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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Are the EC Card’s days numbered in Germany?

Maestro-function EC cards will no longer be issued as of July 2023. That may leave many people with German cards without the option to use the ubiquitous “EC Karte” abroad. Here's what you need to know.

Are the EC Card’s days numbered in Germany?

In a country that often lags behind much of the rest of the world digitally, cash is still king in many places. From restaurants to bars, cafes, and some smaller shops – options to pay by card are often limited. If a place does take card, it’s often the debit EC card, rather than a credit card or plastic from abroad.

That could soon see a shakeup.

Around 100 million EC cards are currently in use in Germany – more than the number of residents. These cards use two payment services: the Maestro service, which Mastercard provides, and the Girocard service which is independent. Maestro allows the holder to pay with an EC card when abroad, whether at a beach bar in Spain or a museum in Italy.

At home in Germany, Girocard processes EC card transactions.

But the EC card’s popularity here doesn’t translate elsewhere. German cards account for about half of all worldwide Maestro transactions, with the remaining half split absolutely everywhere else in tiny amounts. As such, it’s become difficult and expensive for Mastercard to maintain the old Maestro system that so many people in Germany love to use.

As of 2023, Mastercard will no longer issue Maestro cards, although people can still use ones issued before then until they expire. Without an alternative, that would leave some German debit card holders unable to pay using their new cards abroad.

Rumour has it that a similar Visa service – Vpay – is also on the way out soon.

That could see many cardholders ditch their old EC cards for Mastercard and Visa’s debit services — but around 250,000 businesses in Germany still only take payments made through the Girocard service — which isn’t a part of Visa or Mastercard. A big reason is that retailers pay lower fees to use Girocard.

What are the alternatives to EC Cards?

Where might that leave cardholders in Germany? It might put more pressure on retailers to accept services other than Girocard, which could incur fees that retailers will simply pass on to buyers.

It might leave some people carrying multiple cards, with a debit card they would only ever be able to use at home and not abroad. Or, it might mean carrying more cash just in case people come into an establishment that only takes cash and Girocard.

Some German banks have already moved ahead to offer customers integrated cards.

DKB, an popular online bank in Germany, sees Girocard as an outdated model that can’t be developed much further—and one that’s hard to use for online shopping. Since January, it has only issued customers with a Visa Debit card, but has left them the option to also have a Girocard. This will no longer be free though, costing customers an extra €1 a month.

A customer pays with EC card in a local shop

A customer pays with EC card in a local shop. Many businesses still only take EC card or cash payment in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

READ ALSO: Why Germans are finally choosing cards over cash

Other banks, like ING, use a ‘co-badge’ system that pays for both the licenses to Girocard and either Visa or Mastercard. However, that leaves cardholders paying a higher fee.

Professor Jürgen Moormann of the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) that MasterCard and Visa are probably discontinuing the Maestro and Visa services for EC cards abroad to put more pressure on Girocard within Germany.

This makes it more likely that retailers will start offering more card-based payment options, such as credit and debit card, to keep things simple for customers.

“They clearly want to increase their market share in Germany,” Moormann says of Visa and Mastercard.

While it’s still too early to tell whether the EC card will be squeezed out, regular cardholders may be left carrying more than one card — or paying higher fees for integrated cards — for a while yet.

In Germany at least, the EC card will be around for some time to come — but its days may well be numbered.