PUBLIC Speaking: From Berlin to the World – What can we learn from one city’s booming sustainable fashion industry?

I recently decided to make an effort to buy only sustainable apparel, meaning apparel that satisfies one or more of the following criteria: fairly traded, not mass-produced, has zero waste, is locally made, uses organic or recycled fabrics, is upcycled or repurposed, and/or is natural and uses non-toxic dyes.

And what sparked my decision? I was alarmed by the impact the mainstream global fashion industry has on the environment and people around the world. In particular, the fashion industry is recognized as one of the world’s biggest polluters, after industrial agriculture, electricity and heat production, and transportation. Related to this:

  • Cotton is responsible for 2.6% of global water use, and it is in nearly 40% of our clothing. Furthermore, an estimated 17% to 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment.
  • 60 million people globally work in the fashion industry, with the majority in developing countries, where hourly wages in garment factories are often around 60 cents, not to mention the harsh working conditions workers are subjected to.
  • At home, it’s not much better. In a single year, Canada produces enough textile waste to create a mountain three times the size of Toronto’s Rogers Centre. Imagine the amount of waste happening on a global level.

Making a shift to eco-friendly apparel is crucial to reducing waste and protecting our environment. The chain of impact with clothing is long and purchasing sustainable fashion sends a message that you care about who is making your clothes and the environmental footprint.

A staggering 85% of Canadian clothes end up in landfill, but this is only the end result. From the farmer planting the materials to the worker making your clothes, fast fashion is quickly becoming an environmental and human rights disaster.

However, driving change is not easy for the average consumer. Since my decision, I’ve realized what a surprisingly challenging task it has been and how much research, patience, and readiness to ‘break up’ with the majority of well-known brands it actually requires.

Over the holidays, I took a trip to Berlin and set out on a mission to see how easy it would be to track down an eco-friendly pair of boots. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Berlin has a flourishing sustainable fashion industry. When I initially took my search online, I instantly found options to book a guided green fashion tour and download a map in my selected language listing conscious retailers. Berlin is an international powerhouse of sustainable fashion and there are a number of indicators that illustrate this. Here are a few:

  • Integration: Berlin hosts two sustainable fashion events as a part of the Berlin Fashion Week: ‘Green Showroom’ and ‘Ethical Fashion Show’, with the latter having just celebrated its 10th anniversary. The two events attracted 30 nations, representing every continent, last year.
  • Socialization: The city has a growing network of sustainable fashion professionals and leaders within the industry host events for Berlin-based upcycling and sustainable fashion businesses to discuss alternative fashion and inspire sustainable purchasing habits (e.g., NOVEAUX Magazine, Sustainability Drinks event)
  • Accessibility: It is very easy to shop sustainably in Berlin. Most of the conscious fashion stores are located relatively close to the Berlin city centre, and there are also multi-brand shops.
  • Diversity of choice: Sustainable apparel in Berlin is beautiful, and what’s better is that it comes in different colours, forms, and shapes. No sacrifice is needed.
  • Price: The prices of sustainable apparel are comparable to many high-quality brands that will serve you for years.

After coming home, I’ve been thinking – what would it take to build a flourishing, sustainable fashion industry in Canada and what can we learn from a city like Berlin?

The good news: Canada has what it takes to become a North American centre for sustainable fashion. The social entrepreneurship scene and fashion networks are growing (e.g., Fashion Takes Action movement, The Fashion Design Council of Canada, the Toronto Fashion Incubator, to name a few). Canada has fashion and design schools, and its own fashion shows – the Design Forward runway show and annual Toronto Fashion Week that is back on track, despite financial difficulties. We have brands like Preloved, that have scaled globally over the last few years. What is needed is more awareness of the fast fashion issues, governmental support of fashion events and local designers, and eco-conscious fashion boutiques.

So the next time you go shopping, here is a list of Canadian sustainable designers to visit:

And don’t forget, you can also buy vintage or second-hand clothing. Reduce, reuse, recycle! :-)

Olga Bratsun is a Business Development Manager at PUBLIC Inc.

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