Photo : Bert van Son


How Bert van Son (MUD Jeans) created Lease A Jeans

By: Jessica Merkens

Bert van Son has been working in fashion for over 30 years. During that time, he saw the industry slowly deteriorate. There must be a different way, he thought. That’s why the entrepreneur launched MUD Jeans in 2012. The only circular jeans brand in the world. With a pioneering concept: leasing your jeans. “Our generation has kind of ruined the earth.”


You can be 100% circular

Fashion industry more polluting than aviation

“It seems like we’re more and more looking for the bottom of the barrel,” Van Son starts off passionately. The cause? Fast fashion. As a young textile importer, Van Son flew across the entire globe. Before, everything revolved around product quality and safe working environments in factories. Nowadays that’s completely different. Factories are relocated to China, Bangladesh, Myanmar. Child labour, workers that are exposed to toxic chemicals and dangerous working circumstances became commonplace. “Big clothing brands are geared towards enormous margins. Buyers are set out with the mission: ‘if you can get it ten cents cheaper somewhere else, do that’.” Van Son sees little movement in that department. Sustainability and fair-trade campaigns from big clothing brands are not transparent and not very clean behind the scenes. For the consumer, this makes it incredibly hard to distinguish real from fake, Van Son tells us. “It is an industry filled with thugs.” And there’s a great deal of overproducing. At this moment, the fashion industry is more polluting than aviation and sea transport combined. Van Son decided to focus on the biggest polluter: jeans. Every year, about two billion jeans are produced. “The entire process, starting with the cotton plant and ending with the jeans in your closet, is wrong.”

The MUD Jeans way

According to Van Son, it starts with taking responsibility for your product, even when it leaves the store in the consumer’s bag: Extended Producer Responsibility. It also means you try to get as much of your materials back and reuse it. How? Through two systems: a deposit and leasing jeans. The jeans that are returned are shredded into fibre and spun into new yarn, in a specialized factory in Spain. The new jeans are made of 40 percent recycled material. “In the end, we would like to make new jeans entirely out of recycled material. It’s slowly starting to work.” “Everything needs to be right in the production chain,” he continues. But how do you do it? How do you guarantee that the production process is being done right, from plant to client? By keeping it transparent, Van Son tells. “We work with two fabric manufacturers and one jeans manufacturer.” Keeping it transparent also means: no big changes in the collection with funky washes or styles that are subject to fashion trends, but relying on a few high quality, basic jeans. “We only work with five different fabrics.” A lease model helps: consumers pay a monthly fee. For this, they get a subscription to a pair of jeans. After a year they can choose: do you keep them or do you want to exchange them for a new pair? In that way, the materials come back to you. A fixed collection and a lease subscription also make sure MUD Jeans is not overproducing.

Tough years

The MUD Jeans concept was hard to explain to retailers and clients in the first few years. “We had some tough years”, Van Son reflects. Production costs are much higher compared to regular jeans brands. Because of that, we have a smaller budget for marketing and promotion. In addition, it was quite hard to keep the lease model in business behind the scenes: the financial management, the software, the accountancy side of things. “Friends were calling me: ‘Hey, Bert. I love your lease model, but when are you going to write off the money from my bank account?’”. Getting financed by the bank was also challenging. “In 2012 there was not one bank that wanted to get in business with us. We had to finance ourselves.” With a subscription model, you don’t quickly sell the products you produce or buy. In the beginning, the costs are rising and you’re not turning a profit. “At the checkmark ‘liquidity forecast’, we were already turned down. If you’re losing money the first few years and there appears to be no future in your product, banks don’t really want to be in business with you.” Nowadays, that has changed quite a bit, Van Son says. Banks are more willing to think about ways of funding, even for subscription models.


Everything needs to be right in the production chain


You look at clothing differently, back to your own power and creativity

Being 100% circular

Consumer awareness has grown the last few years. Why would you even need fifteen pairs of jeans in your closet? Second hand clothing has become more popular. Amazing, Van Son thinks. “You’re looking at clothes differently: back to your own power and creativity, instead of walking down the high street and getting new trends forced upon you. And really, if we stop producing right now, nobody will wander around in their underwear next year”, Van Son emphasises. In the meantime, they have thought of a solution so that retailers can offer the Lease a Jeans concept in their store. Retailers get a commission if customers enter a lease contract for their jeans. This has an additional benefit: shops don’t have to keep enormous stocks. Is it possible to exist entirely on lease models as a company? Van Son thinks that you will always need a hybrid form of both leasing and selling. “But you can be one hundred percent circular.” He hopes the business model of MUD Jeans will be adopted by other companies, in the United States, for example. This way, the production can stay close to home. “We don’t want to point with the green finger. We want to make an honest product. That is our message.”

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