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Business With Conscience

Louisa SchaeferNovember 16, 2007

Two German students have founded a fashion company that aims to use only ecologically and ethically sustainable business practices. They've been so successful, that they've won a major prize and postponed their studies.

Martin Höfeler (l) and Anton Jurina with their t-shirts in limited-edition boxes
Höfeler (left) and Jurina want their business to make both a fashion and social statementImage: Vanessa Koeneke

Martin Höfeler and Anton Jurina have a dream: to grow a company that employs methods that are sound for both the environment and their social conscience.

"We want to create unique fashion that distinguishes itself from 'the cheaper, the better' motto of mass production," said Höfeler.

This past spring, the two students founded the Social Fashion Company in Cologne and, with it, the "armedangels" label that offers clothing manufactured "in ethically and ecologically acceptable ways," Höfeler said.

Promoting sustainability

Black t-shirt with armedangel logo in gold
The armedangels design went through hundreds of drafts before it was finalizedImage: Social Fashion Company/armedangels

That means working with suppliers who do not use child labor and who offer their employees fair wages and agreeable working hours. It also means that only pesticide-free cotton and as few chemicals as possible are used in the clothing's production.

Other companies, such as American Apparel, Levi's, Nike and the Swedish chain H&M have discovered that "eco-clothing" sells. Likewise, organic cosmetics companies are booming, and ever more firms are selling products based on fair-trade policies.

But Höfeler and Jurina, aged 25 and 28 respectively, said their company distinguishes itself from all the rest: a portion of their profits is donated directly to charity organizations.

Right now, the armedangels line is made up of street wear-style T-shirts -- short and long-sleeved, and tank tops -- that range in price from 29 to 50 euros ($43 to $74). For every shirt sold, armedangels passes on 3.33 euros in aid to schools and hospitals in Bolivia.

Certified fair trade with chic design

To ensure armedangels lives up to the students' sustainability claim, it only works with socially responsible companies that have fair-trade labels and certificates.

Höfeler and Jurina currently import cotton from Peru and have T-shirts sewn on the island of Mauritius, but intend to switch to a cotton producer in India with a good fair-trade reputation.

Germany simply isn't a cotton-producing country, Höfeler pointed out, lamenting the environmental impact of long transportation routes.

Tired of common capitalist slogan

Cotton plants before harvest
Pesticides used on cotton plants don't always wash out of clothingImage: dpa

The duo was taking a corporate management class together when they concocted the armedangels idea.

"We were tired of hearing the traditional capitalist motto of 'maximizing profits' every time we went to a business class," said Höfeler, adding that he had always wanted to start his own company.

The pair had spent enough time doing internships in large companies to realize they did not want to be cogs in what they called the capitalist machine. Instead, they decided to capitalize on the socially conscious market segment -- with success.

A conscientious idea that paid off

Höfeler and Jurina's Social Fashion Company was awarded the "Young Entrepreneur" prize from the German business magazine Wirtschaftswoche for finding the right combination of this eclectic mix of interests. As part of the honor, the company also received 250,000 euros to spend on marketing, business and legal advice.

A long-sleeved, gray t-shirt for men
T-shirts are the only items on armedangels' racks -- for nowImage: Social Fashion Company/armedangels

"Armedangels had an enthusiastic team and absolutely convincing business idea that fits perfectly into the current trend of sustainable fashion and environmental consciousness," said Jochen Mai, prize coordinator at Wirtschaftswoche, which devoted its September cover to the notion that morals lead to profits.

Höfeler and Jurina were also successful in another way: they convinced a few "business angels" -- older, established business people willing to invest in young entrepreneurs -- to give them start-up capital. The two have been working so much that they postponed their studies in business and law.

Höfeler and Jurina plan to expand armedangels, which is available exclusively on the Internet.