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Want To Wear Sustainability On Your Sleeve? Rent A Sweater

In the Netherlands, a growing movement to lease clothing rather than piling up ever more cheaply-made, environmentally damaging jeans, shirts and sweaters.

Mud Jeans founder Bert van Son
Mud Jeans founder Bert van Son
Sonja Salzburger

A T-shirt for 4.99 euros, jeans for 9.99. With bargain-basement prices like that, many discount retailers keep their customers buying and buying. On average, every German and Dutchman owns seven pairs of jeans, and Germans buy between 12 and 15 kilos of clothing per year. It would seem that shopping bags full-to-bursting with clothes are balm for the soul.

But Bert van Son wants to change all that. This Dutchman believes you don’t need a lot of clothes to be well turned out, and why buy the stuff anyway when you could rent it?

His latest business venture, “Lease a Fleece,” gives consumers the option to rent sweaters and sweatshirts instead of buying them. He sought financing through crowdfunding and wound up with 52,000 euros, above and beyond his stated goal of 45,000 euros. By the end of February, sweaters will be available for rent via his website and at select Dutch fashion boutiques.

Lease a Fleece works like this: The customer pays a 20-euro deposit for a sweater and contractually commits to paying a leasing fee of 5 euros per month. The sweater remains the property of the founder’s company, Mud Jeans, which guarantees repairs if the item of clothing gets damaged.

After a year, the customer can return the sweater or deposit another 20 euro and wear the sweater for as long as he or she wants. Should the customer tire of it, instead of throwing it away or putting it in a used-clothes collection bin, he or she sends it back to Mud Jeans, which issues a 20-euro credit that the customer can invest in renting another item. Van Son, who is promoting the concept on the basis of sustainability, promises not to throw out returned clothes. Instead, he’ll sell them as used clothing or process them so that the fibers can be re-used.

The idea of renting clothes is not entirely new, of course. There is a well-established rental market for work and sports clothing, and expensive suits and evening wear are available too. The underlying idea behind evening clothes rentals is that it’s not worth shelling out a lot of money for a formal outfit that may only be worn once. What’s new is applying the same concept to every-day wear.

It worked with jeans

The sweater is Mud Jeans’ second big project. Last year, the label launched a similar program for renting jeans. So far, the company has leased 1,500 pairs of jeans and sold 1,000 pairs. It doesn’t look as if he’s is going to get rich on this, van Son says, but what he’s doing is giving himself and his customers a clear conscience. The company motto is “For people who care.”

And van Son is getting a lot of recognition for his commitment. In 2012, his company was singled out by the Circle Economy Foundation, a Dutch entity, as a model of circle economy. This restorative economic concept is based on the idea that all raw materials used to make things should flow back 100% into the production process.

Mud Jeans collections are largely made of recyclable materials such as organic cotton, and are also manufactured under good working conditions.

Despite fair trade seals, guaranteeing humane conditions through the entire production chain is difficult, says Professor Martin Müller, who occupies the Foundation Chair for Sustainability at Ulm University. That is mainly because of globalization. Many different companies are involved in clothing production, including a host of subcontractors that come and go. So there is a lack of transparency in the production chain.

Van Son is familiar with the difficulties in the textile industry. His leased clothing is made exclusively in Italy, he says. Ideally, he would manufacture everything in Europe, but some of the T-shirts and sweatshirts that Mud Jeans offers are made in India because otherwise the profit margin is just too low.

There is still a way to go before responsible consumption becomes the norm. A Ipsos poll conducted last year showed that 44% of Germans want cheap prices and a big selection. They were not so interested in the working conditions of the people making the clothes. Notably, the poll took place between May 7 and May 21, 2013, some three weeks after the worst factory accident in the history of Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 people.

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