenges of sustainable fashion is that things come in and out of favour so quickly. People tend to buy clothes, wear them a few times, and then move onto something else.

But jeans are different. Jeans are the workhorse of the wardrobe. Designed and expected to be worn often.

This is on my mind because I need a new pair of jeans. My old ones now have rips in the fabric that, fashionable though they might be for the youngsters, isn’t quite me.

So I’m pondering two different options. Obviously, I want a great pair of jeans since I’m going to be wearing them so much. The quality has to be good. But what’s the best choice from the sustainability point of view?

"Great design is more important for the environment than lots of people give credit for"

On the one hand, I’m attracted to the jeans made by Hiut Denim. They’re a small producer in Wales that only makes jeans. They aim to make high quality jeans that are durable. And they do one with organic cotton, to boot. Well made. Long-lasting. Just the job.

But then there is another, altogether more radical option. Mud Jeans have tried to reimagine the business model for a clothing manufacturer, and introduced a leasing system. You don’t buy your jeans, you lease them. When you’ve worn them out, or after a year and you decide to try out a new pair, you send them back and they recycle the materials.

Hmm. Buy or lease? Is that new model viable? Is it attractive?

The best of the standard approach

I prefer to wear slim fit clothes where I can, so with Hiut I’d probably be going for The Hack@ - Organic. I say probably, because they have four different fits. Standard. Slim fit (which is not too slim). SlimR fit (more) and SkinR (most). Which of them is slim enough? Hmm. That’s the kind of range that means you need to find a shop so you can try them on. There’s one in Norwich, and several in London. Should be possible.

Hiut jeans
Hiut goes for the rugged 'man-who-works-with-his-hands' look. (photo: Hiut Denim)

The description is an impressive checklist of details as to why these are going to go the distance. Pocket lining made from super tough ecru twill. Good, because pockets are often the first thing to wear out. Back pocket internally lined with twill for extra strength. Pocket edge seams bound for a stronger finish. Key stress points bar-tacked for extra strength. Sounds like they’ll do the job.

On their website, Hiut have reproduced the statement they gave to shareholders to explain their approach. It has a great, short section on ‘we all work for the silent shareholder’.

“We live on a planet with limited resources, but an almost unlimited appetite for consuming more and more things. Our best answer as a company should be to make things that last.” 

And my favourite part: “Things are thrown away not because they have stopped working but because we have stopped loving them. Great design is more important for the environment than lots of people give credit for.” 

Yes. That, right there. The reason to make great things.

Hiut have a couple of quirky extras which have gained some publicity for them. One is they’ve instigated a programme, for those who want ‘distressed’ jeans, of selling jeans that have been pre-worn for a period of six months. So no environmentally-dubious artificial distressing going on. Genuine wear and tear. It’s an interesting idea. I wonder if people will go for it. I’m not one for the look, so it’s not an option for me. 

The other is that each pair of jeans they make carries a unique number. Register it, and you can see photos of your specific pair of jeans during manufacture. You can add your photos over time. A history of the garment from beginning through its period of use. You can’t get much closer to the source of how your jeans were made than that. I might actually do that, if I end up going for the Hiut jeans. It appeals to the story-teller inside me.

But there’s another option.

The shock of the new – is this the future for clothes?

Mud Jeans are not a company that simply makes great products that make the most of the environmental benefits of well-made clothes. Instead, they have completely designed the company around sustainable principles. “We dream of a world without waste” is their lead on the website.

Mud jeans
Mud also sees beards essential to sell jeans - well, at least I qualify on that score ... (Photo: Mud Jeans)

The concept for the company started, they say, decades ago when Bert van Son moved to China to get a job in the textile industry. There he saw for himself the impact of fast fashion, particularly the impact on the safety and health of the workers and that led to the desire to do things differently.

Now they have produced the business around ‘circular economy’ principles, which is a fancy way of saying designed around the attempt to waste nothing.

The jeans are designed to be reused easily. So, for instance, they don’t use leather labels, but printed ones instead. Then you lease the jeans, use them to destruction, whatever. Then you can return them at the end of the year and optionally switch for a new pair, or keep them. Returned jeans are ‘upcycled’ and sold as unique vintage pairs, named after the former user.

Think about that. A pair of jeans named after me. Hmm. Not quite sure those ones will fly off the shelf.

Obviously, some jeans will be worn out beyond upcycling. Those ones are shredded and blended in with virgin cotton to make new denim.

Why’s this a good idea? Well, the best-made jeans in the world are no more environmental if you buy them and then leave them unworn in the wardrobe. This way, there’s a business arrangement that means you will keep them for as long as you wear them. But it’s more likely you will return them when that’s no longer the case.

My pick would probably be the Slim Lassen men’s jeans. “These jeans are perfect for fashionable men” it says. That’s me. Obviously.

The cotton is a mix of organic and recycled, and the company goes to some lengths to ensure the different stages of manufacture are done in the most environmentally friendly way possible. 

The jeans look well-made. They’re obviously not as robust as the Hiut jeans, but then that’s the trade-off. Hiut jeans are built to last. Mud jeans are built to be easily upcycled. Two different approaches. But which is the more sustainable? 

How do the different models price out?

If I buy a pair of Hiuts, they will cost me £130. Not bad for high-end jeans. Obviously a lot more than the £20 wear-and-fall-apart jeans in some of the high street stores. (And that’s an important point, of course. We need the mainstream companies to build better sustainability into that end of the market as well. But that’s a conversation for another day).

The Mud proposition is different, obviously. I would pay a €25 sign-up fee, and then pay €7,50 per month for 12 months. That converts, on the current exchange rate, to £92 for the year. Cheaper in one year than Hiut, but then of course you have to keep paying €7.50 per month to keep wearing them.

Weighing it up

So the decision is still to be made. Part of me feels like I should have a go at the Mud model of leasing jeans given how radical an experiment it appears. But the other part of me is totally in love with the simple concept of ownership of something really really well made, locally and with love.

Given the choice (and only this choice) what would you choose?


Note: No sponsorship of any sort is involved in this article.