“We’d expect an item from Muddy Puddles to last more than 20 years.”
That’s the take-home message from Muddy Puddles’ Suky Arneaud.
Sustainability coupled with durability is built into the seams of the well-loved, eco-friendly British children’s brand.
The Buying Director says she wants to see their garments worn and passed down through generations - and certainly knows that the robust and durable puddlesuits and rain jackets are up to this kind of constant heavy use - because she’s the one behind their creation.
But what does it take to get a new collection of high performance yet sustainable children’s outerwear and swimwear ready?
And is there a trade-off between sustainable design and performance?
Following the launch of their SS22 collection of recycled kid’s jackets, all-in-ones and planet-friendly swimwear, in this Q&A, I asked Suky to take us through every step of the way.
Plus we get a little hint of what to expect from the SS23 collection. I wonder what the little bird to feature on next year’s collection will be…?
Talk us through how a Muddy Puddles collection comes into being…
I plan collections along with the merchandisers: what a collection will look like, how many colours there are going to be. I always have an idea in my head about what a collection is going to look like, how many colours there will be, what kind of theme I want it to follow.
I put that all together on a giant multipage mood board, and speak with our designer to help me with the prints, and I've taught myself to design a little bit so I can play around with the colours and prints, layouts, trims etc.
Then quantities and how that’s going to look with our merchandiser. And then one of the most important parts is liaising with our suppliers - briefing them on all of the options, and then working through what kind of fabrics they’re going to be using, trims we’re going to have, what kind of waddings etc.
Prior to Covid, we used to go to China once a year to see them, which was fantastic.
And it’s great that we’ve been able to see them online and work with them over email but to actually go out there and see the suppliers and see the factories is very important and also work with them on any new developments.
They all have amazing showrooms so you can go over there and see what they’ve been working on. New fabrics, new technology… those sorts of things.
And once we’ve briefed the collection to them, the next job is to negotiate on prices to make sure they’re giving us the best price.
Sometimes we might have decided to put five colours in one jacket, for example, and that turns out to be too expensive so we might reduce back on the number of colours or we might have said we might use the same print on an all-in-one and a jacket, but use different trims, but then we might find that’s a bit expensive and reduce down to do the same across both.
What are you looking for in a supplier?
Firstly we’re looking for them to be certified by Amfori - a regulatory body that goes in and checks the factory. There are about ten different sections that are checked - ethical and environmental standards for example.
They’re given different gradings from A to E, so we want them to have good grading overall, but obviously what’s very important to us is the ethics and environmental standards and making sure those are up to scratch.
We tend to stick with quite a small supplier base. Most clothing brands have a larger number of suppliers so they can cross-cost things - which we do from time to time. But to be honest we are so happy with our main suppliers - they're really well run, very ethical, it’s an all-female business as well and the quality is brilliant.
And when we have cross-costed and seen what we can get from other factories I've never been as impressed by the quality. So I'd rather stick with this really great supplier that we’ve now been working with for about seven years, which is great because we know each other well. They know what I expect, I know how to brief them - we feel very comfortable negotiating with them and know we’re being fair.
Are there any trade-offs when designing a garment between the performance and its sustainability - ie. the garment could perform better but you would have to incorporate fabrics / processes that were less sustainable?
There was at one point but not any more. We started using these recycled fabrics about five years ago and the feeling across the suppliers was that the recycled fabrics were poorer quality, but actually that's not the case any more. Because there is a demand for recycled fabrics, people are offering them across the board.
Also we don’t just believe the suppliers that they are using recycled fabrics and take their word for it: they have to be GRS-certified. The Global Recycling Standard is stringent so they have to pass that standard.
It’s to ensure that the material being used is actually post-consumer waste because there’s always this concern that in a place as big as China, where they’re producing lots of plastic bottles, for example, they could just take those new plastic bottles and make them into fabric and say it’s recycled from plastic bottles.
And if you put new plastic bottles into recycled materials then you don’t have the problem of cleaning and preparing them and the cost implications there. I’m sure that does go on.
Also the factories we use are OEKO-TEX certified, which means everything that’s in the garments has passed the OEKO-TEX standard to say that it’s not harmful to children in any way.
One of the changes we’ve made in the last year or so, is that we’ve changed from using a slightly more chemical waterproof finish to using a bionic eco finish. It’s a finish by the Rudolf Group (a textile innovation company in Germany) and it’s more from natural science and doesn’t have the same chemicals in it - so there are no fluorines in there, for example.
What about future fabrics and developments with more nature-based polymers for making synthetic materials eg. milk proteins, or plant-based proteins. Is this something you are exploring?
Yes and no. Some of the issues with some of these is that they may not stand up to some of the rigorous use we expect of our garments. Particularly an all-in-one which has got to be waterproof and people do really take that to the extreme and go and stand in a river!
So I think suppliers are a little bit wary of using those fabrics with those potential biodegradable elements in them, worried that they wouldn’t perform and worried that they might degrade too quickly.
One of the things we try and say is that if we make sure everything is great quality then we can pass those pieces on down from child to child and that, therefore, is more sustainable than using a fabric that might disintegrate more quickly.
How happy are you with the current collection - what are you really pleased with this year?
I’m really happy with this collection! And the problem with that is I'm currently working on SS23 and every year I try to beat what I did the year before!!
The theme of this year’s collection was joy and happiness. I was hoping by this time Covid would all be done and we’d all be feeling happy. It’s a really nice time to be launching it because it’s so bright and sunny outside.
But this collection worked incredibly well - the colour balance and the print balance as well.
We started with the rainbow because that was one I really wanted to get in as it was quite symbolic during the pandemic.
And then the sun print, I just love the yellow print. The colours in this collection are supposed to be quite 70s inspired.
Because everything is digitally printed now it’s really opened up possibilities compared to when it was screen printing - so it means we can really go for it with the colours and prints.
How long should one expect a Muddy Puddles garment to last? And is there an existing repair / take back scheme?
We’d expect them to last more than 20 years really. The business is about 24 / 25 years old now. And we get emails from people who bought them for their kids and who are now putting their grandchildren in them.
In terms of a repair service, at the moment we haven’t got one - it’s quite a complicated thing. You can’t just have any normal seamstress fix our garments because of the nature of the technical aspect of the products.
Because they’re waterproof you’ve got to be really careful about how you repair.
But there is a fantastic brand called Alpkit who are also a UK brand. They make cycling bags and things and they have a repair service in some of their stores, so we are hoping to start using their service or at least send our customers in their direction.
Eco swimwear is a recent addition to your stable - how did that come about because it’s an entirely different technical fabric…?
Luckily, our main most-trusted supplier does swimwear as well, so we were able to use them to do our swim. And then we just looked at the different qualities and weights of fabrics.
There were some heavier-weight fabrics, but what we found when you have a slightly heavier one that, if the kids go in the water and it’s a bit chillier, once they’re out the heavier ones take longer to dry.
So actually you want something in the middle that will dry quickly but isn't going to fall apart. It’s quite important to have that balance.
You’re already planning SS23… what can we expect there?
There are four key colours, one of which is a lilac-y colour called purple rose and we’ve never done that sort of colour before, which is making me feel quite hesitant.
But it’s the colour of the season - so that’s coming in quite strong and then a green which is a very mid-green, but the exciting thing there is the print is part of a collaboration with the RSPB. So it’ll be a bird print - but I'm not going to tell you what that’s going to be yet…!!
For every item bought we’ll be donating some of the proceeds - I'm quite passionate about them, so it’s very exciting for me.
Head of Wardrobe Final Thought...
It’s great to know brands like Muddy Puddles exist and take great care to ensure your kids are protected from the elements, while simultaneously protecting the planet.
There is progression with technical fabrics like those used by Muddy Puddles all the time, and while recycled polyester and synthetic fabrics are currently a great alternative to the production of virgin polyester, they’re certainly not the final stop.
Expect to see more innovation in this area over the next few years and the adoption of high-performance gear that has even greater sustainability credentials.
But, as ever, the key thing is to buy well and make something last. If you can pass on your all-in-one or rain jacket to at least five or six children, it will reduce its overall environmental impact many times.
AND borrowing an outgrown item from its previous owners costs you less money - and that’s something we can all get on board with!