Green Garments How Clean Is Your T-Shirt?

With models strutting along the Berlin Fashion Week catwalk and fashionistas flocking to the streetwear tradefair Bread & Butter, upcoming trends are the talk of the town in Berlin this week. But far away from the gloss and the glamor, a new platform is pushing for green fashion labels with a clean conscience.
Von Jess Smee

The cavernous hangers of Berlin's Tempelhof Airport, Europe's biggest building, are buzzing once again. This week, loud beats, wailing guitars and the murmur of fashion business banter fill the empty halls which once resounded with propellers and engines. Bread & Butter, a trade fair for urban street wear, is running until Friday, featuring global names like Adidas, Levi's and Bench, as well as many up-and-coming labels from across Europe.

Fotostrecke

Photo Gallery: Organic Trends

Foto: thekey.to

Outside, shiny black shuttle buses whizz visiting fashionistas across town, taking them to Berlin Fashion Week's glossy shows and launch parties. But of the thousands of people checking out the latest trends, only a few pause to consider where and how the clothes were made.

That, though, is something Frans Prins, founder of a green fashion event TheKey.to, wants to change. From a spacious former bakery in a gritty corner of Kreuzberg, he has created a three-day event which seeks to ask the questions which are all too often overlooked during big fashion events.

"For a long time people have known about child labor and sweat shops. Now there is a rising awareness of pesticide use in cotton production," Prins told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "People are increasingly asking where their clothes come from."

Global cotton production is responsible for a significant percentage of pesticides and insecticides used worldwide, he said. "And the chemicals they use in the south were often banned in Europe years ago," he adds. "The effects are that drinking water is contaminated and land is damaged."

Going Mainstream

Now in its second year, TheKey.to, is hosting green fashion networking events, workshops and talks including a speech by Renate Künast, head of the German Green Party. Among the 50 labels showcased at the event, just under half come from outside Germany. Its organizers expect up to 3,000 visitors. Of course it is dwarfed by its glossier counterparts like Fashion Week and Bread & Butter, but Prins argues that the issue of green fashion is growing in influence.

"My prediction is that this will go mainstream. More brands and labels will go green," he said. "At first people said that it would just last one season. But it is here to stay."

And there are signs that organic and fair-trade clothing has crept onto the radar screen of many big firms. H&M, Levi's and C&A are among a list of major retailers whose ranges include organic cotton items.

A gradual switch towards organic cotton is also evident from the fact that it used to make up less than 1 percent of the cotton sold globally, whereas now it makes up around 5 percent, Prins said.

Pitfalls of Success

In Germany the trend echoes the rising fortunes of the organic food, with increasing numbers opting to pay more for their weekly groceries, both out of concern for the environment and the possible health implications of pesticides. Behind the rise in popularity of fairly-made or organic cotton is also a growing awareness of the conditions under which it is produced, including concerns over sweatshops and rock-bottom rates of pay, which keep clothing prices down in mainstream shops.

Market researchers have given the international trend the unwieldy label LOHAS (Lifestyle of health and sustainability). A study by GfK, a market research group based in Nuremberg, shows that one in four people consider it "very important" that a T-shirt or sweater is made in a socially and environmentally responsible way. However, there are no figures available to see if those people are really paying more for fairly produced products.

But organic cotton's success has also brought pitfalls, not least in distinguishing between what is real "green fashion" and what is over-zealous marketing by firms wanting a slice of the LOHAS market. Highlighting the danger, Friday's Financial Times Deutschland contained a report that authorities had found batches of organically labeled cotton which was actually from genetically modified crops, contravening organic standards. The paper reported that H&M and the German retailer Tchibo were among those affected.

At present there are a number of international codes for organic cotton, including Fairtrade Certificed Cotton, and the Global Organic Textile Standard. However, adding to the complications facing the aspiring LOHAS, these mean that the cotton itself is organic and fairly made -- but does not guarantee conditions in the factory where the garment is produced.

Passing Trend?

Those working at the green fashion event in Berlin are intent on taking things one step at a time. "Things are moving forward. This topic will be even more on the stage in 10 years time," said Prins.

And there are new innovative young designers adopting organic and fair-trade principles cropping up every year, he added. Especially in Berlin which has a record of luring artists and designers from elsewhere with its affordable studio space.

Even across town at the Bread & Butter trade fair, there is a growing number of firms flaunting their eco-credentials. Exhibitors include the Spanish shoe company El Naturalista, which creates shoes out of recycled materials. In another section of the show stands a rainbow display of bobble hats and jaunty caps created from Scandinavian sofa remnants by the Finnish company Costo.

But Anders Bengs, one of Costo's founders, thinks the idea of green fashion will remain on the sidelines of the industry for the time being. "For us recycling made sense," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "But looking around here, you do see many major brands which see going green as a new way of selling their wares. Any big change will take time."

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