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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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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