BERLIN — They hardly had to beg Renate Künast. The chairwoman of Germany’s Alliance 90/Greens parliamentary group and former minister of Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture was thrilled to open last week's Ethical Fashion Show in Berlin. It’s right up her alley.
"This is a countermovement to mass production," she says. Slow Fashion instead of Fast Fashion. "That green purse over there, it’s as if it had been made for me," she adds, heading for the stand of German leather goods company Harold’s. "It shows that ethically good fashion is also chic and cool … that a world with a different kind of consumer approach is possible. I dream of informed consumers," she says.
Mainstream fashion is still Fast Fashion. The public outcry (that always dies down pretty quickly) after every factory disaster in Asia is far greater than actual demand for clothing that respects sound ecological and social conditions. According to German market research agency GfK, Germans spend some 44 billion euros annually on clothes, shoes and home fabrics. In 2012, only 3.7% of those goods had an eco-label, says GfK’s recently released Socialwear study.
That figure has remained steady for the last three years, says GfK expert Petra Dillemuth. And she doesn’t think it’ll change much: "When they’re buying, consumers are more concerned with liking a product and fit than they are with other factors."
"Fashion and sustainability — an oxymoron!" says Magdalena Schaffrin, a designer and co-founder of the upscale sustainable fashion fair Green Showroom. Any kind of balance sheet of ecological and social costs/benefits in fashion is always negative, she says. Even before an item goes onto the market you have all kinds of waste — fabric discards after cutting, for example, or items that don’t meet quality standards. And then — after clothes and accessories have been bought and worn — they mostly create more garbage because that’s usually where they end up instead of being recycled, sold as vintage or upcycled by designers who specialize in working with used textiles.
The Finnish Globe Hope label, for example, creates fashion from discarded military uniforms. Estonian designer Reet Aus is showing her first collection developed with Bangladesh-based Beximco in Berlin. The family company is the largest manufacturer of textiles and clothing in the country, with 40,000 employees in that division alone, says manager Shaikh Khalid Raihan as he presses his business card and a company brochure in Künast’s hands.
Zara to JC Penny
The brochure includes a study showing that the world market for fashion is a $600 billion industry, and that by 2015 it will be more like $800 billion. Within the next few years, Beximco plans to increase clothing production from 60 million to 145 million units. The brochure also contains the names of Beximco clients: s.Oliver, Zara, JC Penny and many more. That's a lot of fashion but also a lot of wasted fabric — 10% to 15% depending on the item. In some cases the figure can be as high as 45%, Raihan says.
"If you were really sustainable you’d do away with consumerism altogether," says Schaffrin. "But that would mean annihilating entire sectors of the economy in Europe and in Asia, and thousands of jobs — and that wouldn’t be in anybody’s interests." She hopes that the industry will take the catastrophes in Asia to heart and undertake major changes.
A new charter for safer factories is a first step, she says, but a lot more brands need to support it or something similar to make meaningful strides. In May, under strong pressure, 30 brands — among them Otto Group, C&A, Primark, KiK, Tchibo, Lidl and Aldi — signed such a charter.
In a study entitled "Fatal Fashion," the independent Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) investigated the fires at Ali Enterprises in Karachi, Pakistan in September 2012 and at Tazreen Fashions Limited in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Hundreds of workers lost their lives in the fires. The authors found that these tragedies were not exceptional events, but rather typical manifestations of a broken system whose impact goes well beyond the local.
Last April, a textile factory in the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh collapsed leaving 3,000 people buried in debris. Over 1,100 people died.
A will and a way
There have been no catastrophes at Beximco, says Raihan. On the contrary, the company is a step ahead and "we won’t have to make any changes in our factories to conform" to new Bangladesh security measures. Renate Künast was planning on flying to Bangladesh to get a sense of the situation and what consequences should be drawn from it.
"I’m afraid that we probably won’t like most of what we see,” she says.
Designer Schaffrin believes that big companies could do business more sustainably if they really wanted to. Medium-sized companies like Harold's are working to change. For one, they’re using leather from cattle in the Andes that is not bred for its skin alone but also for meat, says Lena Nocke, the company’s Berlin representative. If possible, the skins are tanned with plant substances, and they are worked in Columbia. "But a company as old as Harold's can’t turn around completely from one day to the next," she says. And not all companies can change, says Schaffrin. "When the business model is based on getting more and more clothing out there, in less and less time, at ever cheaper prices — as is the case with the low-end brands — there’s no room for sustainability."
Major brands like H&M and Zara deliver new collections to retail outlets every couple of weeks. "I sometimes get the impression there’s not only spring, but early spring, mid-spring, high-spring and late spring," Künast says. "How about just one spring, and wearing a piece of clothing for more than just one of them?" Like her blue-green blazer, which is eight years old.
"You’re not going to find an eco-fair T-shirt for 5 euros," says Schaffrin. And she doesn’t buy the argument that low-income people can’t afford a shirt that costs 50 or 60 euros. "You don’t have to buy a 5-euro tee every couple of weeks. How about one every six weeks for 30 euros that will last longer? Less is more." Money and income are not the reason for the low demand of eco-fashion in total consumption volume, she says. "If all the people who can afford sustainable fashion bought it, demand would be huge."