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ENVIRONMENT

Q&A: The Berlin duo encouraging people to ditch fast fashion

Germany is known for being eco-friendly, but a Berlin-based duo says the country needs to do better. They've launched a non-profit project to encourage residents to increase the lifespan of their clothes.

Used clothing as part of a project of the Berlin City Mission in 2019
Used clothing as part of a project of the Berlin City Mission in 2019 for more upcycling. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Gregor Fischer

Alessandra-Isabel Hager, known as Alisa, discovered her passion for sustainability after studying fashion design at art college in Berlin. Together with former fellow student and friend Stefanie Barz, she co-founded the online platform A-GAIN Guide, a Berlin-based website promoting repurposing and recycling of used clothing.

The Local: Many people outside of Germany perceive the country as very green – perhaps because Germans are known to care about the environment and recycling. Do you think this is true or is it a misconception?

Alisa: There is definitely a lot of movement in Germany in terms of sustainability, but it moves very slowly from states until something happens. It also depends on the sector. In fashion, I think England has a lot of initiatives happening on the business level that are being supported and pushed more so than here in Berlin. When Stefanie and I pitched our idea for the first time, we had to really explain why it is needed until it actually got anywhere. Germany is very slow in that sense, so there is definitely room for more action in Germany.

German cities are definitely at the forefront of the movement. There are many initiatives popping up in Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg and Munich. What also plays a role here is the type of government – in Berlin, with our past red-red-green coalition (SPD, The Left, Green Party), there was a higher chance of social and green thinking. It’ll be interesting to see how the new change in government will have an effect on this sector.

READ ALSO: How to master second-hand shopping like a German

How did the A-GAIN Guide come about?

For Stefanie and I, sustainability was a big issue in terms of clothing. We knew there was something wrong with the industry. So, we created the “A-GAIN Guide” in order for people to increase the lifespan of their clothes. There is not much data on textiles, so we want to help with that and give a better overview of what happens, and what can happen, to our clothes.

The guide is geared towards young people – it is online, so can be accessed through your mobile phone. I’ve noticed that the young generation in particular has a greater desire to live sustainably. We therefore want to give these people the tools to be able to live more sustainably, but in a stress-free way.

Alisa Hager, who co-founded the A-GAIN Guide. Photo courtesy of Ailsa Hager.

The guide promotes the use and reuse of local resources. How important is it for you to promote the local workforce and businesses?

It’s so vital for our concept. We have people who can repair and reuse textiles and clothing right on our doorstep. We need to bring these people together structurally and make sure that they are not going under. We must re-attribute value to these small businesses, that fashion upcycling is an easy and ready option to us.

What is the problem with fashion recycling as opposed to fashion upcycling?

The problem with recycling clothing bins is that people think they are solving the problem, but the recycling industry is completely overwhelmed by the mass amount of goods, as well as the poor quality of the items. From 2000-2015 our consumption of clothing has doubled. With the huge volume of clothing, recycling came about as a solution, however the low quality does not allow that, and often only downcycling is possible. Clothes are exported abroad, but because of cheap quality materials, they aren’t of much use there either. 

In Berlin there are figures from 2018, where, out of the old clothes, 60 percent were re-used, but of the 60 percent only two percent remained in Germany, with 98 percent of them being shipped abroad. In the end it lies around somewhere. The core problem remains the mass production and the quality. The only solution is to keep these clothes for a longer period of time, keep them in the cycle so that they can be worn longer, more often, which ultimately means people consume less.

READ ALSO: The complete guide to recycling in Germany

A demonstrator holds a sign against 'fast fashion' in Berlin on the Global Climate Action Day in November 2019.

A demonstrator holds a sign against ‘fast fashion’ in Berlin on the Global Climate Action Day in November 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Boris Roessler

The second-hand movement is considered very “trendy”. Do you think this momentum will continue, especially given the climate protests and the growing awareness of this movement?

I believe it will continue this way and the trend will stay. The environmental problems behind fast fashion will not just go away, and the young people of today grew up with this awareness. The environmental issue is also becoming even bigger and more urgent. 

We are human beings; we feel with other people and our environment, and we are compassionate. Especially if you have a child, it is a next level experience to consider their future. Sure, for yourself too, but for the little ones, who will be around even longer.

Many critics argue that sustainable fashion is unaffordable and unattainable. How do you feel about this?

Here’s the thing: you buy a huge amount of really cheap clothes. In the end, you may have spent more money than if you had only bought four items a year, which may have cost more but are really good quality and can accompany you for life. You can repair them, resell them – ultimately you are investing in quality. If you like it, repair it. If you no longer like it, sell it. For many people, this may be too much energy – we hope the A-GAIN Guide is a solution to make this easier.

Our hope is also to expand the guide to other cities. It is an ‘open-source software’ (OSS), meaning it can be accessed and integrated onto other platforms. We’ve already built this basic structure, so it would be a shame not to expand it further.

Our interview was edited for clarity.

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MONEY

Why large families are set to pay less for German care insurance

Germany's highest court has issued a landmark ruling stating that families with lots of children should ultimately pay less for their social security. Here's what you need to know.

Why large families are set to pay less for German care insurance

What’s going on? 

On Wednesday, the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe ruled that parents with more than one child should pay a reduced rate of care insurance compared to people with fewer children – or those with none at all.

The case had been brought by 376 families in a campaign called Elternklage (Parents’ Complaint), who were supported by the Family Federation of Catholics in the Archdiocese of Freiburg. The families had argued that the amount of health insurance, pension insurance and care insurance they pay should be directly linked to the number of children they have.

Since raising a family costs time and money, this contribution to society should be taken into account when setting insurance rates and people with more children should pay lower contributions, the parents argued. 

What does the current law say? 

At present, Pflegeversicherung (care insurance) – a type of social security designed to fund care in old age – is already paid at different rates by parents and non-parents. Since the beginning of 2022, people without children pay 3.4 percent of their income towards social care, while parents pay 3.05 percent of their income.

The decision to have two different rates dates back to an earlier court ruling from 2001. At the time, the judges decided that charging people with children and those without the same amount of care insurance went against the Basic Law. This is because, in the view of the judge, parents pay a “generative contribution to the functioning of a pay-as-you-go social security system”, since their children pay back into the pot later in the life. The two-tiered system for people with and without children was adopted shortly afterwards.

At the same time, however, the judges ruled against a reduction in pension or health insurance contributions for parents. They said it was legitimate for the state to subsidise parents in other ways, such as through free education or topping up the pensions of people who had raised a family. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Who pays the most German tax and who benefits the most?

So if parents already pay less, what’s the problem?

According to the plaintiffs, the 2001 ruling made a false equivalence between small and large families and didn’t fully take into account the loss of income, time and cost associated with raising kids. 

The lawyers argued that the plaintiffs suffered a double loss of earnings when raising their children and looking after the older generation, and pointed to the fact that women’s pensions are often much lower than men due to time spent bringing up children.

The Catholic Family Federation also suggested that families didn’t really receive free healthcare for their children. That’s because the parents’ contributions are only assessed on their overall earnings, which means that the number of children they have and the costs associated with that aren’t taken into account.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s new parental benefits reforms

The Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe.

The Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uli Deck

And what were the counterarguments? 

Arguing against the constitutional complaint, a spokesperson for the Health Ministry said the costs associated with bringing up a child should be shouldered by society as a whole rather than any given insurance fund.

The National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Funds (GKV) pointed out that children may not necessarily grow up and pay into the same insurance pot that their parents’ did, making it hard to calculate parents’ contributions based on their children’s future ones. Some children may grow up and move abroad, which would mean they would pay into a different pension or health insurance fund entirely, they pointed out. 

The GKV advocated for reimbursing parents through child benefits rather than through reductions in insurance contributions. 

READ ALSO: What you need to know about the complicated world of German insurance

Did the judges agree with the plaintiffs? 

Partly – but only on the care insurance issue. According to the judges, the 2001 ruling didn’t go far enough in taking into account the number of children in a family. The more children a family has, the greater the effort and the associated costs for parents, they wrote in a statement announcing the ruling.

“This disadvantage occurs even from the second child,” the statement reads. “Charging the same contribution rate to parents regardless of the number of children they have is not constitutionally justified.” 

School pupils in a German classroom

School children sit in a classroom in Neckartailfingen, Baden-Württemberg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marijan Murat

On health insurance and pensions, however, they disagreed with the plaintiffs. 

They said that time taken out by parents to look after children was already factored into the statutory pensions system and pointed to the fact that people benefit from free healthcare as a teenager and child as part of their parents’ health insurance plans. 

READ ALSO: Ehegattensplitting: How did Germany’s marriage tax law become so controversial?

What happens now? 

The court has given the government until July 31st 2023 to introduce a tapered system with larger discounts for larger families.

Speaking to RND on Wednesday, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) said his ministry would implement the changes to the law within the agreed timeframe. He said officials would look closely at the reasoning for the ruling and see how it could be best applied to a new tariff system.

However, Lauterbach emphasised that the social care system still needed to be properly financed. “We also want to tackle that,” he said. 

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