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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When will Germany’s fuel tax cut come into force?

As part of its package of energy relief measures, the German government is hoping to give car drivers a discount at the petrol pump. But how will it work and when will it come into force?

When will Germany's fuel tax cut come into force?

What’s going on? 

It hasn’t escaped anyone’s attention that energy prices have skyrocketed in recent months. Along with eye-wateringly high heating and electricity bills, drivers have also been feeling the pinch at the petrol pump.

Even before the Ukraine war broke out, energy supply issues were driving up prices at petrol stations – a situation that led to the absurd spectacle of Germans driving across the border to Switzerland (one of the most expensive countries in the world) to fill up their tank for less.

In the early weeks of the war, it wasn’t uncommon to pay €2.20 per litre for Super E10 petrol in Germany, while diesel could average as much as €2.29 per litre. This represents a whopping 45 cent increase on petrol prices and 65 cents on diesel prices compared to the same time last year.

To help people struggling with the price hikes, Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) initially pitched the idea of a “fuel discount” that petrol station owners could offer to customers and then claim back from the state. But there was such an intense backlash to this proposal that it essentially fell at the first hurdle and never made it into the government’s package of energy relief measures.

Instead, the government is hoping to give drivers a discount another way: by reducing the energy taxes levied on each litre of fuel for three months. It’s hoping that this will also go some way to reducing petrol prices over summer. 

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s proposals for future energy price relief

But haven’t fuel prices gone down again recently?

That’s right. But experts don’t think this amounts to a stabilisation in the long term.

Both petrol and diesel prices sunk quite significantly after the initial price shock, but are climbing up steadily again – and according to motorists’ association ADAC, both remain a little over €2 per litre

This means drivers are still paying significantly more to fill up their tanks than they were a year ago, so the upcoming tax cut will no doubt be welcome. 

How much of a discount can drivers expect?

If all of it is passed on to consumers, the cut in energy tax is expected to reduce the price of a litre of diesel by around 14 cents, while a litre of petrol will be reduced by almost 30 cents.

That’s equivalent to a saving of €15 on a 50-litre tank of E10 and €7 on a 50-litre tank of diesel. 

Of course, a lot also depends on the development of the energy market: if prices continue to go up, drivers may not feel they’re saving a great deal, but it should make a difference in the short-term.

According to ADAC, around 48 percent of the cost of a litre of fuel goes directly to the state through the CO2 tax, energy tax, value-added tax (VAT) and other fossil fuel taxes – so tax cuts can make a big difference. 

But the price of purchasing fossil fuels (which has been affected through the war and supply chain issues) and the strength of the dollar are also important factors that determine how much horror drivers experience on their visits to the petrol station. 

Fuel prices in Germany March 2022

Fuel prices at a petrol station in Cologne on March 9th, 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Oliver Berg

What’s the timeline for this? 

The government is hoping to pass its entire package of energy relief measures in the Bundestag on Thursday and get approval from the Bundesrat on Friday. This will get the ball rolling for many of the measures to launch next month. 

Much like the €9 monthly travel ticket for trains and buses, the fuel tax cut is a time-limited measure, and just like the discounted ticket, it will run from the start of June to the end of August.

Since it’s up to petrol station owners to pass their savings onto consumers, however, experts predict a lag of a few days before drivers start seeing the tax cut reflected in the fuel prices. 

At that point, ADAC is predicting that drivers will go on a manic spending spree, so they’re advising people not to drive in the early days of June with a near-empty tank. If they do, they could face some long queues at the petrol station. 

Aren’t we trying to save on energy at the moment?

Well, quite. With fears growing that Russia could turn off the taps in retaliation for Germany’s support for Ukraine, the message from the government has been all about conserving energy as much as possible in the lead-up to winter.

But by reducing the price of fuel, the same government is essentially encouraging people to use their cars more often, economists say. 

“It is counterproductive to lower petrol station prices in this situation, because then people will drive more,” economist Veronika Grimm told Tagesschau. “And that is exactly the opposite of what they want to achieve.” 

READ ALSO: Russia using energy ‘as weapon’, says Berlin

An ARAL petrol station in Leipzig.

An ARAL petrol station in Leipzig. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Jan Woitas

At this point, you might expect an uproar from the Greens – who are part of the governing traffic-light coalition along with the Social Democrats (SPD) and Free Democrats (FDP). But that uprising seems to have been headed off at the pass by the €9 public transport ticket that will run alongside the fuel discount. 

In fact, Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) has admitted that the tax cut “isn’t the most targeted measure” but says the continued high price of fuel will still put many people off driving.

“Many people are suffering from the high fuel prices,” says Habeck. “They’ll still suffer enough even if the fuel tax is lowered for three months. So in truth it’s not really cheap driving.” 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What Germany’s relief package against rising prices means for you

What else are people saying? 

The other major criticism of the fuel tax cut is that it’s likely to benefit the wrong people. 

“Typically, those who drive a lot benefit from fuel rebates,” Grimm told Tagesschau. “And those are the ones who have who have multiple cars. These are typically the higher earners.” 

This has led to criticism that the €3.15 billion that the rebate will cost is essentially a redistribution of wealth to the top of society, rather than the bottom.

READ ALSO: Who benefits the most – and least – from Germany’s energy relief measures?

Obviously, the government disagrees with this assessment. They argue that cheaper fuel will help drivers foot their bills and stimulate the economy at the same time.

The motorists’ association ADAC is also concerned that the measure may lead to queues at petrol stations, but says that drivers can still opt to save fuel of their own accord over summer.

The best way to do this is to pump up the tyres, ditch the roof rack and other unnecessary weight, and drive at a slow, steady speed to avoid accelerating and braking too much, ADAC explains. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s largest car club calls on drivers to ditch their cars