Sunday, 7 August 2016

Eco Sessions in Berlin: My Main Takeaways

Last month I attended the Berlin edition of Eco Sessions, a series of panel discussions set up by Magnifeco founder Kate Black, which explores all topics relevant to ethical fashion and sustainability. I'd spotted the the event on social media a couple of days before and thought it sounded interesting, so I dragged my boyfriend along to upcycling and alternation store Bis es mir vom Leibe fällt (literally, "until it falls off my body") in the beautiful but relatively expensive district of Schöneberg.

I'd never been to an Eco Sessions event before, and it sounded pretty big, with the advert exclaiming "only 20 spaces left!" and imploring me to book as soon as possible. However, when we turned up to the tiny store with tickets in hand, it became clear that there were only about 20 spaces in total, with a mishmash of various chairs and stools set up in a circle in the store's backroom, amongst sewing machines, cutting tables and rolls of fabric. This definitely wasn't what I'd expected, and looking at my boyfriend's face it wasn't what he'd had in mind either as a first introduction to the whole ethical fashion topic. However, rather than leaving and risk missing out on some interesting conversation we stuck around and waited to see what kind of themes would emerge from the evening. 

The special guest for this Eco Session was Sigi Ahl, who has worked for sustainable US fashion brand Eileen Fisher for decades and was responsible for opening the brand's LAB store in 2009, which collects pre-loved Eileen Fisher garments and after small repairs, sells them on again. In the last few years, the brand has also expanded to a new location, researching closed-loop fabric technologies with the aim of becoming fully sustainable by 2020.

"We started without any expectations, just curiosity. We had slow sales, but what mattered most is that the concept did really was amazing how well received the recycled clothes were."
Sigi Ahl

Eileen Fisher at the CFDA's #RemadeInTheUSA pop-up store (Instagram)

It was great to get an insight into the technological progress that Eileen Fisher is making, as well as the customer reaction to secondhand and recycled products, which according to Ahl has been overwhelmingly positive. She explained how the store has created a new community of customers in the surrounding area, who want to learn more about the lifecycle of their garments and how they are made. This shift in focus away from modern throwaway culture and towards a more sustainable mindset can also be seen on a wider scale in the CFDA's #RemadeInTheUSA campaign, which  featured Eileen Fisher in its recent pop-up store.

However, as much as the brand should be applauded for its efforts towards closed-loop production, it is still in the very early stages, as technology sophisticated enough to recycle all types of fibres affordably and at scale has still not been developed: the same barrier facing the fashion industry as a whole. During the course of the evening H&M repeatedly came under fire as the poster boy for fast fashion, yet I had the impression that many of the participants (themselves small-sale, independent designers) did not fully appreciate the investment H&M is currently making in sustainable technologies and the impact that larger companies can have when they start pushing for change on a bigger scale.

I was clearly the only person in the (admittedly small) room currently working for one such company, and as a result I found this "us and them" mentality unproductive and frankly, patronising. Of course, the fashion industry has a long and challenging road ahead to become sustainable, which I see in my job on a daily basis. But by holding up companies such as Eileen Fisher as an example for all to follow, we risk completely disregarding a very large section of society who could never even dream of affording a pair of $200 trousers, let alone restrict their purchases to purely artisanal or one-of-kind products. This was something that many of the Eco Sessions participants did not seem to have given much thought to, and in freely throwing around criticism about mainstream retailers such as H&M, I felt we missed out on a wider discussion about how ethical fashion could be made understandable and affordable for everyone, rather than a small, educated and affluent sub-section of society.

Overall, I found it very interesting to gain a more detailed insight into the work that Eileen Fisher is doing, and to to hear about a growing awareness of sustainability issues in certain demographics. Coming from a commercial background, it was also useful for me to hear about the various challenges currently facing independent designers who, due to the low prices offered by fast fashion retailers, often struggle to convince potential customers of the value of their work. However, what was missing was a frank discussion about why the vast majority of people buy clothing - because it's fashionable, because of the price, because it shows our personalities - and how we can take advantage of this to make ethical fashion just as exciting for the consumer as anything from a mainstream fashion brand.

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