| Jana Illhardt |
BERLIN (dpa) – While organically grown food is commonplace, the fashion industry still lags when it comes to sustainability. It was recently rocked again by scandals involving ecologically harmful fabrics and degrading working conditions in clothes factories.
Many fashion companies want to improve their image by offering consumers alternatives to conventionally produced clothing.
“An increasing number of enterprises are following a self-imposed code of conduct on ecological production and fair trade,” notes Melanie Weber-Moritz of the Berlin-based Consumer Initiative, a Germany-wide consumer association.
Many clothing manufacturers are moving towards more sustainability by way of projects.
The German sportswear company Puma, for instance, has made a life-cycle assessment that sums up, in euros, the environmental harm done along its entire production chain – from carbon dioxide emissions to water use and waste generation.
The assessed cost: 145 million euros (about 192 million dollars) in 2010 alone. Puma has consequently developed a plan aimed at stopping the release of hazardous chemicals into the environment by 2020.
Other fashion companies are putting “green” collections on the market.
“H&M and C&A, for example, have become big buyers of bio-cotton,” Weber-Moritz said, referring to two major European chain retailers.
The conventionally grown cotton to make an average shirt requires 2,700 litres of water to grow and process, twice as much as the equivalent organic cotton, according to the non-profit group BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany).
Other companies are developing new, environmentally friendly fibres.
Umasan, a Berlin-based “vegan” fashion label, uses seaweed and eucalyptus to make textiles.
“Eco-seals” are a way to recognise sustainability and fair trade practices. But consumers need to be wary of such badges.
“Some companies award themselves seals of approval that aren’t subject to a quality assessment,” pointed out Christiane Schnura, coordinator of the Clean Clothes Campaign, a network of 20 German organisations.
So consumers have to take a closer look at the seals and investigate if they appear dubious. “With a bit of research, you’ll quickly find out which seals are truly recommendable,” she said. Especially well known in Europe is the Fairtrade Mark, which among other things certifies products made of organic cotton.
At the very least, German consumers should pay attention to their country’s Oeko-Tex Standard 100, said Rolf Heimann, a member of the guidelines committee of the Munich-based International Textile Industry Association.
He is head of the corporate responsibility department of Hessnatur, a natural-textiles mail-order business in the Germany.
Clothing with this certification stays below the legal limits for substances hazardous to health.
Heimann regards the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) as particularly recommendable.
“To get this seal, all suppliers must be certified, from the spinning mill to the dye works,” he said. And at least 95 per cent of the textile’s fibres must be natural.
“Various ecological certifications do already exist, unlike social-standards ones,” noted Schnura, who said “fair trade” working conditions had received comparatively little attention to date.
“Consumers should be aware that ‘organic’ isn’t the same as ‘fair’, and ‘fair’ isn’t the same as ‘organic’,” she said. “If a company boasts that it pays customary wages in Bangladesh, for example, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re living wages.”
Schnura pointed to the seal of approval given by the Fair Wear Foundation. Its member companies have an independent authority check the working conditions practised by their producers and suppliers. Many of the companies are both ecology- and social-minded.
In Heimann’s view, consumers also have a responsibility towards the environment.
“We ought to think twice about whether we really need that new shirt or those new jeans,” he remarked. After all, the less clothing that is produced, the less strain is put on the environment.