Interview with Ali Azimi // Founder of Blue Ben & Drip By Drip
by Cherie Birkner
"We believe that you have to create something radical, something that makes people curious, something they can talk about."
Remember our feature in Enorm Magazine? Well that's how we connected with Ali. Packing for his flight to Bangladesh he highlighted a part the interview which said, that it takes 7,000 litres of water to make one pair of jeans, and posted it in his Instastories. What he was going to Bangladesh for? To set the foundation for the worlds first water giving apparel. Yes you read correctly: water giving apparel! How it works? Through the purchase of a Blue Ben apparel you do not only buy a product made from a water saving material, but you also support the non-profit organisation Drip By Drip. What do they do?
- Spread the word. As you can experience yourself this Thursday (World Water Day) in Berlin at CRCLR -> more info here.
- Paying Reparations / WASH program. In regions where the fashion industry has taken drinking water from those living there Drip By Drip finances water, sanitation and hygiene projects. This does not only help provide clean drinking water, but also creates work possibilities outside of the fashion industry. Thumbs up!
- Sharing Fabrics. Drip By Drip partners with Tintex to develop fabrics which have a most sustainable use of water. With their belief that "change is a matter of giving not taking" Drip By Drip shares their fabric innovations with other brands and partners.
- Setting up Waste Water Managment. Drip By Drip works on solutions for factories in water scarce countries to help them release water back into the system in an environmentally friendly way.
What is your definition of sustainable fashion?
Sustainable fashion is the art of creating something enduring, farsighted and sincere. If you stick to those key elements it is inevitable to make something sustainable. It all starts in our minds. It’s a process of consciousness. It took me 31 years!
What motivated you to start a sustainable clothing line?
I did not intend to build a brand. I watched the movie “The True Cost” and I was shocked about the implications of the cotton industry, the pesticides and the water problems in those countries.
So I decided to try to do something about it. First I started a campaign on charity: water. I called it #choosewater #nocotton. In total I collected enough donations to provide 11 people with water but it was quite tough to find donors. Nobody knew about the fact that almost 2.000 liters of water are necessary to produce only one cotton shirt and my generation is used to a different kind of donation. They want to interact or get something in return. That was the moment when I started researching intensively about the linkages between water and textiles hence the moment when the journey began. Starting a label was actually more about finding a solution to the problem and using fashion as a tool or a channel for it.
After having seen the true cost, were you surprised by anything you saw on your trip to Bangladesh in September 2017?
I thought I was prepared for this trip but I really wasn’t. It was tough, really tough. Dhaka was by far the most challenging part of the trip. A city with 13 million citizens is quite hard to handle, especially when you choose to experience it like a native. I was shocked about the noise, the poverty, the pollution, the chaos in the streets. It was a lot to handle. When we took the bus from our place to the memorial of Ranaa Plaza it took us more than 3 hours, even though it was a distance of 20 km only.
What surprised me the most was the generosity of the Bangladeshi people. It touched me deeply. We saw so much poverty but everybody was smiling. We met pure souls over there, it was unbelievable. There was also an area of recycling plastic materials. They washed them in the rivers, made small pallets and melted it for fabric use. The air, river and the streets were full of these pallets. It was so shocking!
Why do you completely turn away from cotton for blue ben?
Cottons water Footprint is estimated to be over 210 billion m3¹ (1 Kubikmeter = 1.000 Liter). It grows mostly in regions, where freshwater is already in very short supply. Cotton also accounts for 25% of all pesticides worldwide². If you know about all of this, then saying no to cotton is inevitable.99% of all harvests are conventional or genetically-modified cotton, all of it being exported. That means it is only cultivated for external markets, respectively European and American corporations. Only 1% of global cotton harvests is organic³. So the most effective way to help those suffering from this industry is to stop consuming its products and producing with cotton.
What is this "blue-fabric" made out of, and why hasn't anyone else used this yet?
It took us almost 7 months to find the right fibers. What we care about most is for them to need as little water as possible. Also they should be growing in Europe and be heavy enough for a French terry fabric. Our main motivation is to abstain completely from any kind of cotton, even organic or recycled cotton.
The material in our current production is a hemp modal mix, though we are still developing and working on the perfect mix of fibers. All together we have experimented with Tencel, modal, linen and hemp. Now we have taken Tencel out of our fiber catalog due to a lack of transparency in the production process and chemical ingredients. Modal is made out of Beechwood, where as Tencel comes from Eucalyptus, which needs a larger amount of water and is mostly grown in South Africa where there is currently an insufficient supply of water. All fibers we are using are compostable, made in Europe and have a very low ecological footprint. The challenge is to make a french terry out of these fibers - a rather thick fabric - as this hasn’t been done before. This is where the magic happens.
Most brands go with the trend or the resources that are already given, such as organic cotton. We wanted to go a few steps further. Organic cotton is a huge trend and it is indeed a great improvement for the farmers and the environment compared to regular cotton. The water footprint, however, is still very high and even today it only covers 1% of the global production output. That’s what motivates us to take this rather challenging path instead.
Will you also be selling the fabric? Is it expensive/how much does it cost?
We would love to share it with other brands and will definitely provide it for those interested. We do not believe in push-and-shove. Instead we want new fabrics, such as ours, to be available for as many people as possible. To provide a real alternative to those who care and convince those who don’t. We believe that we need to work together if we want to see real change in the fashion industry.
For those brands that want to keep on using organic cotton, we will soon introduce the world’s first water-offset for the textile industry. Through or own NGO Drip by Drip we will provide brands with the possibility to contribute to water projects around the globe, focussing on cotton harvesting countries. Its main aim is to take the water back from the consumer / producer to the farmer.
You have on-boarded Johannes Martin, who is known for working with Pharrell Williams and Rita Ora for Adidas Origionals as your designer. Why him?
I loved his visions and designs. Further he is a specialist for sweaters and hoodies. My main reason to work with Johannes is his professionalism and style though. Blue Ben is not supposed to be easily pigeonholed. Or have the look of just another eco brand. We want to create a label, that understands fair trade and sustainability not as trademarks but instead as standards. The market share of eco fashion is still relatively small which is a sign for what consumers care about - style. And that’s what Blue Ben is all about. A brand that attracts a wide range of consumers without making any compromises in terms of production as well as style. Our latest team member is a former Zara designer who will be co-designing our female line, together with Johannes.
Taking a look at the designs I was a bit surprised to see the arm band, given the associations they can have, esp. in Germany, why do you have them? And what does it stand for?
Our decision to have a branding like this was based on two reasons. The first one concerns our marketing approach. We want to grow naturally by word-of-mouth marketing. We want our consumers to be our brand ambassadors, spreading our vision by wearing our products. But how can you differentiate your products in a market that is completely sated and where everything has already been done before? We believe that you have to create something radical, something that makes people curious, something they can talk about. That’s why we call our armband the conversation starter. It won’t be appealing to everybody and some might even refrain from wearing Blue Ben because of it. But that’s the point. They will think and talk about it. Secondly, we wanted to create a symbol, something that you understand instantly. The blue stripe represents the water that’s saved and also given by this sweater. It’s the symbol that forms the movement. A movement of people who care about what they wear in terms of style but also in terms of its footprint. A symbol for quality, innovation, radicalness and fairness. Just the characteristics that we need in the fashion industry if it ain’t to further destroy our planet and the relationships between all its people. Is there any other alternative?
Not afraid of critical press?
Criticism always means that people engage with and care about what it is that you do. To create something that people talk and care about is our main objective. So no, I’m not afraid.
Off the topic of sustainable fashion now, but you also have a "screw it up" class, what are the key lessons from screw -ups you are taking into your next project Blue Ben?
Yes, that’s right. And I am very proud of this class. I guess I am still the only person in the world who is teaching others how to fail and not to succeed! I will sum up the key lessons for you:
Do something for the first time, because that’s where innovation happens.
Do things that you are afraid of.
Dance with the fear, instead of fighting it.
Learn from your past mistakes.
All of the above points are a part of me and therefore a part of Blue Ben, maybe even encouraging me to walk this challenging path.
How do you find the right people for your team? And and what criteria do you look for?
I am now working in the start-up-ecoystem for about 7 years. I met a lot of interesting and inspiring people. So luckily I had a lot of great people in my network that I was able to contact. Sometimes I just google as I did with our designer Johannes. Other times people are attracted by the vision of Blue Ben and come to the project themselves, such as Valeria or Solange.
For me, there are 2 important criteria: Do they love what they do? And do I love to work with them? Number one is easy to find out. Just meet the person and listen to him or her. The second one is more tricky because you don’t get to know a person in just one meeting. That’s why I like to work with people on projects. If it’s a fit and the vibes are well, you can go all in. That’s it. Everything else is a process. If they love their work, they will strive to get even better and if I love to work with them I will encourage them to tap their full potential, because that’s my job!
To round this off, what are your top five people or companies we should all be following?
First I have to mention my future wife and business partner Amira Jehia. She inspires me every day to be a better feminist. She fights for women’s rights, advocates for basic income, social justice and water! You can follow her on Twitter.
Secondly Thinx, the radical idea of period proof underwear. They do a great job and I love the simple but radical approach.
Thirdly, the Ocean Cleanup. This project proves how seemingly impossible ideas can be made possible and turned into reality. Bojan Slat shows us that solving a great problem mainly is a matter of will, and only secondly one of money and knowledge.
Fourthly, my personal guru and teacher Seth Godin. He is by far the most interesting, inspiring and humble person I have ever seen in the business world! And almost nobody knows him!
And last but not least, choose yourself! At some point you need to stop following others and instead start doing!
¹ 210 bilion m3 Chapagain, A.K., Hoekstra, A.Y., Savenije, H.H.G. and Gautam, R. (2006). The water
footprint of cotton consumption: An assessment of the impact of worldwide consumption
of cotton products on the water resources in the cotton producing countries, Ecological
Economics. 60(1): 186-203. http://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Report18.pdf