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How Berlin converted me from a fast fashion fanatic to a conscious consumer

How Berlin converted me from a fast fashion fanatic to a conscious consumer
Miriam Partington in Berlin. Photo courtesy of Miriam Partington
After moving to Berlin from her native UK, Miriam Partington received a lesson in living with less - but at an even higher quality.

Anyone who takes the U- Bahn in Berlin regularly will probably have seen many bright-eyed bargain hunters transporting second-hand furniture from one place to another.

The first time I came across this phenomenon was on the way back from Schlactensee, a lake surrounded by woodland just south of the city. It was a sizzling hot day. I was already drenched in sweat aboard a packed train when a red-faced couple carrying a sofa came on board.

They paused for a moment to catch their breath – obstructing the aisle as a few disgruntled passengers tried to get off – before sitting down on what was now their new living room couch. 

Granted, the time, place and temperature weren’t ideal circumstances for a day of moving furniture. Still, you had to admire their efforts to be more sustainable and cash-savvy.

A sustainability-focused city

It’s true that Berliners embrace sustainability in attire and lifestyle. Upcycling furniture, buying second-hand clothes and growing your own vegetables are all part of the way of life in the German capital. 

The city’s infrastructure accommodates this drive to be eco-conscious too: there are over 2,500 green spaces, hundreds of cycle lanes, and the rather lucrative ‘Ppfand’ system, where citizens can receive 25 cents for every plastic bottle they recycle. 

Not only that but being eco-conscious is, well, cool – particularly when it comes to fashion. Many Berliners don second-hand jackets and battered boots that have probably lasted them years, and are probably more likely to opt for the worn-in soles of secondhand reeboks than a brand new pair of pristine white trainers. 

READ ALSO: Sustainable fashion – five German brands aiming to make your wardrobe eco-friendly

A lesson in living with less

Fixing clothes, or making new ones, is common in Berlin. Photo: DPA

I contemplated these things as I embarked upon a post-Christmas clothes sort-out in my tiny apartment in Tempelhof. I was surprised by how few items I had acquired over the last two years of living abroad.

Back in the UK, I was very much taken up in the swell of fast fashion. Zara, Topshop, H&M, you name it, were staple shops of mine. I remember spending evenings while I was a student scrolling endlessly through their websites, conjuring up ways to buy their newest jumper or pair of jeans on my slim budget. Driven by my want for new and shiny things, it was rare that I stopped to consider the impact my fast fashion obsession was having on the environment.

Apparently I’m not alone. In the UK, it’s estimated that a million tonnes of garments worth £150 million go to landfill each year after consumers ditch their seasonal bargains for fresh styles. Germany doesn’t fare much better: the country has one of the highest recycling rates in the world, yet its annual textile waste is one of the highest in Europe at a whopping 391,752 tonnes

These are startling statistics that I probably wouldn’t have taken much notice of if I was still living comfortably in my home country. That’s the uncanny thing about living abroad, even for a short time: it jolts your perspective and inspires new ways of thinking.

Berlin has a history of going against the grain and is still lauded today as a place for discovery and experimentation. Internationals come to the city for a few months to sample the sights and sounds of Berliner life, and then leave again for greener pastures. 

READ ALSO: Germans 'waste valuable clothes': Greenpeace

The trend of settling in one city and then leaping to the next makes many ex-pats reluctant to purchase brand new items, whether that’s pots and pans, bed frames or winter coats. This makes for an atmosphere of reuse and recycle – an aspect of international life that seems quite special to Berlin, too.

A change of heart

All of these things have had a deep effect on the way I wield my purchasing power today. I mostly buy second-hand clothes, go to clothes swaps and attend skill-share parties where people mend each other’s clothes or give fashion tips for those on a budget. What’s more, I buy good quality items that I know won’t fall apart in five minutes, avoid Primark like the plague and purchase clothes from more eco-friendly brands. 

Berlin encourages a different lifestyle. Photo: Eglė Duleckytė

Living in Berlin healed my habits for excess – and those of many of my international friends. It’s also made me reconsider what it is I really value. Nowadays, a trip to HUMANA – one of the many secondhand shops in Berlin that is famed for being a treasure trove for cheap and fashionable buys– or a waltz around the market at Mauerpark on a Sunday is far more pleasurable than competing with other hungry buyers in a high street store. It’s kinder on my wallet too. 

Being a conscious consumer isn’t about depriving yourself of things that you want, though. It’s about making your possessions last longer, sourcing quality clothes from reliable brands, and occasionally taking a trip or two to give a used jacket, bed frame, or sofa, a new home. 


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