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Eco fashions

Melanie SevcenkoMarch 5, 2013

The rise in popularity of organic products worldwide has made eco-friendly fashions a new favorite amongst stylish consumers. In Berlin, industry leaders say the new trend is more than just a marketing gimmick.

Eco Mode from 'Bloee', an eco-friendly fashion label. (Photo Copyright: EFECT)
Image: EFECT

In recent years, the food industry has come under the gun for producing unhealthy products that are environmentally harmful and abusive to both animals and employees. To provide a choice to the conscious masses, food suppliers started offering 'organic' and 'bio' alternatives to combat the industrialized processes of corporate food giants.

So that covers what goes into our bodies. But what about the products that go over them?

Berlin, a city that hosts Fashion Week twice a year, is no stranger to trendsetting. So, naturally, fair trade clothing brands that are produced in accordance with ecological criteria are popping up across the capital and finding their way into tradeshows, onto catwalks and into closets. Even celebrities in Europe and North America have been caught on the red carpet, strutting elegant eco-friendly fibers made from bamboo, milk and seagrass.

The key to healthy wearing

Recognizing a growing network of environmentally-conscious fashionistas in Berlin, but with almost no platform from which it promote their fair trade threads, Gereon Pilz van der Grinten founded 'TheKey.to' and opened the door to eco networking.

Since 2009, TheKey.to has been Berlin's independent, international platform for eco fashion and lifestyle during the Berlin Fashion Week.

"We are looking at the whole process, because eco doesn't just mean that you don't have pesticides in your clothes," van der Grinten told DW. "It means that the whole chain, up until you're wearing it on our skin, has to be healthy and fair."

Gereon Pilz van der Grinten, Designer and founder of TheKey.to in Berlin, 2012 (Photo: Kristyan Geyr)
Designer Gereon Pilz van der Grinten says eco products need to be fair tooImage: Kristyan Geyr

Twice a year, in January and July, for three and a half days, the tradeshow features more than 50 selected eco fashion brands from over 15 countries, from street to avant-garde designers, with 70 percent coming from international corners of the world and 30 percent from Germany.

"Germany is quite progressive from the market side of eco-fashion, in terms of concept stores and knowledge on the consumer side, but not as much with design," van der Grinten explained. "The UK and Netherlands is leading more with the designers."

'One of the world's most damaging industries'

Van der Grinten says that a great number of eco fashion professionals come from social conscious networks, as opposed to the industry itself. "They want to change the entire fashion industry, because it's one of the most damaging industries in the world," he says, referring particularly to the use of pesticides in the treatment of materials, the proliferation of toxins in the workplace, and child labor.

"Designers really have to struggle if they are young, because developing eco fashion costs more," continues van der Grinten, pointing out the expenses that come from better wages for labor and alternative processes to pesticide treatment.

This equates to spending at least 25 euro on a T-shirt, instead of five. "If you want to have a healthy lifestyle and save the world, then you have to pay for it," he admits.

Seven percent of production in the food industry is currently eco-friendly. In the fashion industry, the number sits at three percent.

Cambodian garment factory workers toil at the W&D garment factory, just southeast of Phnom Penh, April 28, 2004. Cambodia's garment industry has grown from 49 factories in 1996 to more than 200 factories today, employing 240,000 people. But as the end approaches for a special deal between the United States and Cambodia linking labor rights to trade quotas the workers are worried for their futures. (AP Photo/Isabelle Lesser)
Mass clothing production methods are often tough on the environment and on workersImage: AP

A unique type of business

'Umasan' is located on the ground floor of Mitte's famous L40 building. An avant-garde fashion line made with innovative vegan fabrics and sophisticated Japanese cutting techniques, Umasan is the brainchild of Berlin-based sisters Sandra and Anja Umann.

Living a vegan lifestyle, the Umanns turned their love of fashion and photography into a high-end holistic concept that is geared towards the future of the environment.

Most vegan clothing lines are limited to producing textiles with cotton or eco-cotton. But Umasan works with innovative fibers derived from roots, such as anti-bacterial bamboo, eucalyptus enriched with seagrass, and soy silk made with soy protein, which contains minerals that benefit the blood system. They even combine products from the cosmetic industry that enriches the skin.

"Eco fashion is a worldwide trend," says Sandra. "But you have to differentiate between the marketing aspect of eco-friendly clothing and the real intention of creating an eco-friendly product."

Sandra explains that very often, big companies will do what she calls ‘green-washing' their collection to appeal to the fair trade market. Sometimes that means not being ecological to the core. "The structure of big companies is not made for the eco-friendly model," she says.

Helping young designers go green

To respond to an increasing interest towards eco-fashion from young designers, ESMOD Berlin, the International University of Art for Fashion, launched a new masters program in 2011, called 'Sustainability in Fashion.'

"It was necessary to create a program where you can have a 360 degree view on fashion," says Friederike von Wedel-Parlow, director of the new study program.

The ESMOD class of 2012 graduates in Berlin (Photo copyright: ESMOD)
The 2012 ESMOD class of masters students of 'Sustainability in Fashion' graduate in BerlinImage: ESMOD

The course allows each designer involved to work on his or her personal project, from traveling to Nepal to weave banana fibers with a handloom, to creating an sustainable sneaker with a recyclable sole, to working with eco waste from Bangladesh companies to create a 'leftover' fashion collection.

"We can start changing things now," says von Wedel-Parlow, "or we can wait until resources are too expensive, or not available anymore. The consciousness is there, so it's better to be ahead."

The German capital appears to already be thinking ahead. Already 15 eco clothing brands are located in Berlin, along with five events for eco-friendly fashion, including The Green Showroom, a platform for high-end eco fashion too.

The organizer behind TheKey.to, Gereon Pilz van der Grinten, says the new trend isn't purely about making the fashion industry more marketable. "We don't want to damage the world with our fashion and consumption," says van der Grinten, "because we have only one, and we have to protect it."