On the occasion of our latest SUSTAINABLE ISSUE, we talked to several insiders and experts that are dealing with sustainability in fashion. One of them is Greenpeace textiles expert and co-founder of the Detox My Fashion campaign Dr. Kirsten Brodde who is passionately involved and comitted 24/7. Her objective is to remove all hazardous chemicals from fashion production. But this is not nearly enough, says the Hamburg native. Read here why.
Germany’s specialist journal TextilWirtschaft recently ran a lead story and quoted the Primark CEO as saying: “Primark is only at the beginning.” What does this sentence trigger in you?
An uneasy feeling. Primark is not a formula for success. Primark stands for cheap packaging instead of being well dressed. The dynamic of using clothing for only a short period and then throwing it away was certainly set off by chains such as H&M or Zara, but Primark has perfected wear-and-discard fashion. The logical consequence of this throwaway fashion is that half of all Germans surveyed by Greenpeace said they had never taken their clothing to a tailor or seamstress to be fixed.
Does that frustrate you?
There is a counter-movement opposing mass consumption à la Primark that is asserting itself–a young generation that no longer owns that much and doesn’t want to leave a never-ending trail of garbage behind itself. Whose life outlook is captured by songs such as “Lass liegen” (Don’t Pick It Up) by the German rapper Alligatoah. This makes me hopeful that the discounter mentality has passed its prime.
But companies that have shown their commitment to sustainability are based on growth and want to sell. Do fashion and sustainability go together at all?
Yes, clearly, many small fashion companies and young design talents have sustainability within their DNA and are following this philosophy in their daily work. At some point there will no longer be any fashion schools which don’t specifically emphasize this on their curriculum. Only the global fashion industry is fighting desperately to stay on a growth path and is outdoing itself with wild forecasts: Annually more than a hundred billion pieces of apparel are produced and the apparel industry expects to increase its output by another 62% by 2030. And 70% of this avalanche of textiles will consist of synthetic fibers. Consumption is the biggest taboo that we have to talk about. Because the solution cannot be to dump this volume of eco and fair textiles into the market.
Since Greenpeace initiated the Detox Campaign in 2011, there has been progress. What else still definitely has to change?
The Detox campaign set off a paradigm shift away from considering finished clothing to looking at production and revealed the issue of massive amounts of hazardous chemicals being used in the textile industry. What was unknown territory for companies in 2011 is now the norm. Although no single company has achieved all its 2020 goals yet, certain milestones–such as the replacement of hazardous perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs)–have nevertheless been achieved even more quickly than originally anticipated. Even the ZDHC (Zero Discharges of Hazardous Chemicals) industry group, which was founded in response to the Detox campaign and was severely criticized by us because it was not ambitious enough, is gradually making progress step-by-step and has the resources to do the job. However, even the cleanest production still leaves an environmental footprint.
That is precisely what the sustainability economist Niko Paech is saying: It is like serving old wine in new bottles to say green products and technologies are needed so that everything will get better. Is he right?
As somebody who is passionately fighting for manufacturing processes to change, I of course know that ecological production may defuse the problem, but does not solve it. As long as such quantities of clothing continue to be produced and sold it is an illusion to believe that we can really reduce the burden on people and the environment. It is not just a matter of what we consume, but also of how much. He is right to that extent.
Has there been anything in the Detox campaign until now that you look back on with satisfaction?
Luxury brands such as Gucci have staunchly refused to do without dangerous chemicals. Consequently, it was a real breakthrough when a large group of their suppliers in the Italian textile district of Prato united to join the Detox campaign. That was the first textile region that switched over completely. And right up until today new suppliers are joining in. My Italian has constantly improved in the course of negotiations with all these family businesses….
And what came as a shock to you?
The fiber apocalypse in the oceans! We completely failed to recognize synthetic fibers as an environmental problem. Nowadays, about 60% of all garments contain polyester. This cheap synthetic fiber is the major driver of the fast fashion industry–and has proved to be a disaster for the oceans. We are all familiar with the disgusting pictures of seabirds which have died as a result of ingesting plastic waste. The tragic record holder so far is a fulmar. Researchers pulled out 84 pieces of synthetic materials from its corpse. Hardly any of the seabirds investigated did not have a lid, a cigarette lighter or a toothbrush in its body.. Similar tragedies are taking place in the microscopic world of plankton: fish larvae, arrow worms and various crustaceans swallow massive quantities of plastic.. And hardly anyone knows that a good proportion of these microplastics come out of our wardrobes: Fast and cheap fashion, sports articles and the activewear outdoor segment are making a massive contribution to the flood of plastics.
Aren’t corrections to existing processes sufficient? Do we need radical change?
The new sweeping promise of the overheated fashion industry now is that everything is being carried out in a cycle. Currently, less than 1% of old clothes which are collected are actually converted into something new and of equal value, despite the fact that every day new technological breakthroughs are announced. In parallel to this, the worldwide secondhand clothing market is facing collapse, according to the news service Bloomberg. There’s a glut of secon-hand stuff nobody wants any longer. China has recently banned the import of foreign waste including textiles.
Why are we buying like crazy, then?
Fashion has become a consumer product with a limited lifespan. This is as true for cheap fashion as for haute couture. But cheap prices allow large amounts to be purchased. Now that we communicate much more through pictures, for example via Instagram, changing your look has become even more important. The modern quest for something good takes place on the Internet – everything is only a click away. This is a relatively new development which is spreading around the globe like a virus and for which we have not yet developed any defenses. And so an avalanche of consumption has been set in motion which is threatening to choke our planet. It has ramped up our energy consumption and is heating up our planet. It is, of course, destroying the natural landscape, poisoning the oceans and is wiping out plant and animal species. And not just nature is paying a high price, but countless human beings, too, in developing and emerging nations–whether it is a miserably paid seamstress in Bangladesh or the population in war-plagued Congo, where the coltan ore is mined that is needed for electronic components–quick purchases and brief use in the form of “fast fashion” has not only gotten hold of fashion but many other sectors such as electronics, interior decoration, toys and household goods as well. Given the tremendous ecological and social costs, it seems even more perverse that it has been shown that consumption does lead to enduring satisfaction, but pushes people into addiction-like dependency.
And how are we going to get out of this situation?
We have learned to control excessive alcohol consumption. We need to start by learning a different way of dealing with fashion–that takes practice and a vanguard setting a positive example. After all, there are more and more people for whom it is perfectly normal to eat tofu instead of meat or ride a bicycle instead driving a limousine and are not regarded as strange but as role models.
And you, yourself? Do you still buy anything?
I like simplicity. Too much choice in my wardrobe puts me under stress. Walk-in wardrobes should be reserved for the wives of dictators who have 500 pairs of shoes. As a Greenpeace activist, I do not have to obey any strict dress code. And I do not belong to the Instagram generation, which constantly showcases itself on the Web. But when I started to speak up on the subject of ecological fashion, everything was different: Suddenly I was a purchasing scout and a hunter for green bargains. My wardrobe filled up. Admittedly with ecologically correct goods, but even a green fashion fair leads to temptation. My daughter said that I was buying more than she was. So I began to experiment–and in 2015 I took out a clothing subscription with the Hamburg fashion library Kleiderei. The idea was to have a basic wardrobe with a dozen eco and fair fashion basics, which I would then top up with borrowed pieces–including trend and designer pieces. I tried out a great deal and no longer wore only the Hanseatic all-blue outfit; that makes borrowing clothing possible at all. By now my clothes chest is as much a part of my everyday life as my toothbrush.
Find out more about the topic in our new Sustainable ISSUE here.