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Slow fashion:
How green is a T-Shirt from the discounter?

SANVT has been mentioned in a recent article in FAZ – “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” – one of Germany’s leading daily newspapers. The article investigates the real cost of (supposedly) sustainable fashion. No need to mention that we are excited to be named as an alternative to traditional fast fashion.  The following is a literal translation of the original German article that was written by Natalia Warkentin and published in FAZ.net under the title: “Wie grün kann ein Shirt für 2,99 Euro sein?”

How green can a T-Shirt for 2,99 Euro be?  

More and more brands are specialising in sustainable fashion and producing under the label of “Made in Europe”. Even discounters now seem environmentally friendly. However, the question arises if green fashion can really exist at any price?

When the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka collapsed in 2013 and buried more than 3,000 people, the public shock was tremendous. The most serious accident in the country’s history with over 1,100 deaths was the consequence of mismanagement and a fast-moving textile industry that relies on exploitation and does not meet minimum standards. The workers in Rana Plaza produced textiles for fashion giants such as Benetton, KiK and Mango. The catastrophe led to protests and calls for boycotts. Several large factories were closed.

The original article was written by Natalia Warkentin for FAZ.net – published on 4th August .

Just behind ‘oil and petrol’, the fashion industry is the second biggest polluter in the world and has been producing gigantic amounts of waste and CO2 – especially since the beginning of the millennium. On average, every German buys about 60 new garments a year but wears them only half as long as 15 years ago. The textile industry is booming – and synthetic fibre polyester, made from non-renewable crude oil, is increasingly being used. Just one load of these synthetic textiles can wash up to 700,000 microfibres into waste water. Clothing is cheaper than ever and manufacturers compromise on production conditions, environmental protection standards – and quality. Meanwhile, the number of exports of used clothing are increasing exponentially and the second-hand export market is about to collapse. Some countries in South America, Africa or Asia are already refusing to import used clothing.

Now it’s not only food that is “organic” 

As more and more people refuse to support the Fast Fashion philosophy, the industry is following suit. It is now acting with a pronounced sense of responsibility. Companies such as H&M and Zara publish “sustainability reports” every year. The measures, however – introduced and announced to improve ecological and social production conditions – are based on voluntary self-commitment.

Even discounters such as Aldi and Lidl are pursuing a high-profile sustainability strategy. Now it is not just fruits that are supposed to be “organic”. If you visit the Aldi Süd website you’ll find promising documents with titles such as “Detox commitment”, “Corporate Responsibility Principles” or “Social Standards in Production”. The latter is based on the “Global Compact” of the United Nations, in which companies agree to prevent abuses such as child labour or forced labour. The discounter also uses the “100 by Oeko-Tex Standard” for advertisements – however this only guarantees that the end product is free of harmful substances and is certainly not a guarantee for sustainability (despite it often being understood as such). Aldi’s competitor Lidl is more reserved. Lidl has held training courses in Bangladesh, China or Turkey but the basic principle is to “support on the basis of partnership”. Lidl aims to become more sustainable “by prevention and support”.

How green is a T-shirt from the discounter?

But how green can a T-shirt for 2.99€ actually be? This question also causes Benjamin Heyd from the fashion start-up SANVT a headache. In Autumn last year he founded his brand, which specialises in sustainable fashion. Now for four months, he has been selling SANVT’s T-Shirts and hoodies online. The basic garments are produced in Portugal. From the beginning Benjamin focused on producing within Europe and visited several locations before making a decision. In Turkey he found many suppliers lacking transparency. “It is important to me that our shirts are actually produced in the factory of our partner – and not by any subcontractor to whom I don’t have access nor information”. Transparency is also appreciated by more and more consumers. Non-transparent supply chains are often unethical and unsustainable, as Benjamin Heyd also believes: “If producers don’t want to reveal their supply chains, they usually have something to hide”.

Rosa, one of the longest serving employees at the Portuguese factory, is working on the production for SANVT.

To prevent mistrust, German brands like Armedangels, which rethought the sustainability market and is now among the big names in so-called “slow fashion”, also rely on transparent production conditions. On Armedangel’s website you will not only find their production partners but each of their production locations in Turkey is also described in detail and employees are portrayed. But even if Armedangels says it works exclusively with certified partners, Turkey is not undisputed as a production location.

In 2014, the non-governmental organisation Clean Clothes Campaign published a report that put the average wage of the approximately two million workers in the textile industry in Turkey at 130€ to 326€. Workers in Istanbul are better paid than those in remote regions of Anatolia. To add to this, there are excessive overtime hours and the need for several jobs, as the NGO has stated in surveys.

In order to shorten delivery distances and to use the “Made in Europe” trademark, Eastern Europe is also popular among manufacturers. While in Turkey all stages of the supply chain can be found, post-socialist countries are rather specialised on cutting and sewing facilities. Nowhere in Europe is more clothing manufactured than in Romania. However, an estimated 400,000 Romanian workers live on an average of 230€ net, which is below the local poverty line of 283€. Also here – according to the “Clean Clothes Campaign” report – unpaid overtime of around 10-15 hours per week is worked. Romania’s bad image, however, does not deter companies with a focus on sustainability from having their products produced there.

The “organic cotton” issue

The young German label erlich textil claims to produce garments in Romania. Instead of conventional cotton, the company relies on cotton from controlled organic cultivation (kbA). Organic cotton is not fertilised with pesticides or treated with chemicals. It is cultivated in India, among other places, and demand is growing steadily. SANVT’s founder, Benjamin Heyd, made a conscious decision to not use the supposedly more environmentally friendly variant and instead opted for more long-lasting premium cotton made of extra-long fibers (ELS). “During the development process, we discovered that the quality of the organic cotton just did not meet our quality requirements.” He adds that the organic version can be superior to conventional cotton in terms of environmental standards but because of the production in developing countries it is “certainly not always the case in terms of social elements”.

An employee in one of SANVT’s factorys cuts fabric. A mixture of manual and mechanical processes is used.

Armedangels purchases organic cotton from India. But Armedangels is GOTS-certified. The GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) is internationally recognised and has strict regulations. For example, a GOTS-certified product must consist of at least 70-90% organic cotton. Social standards are stipulated, such as minimum wages, employment contracts, and a ban on discrimination or forced labour. Moreover, workers have the opportunity to organise in trade unions to enforce their claims. A comparison by Stiftung Warentest from July 2019 gives the GOTS standard the highest rating. This is closely followed by the company label of the fashion chain C&A, which labels corresponding products with “#wearthechange”. The line of the competitor H&M Conscious, on the other hand, does not perform so well and there are gaps in the evidence of origin.

Consumers are also increasingly able to look up for themselves whether and to what extent a certificate provides reliable information about the origin and processing of a garment. For this purpose, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) has developed the free app “Siegelklarheit”. Gerd Müller (CSU), the Development Minister, intends to launch a kind of meta-certificate on the market before the end of this year to further improve the situation. Originally scheduled for July 2019 (but now launched in September) the “Grüne Knopf” is intended to make socially and ecologically sustainable textiles recognisable. Consumer protection unions welcome this development but the industry seems worried. Ingeborg Neumann, president of the “textil+mode” association, told the “taz”: “What the minister plans endangers our existence.”

SANVT’s founder Benjamin Heyd does not want to take part in the battle for constantly changing trends that will be forgotten tomorrow. His all-year collection intends to set an example for the throwaway society to follow. He is convinced that more and more people will open-up to this approach: “For me, sustainability starts with the consumer who should start buying less but better products”. This is now also already an established trend in the food sector.

He compensates his company’s CO2 footprint by supporting appropriate projects, even if he has the “unpleasant feeling of selling indulgences”. He has shortened his delivery routes, so the ecological footprint is around five kilograms per SANVT T-Shirt. Nevertheless, Benjamin Heyd believes: “It is most important to make customers aware of the value of the product and the associated environmental impact; simply compensating is certainly not enough.”

Words by Natalia Warkentin for FAZ.net – translated by SANVT

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