Interview with Benjamin Itter
"Working sustainably is no burden but big fun and connects us even more as human beings.
Follow the mantra: be good and smile!"
In 2005/06 you lived in India for some month’s, where you were repetitively shocked about the was people and nature were being exploited – especially in the fashion industry. Can you give me some examples of what you experienced and saw?
Coming from Germany when we arrived there for the first time we were kind of shocked, especially reading the local newspaper on a daily basis and discussing experiences from our fellow students. Every week we read about farmer suicides, killing themselves by drinking the pesticides which they had bought for their fields. Many of them were cotton farmers who do not have an education. Since 1995 more than 270.000 farmers have committed suicide in India. In this year Bt-cotton, that means genetically modified cotton, was on the rise, and farmers where lured into switching from their conventional or organic cotton growing practices into genetically modified cotton with the promise of a bigger yield and harvest. You have to understand that out of India's estimated 6 million cotton farmers the majority are still small-scale farmers with less then 1 acre per field.
Big GMO companies came in and told them miracles about the new cotton, which, due to their lack of education, usually was not questioned. The problem is, that the seeds have to be bought each year as they cannot be replanted, as also the matching pesticides have to be bought directly from the seed producer. This makes the farmers dependent on the GMO companies. What the Indian farmer does, and this you can see in the cotton fields as well as in the tea estates of Munnar, is to spray the pesticides directly with a spraying device which sits on their back, without any protection what so ever. Some of the most toxic substances directly enter the farmer’s body, thousands of farmers are in hospitals each year because of direct pesticide poisoning.
Then you have to understand that nature is dynamic; what works against pests today does not necessarily work tomorrow, so if things do not work out as planned on the field, the farmer has a severe problem. Farmers calculate with a yield which then might never be able to harvest. The GMO companies made up a nice calculations for the farmer, but this does not always become reality. He needs to buy and pre-finance the seeds and the pesticides, often with middle man between who charge heavy interest. The farmer then has a bad harvest and on his back a massive, massive loan which he can never pay back. It is a dead end for him, literally! The irony is, that many farmers drink the same pesticides for which they took hefty loans, to commit suicide. They go to their field, drink the pesticide and dye!
And the GMO companies of course deny all responsibility as they blame the problems on the uneducated farming sector, wrong agricultural techniques etc. alone.
And the environment?
Yes, then there are the known environmental problems of conventional cotton growing: mono cultures, pesticide use, erosion and so on. An organic farmer can also grow pulses and other commodities in between his cotton fields, which he can also sell or feed his family. If you use GMO or conventional cotton and spray heavily toxic pesticides, everything in the field dies. It is like in a desert.
What happens in the textile mills?
The 'raw' cotton fiber goes to the textile mills, where the thread eventually becomes a surface. Textile mills and textile dyeing units yearly discharge millions of liters of effluents, full of chemicals such as formaldehyde (HCHO), chlorine, heavy metals (such as lead and mercury) and others which are harmful for the environment and to health. The textile industry is the 2nd most chemically intensive industry in the world after agriculture. The World Bank estimates that 17-20% of the worlds industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and finishing. If you go to Tirupur in Tamil Nadu, you can see the disaster. The water system there is totally destroyed and needs centuries to recover. Luckily environmental policies have been implemented since some years. However without the self-control of the mills and dyeing units, for example getting certified according the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), the problem cannot be solved. The environment is at stake, and this is only about the creation of fabric so far!
Why do people decide to work in textile factories?
The countries of the west use the countries of the south as an extended workbench for labor- intensive work because it is cheap there. Why? Mainly because standards are being violated. Known problems in the garment industry are wage violations, violations of health and safety regulations, violation of working hours and inhumane working times, violation of association rights, discrimination, child labor and forced labor. In India the so called Sumangali scheme is a practice in the southern state of Tamil Nadu: due to the cultural scenario women get married by their parents, it is always the girls side who has to pay for the marriage and bring money into the boys family. This is called dowry. Garment factories use this situation by coming to the villages and tell the young girls: come to our factory for 3 years and after 3 years of work you get an amount X so you can cover your marriage expenses. This most of the time happens without any signed contract. So the girls go there without any rights. They are exploited very badly and then often do not even get the money after three years. And the big brands tell us, they have limited influence on this as they make a contract with textile unit and they might work with sub suppliers etc. The same happens in the slums of Mumbai. People are sewing high street fashion there without any labor rights or control.
What I find the biggest irony discussing with fast fashion brands is, that they can control each millimeter of the seam, each button and zipper, the color of each piece of clothing but when it comes to the people who are stitching the pieces, they tell us they could not control anything.
Working in this industry I have seen many, many hypocrites, and the bad thing is, that if you are a hypocrite you know about the problems but you don't do anything, so inevitably you are a cynic. Our mission is to fight the cynics, by making sustainable and ethical materials more accessible for everyone.
What is your professional background – have you always had to do with the fashion industry?
I have studied German Literature, Political Science and Human Geography in Germany, Denmark and India. After my studies in India I brought young people over there for internships with my first company. Coincidentally I stumbled upon an article about ayurvedic dyeing practices near the place I lived - It was so amazing, that Lebenskleidung was born! We started with ayurvedicly dyed beddings and fabrics, our name literally translates the sanskrit word Ayurvastra to Lifeclothing or Lebenskleidung.
Have you always thought about fashion the way you do now?
Actually when I was young I was a Punk and then more into electronic music. My fashion was totally street-based with clorox bleached jeans, German military jackets, lots of second hand stuff, later it was Fred Perry and Ben Sherman shirts with Harrington jackets. Then I turned more towards a hippie-electronic music style in Berlin the beginning of 2000. I was never really into fashion as such and did not think about where my stuff came from.
The absolute turning point was when I decided to study, live and work in India. I could feel and see the arrogance of the west for the first time: environmental standards and social rights our grandfathers and grandmothers have fought for so long are simply neglected there. We all know how a clean river should look here, which pesticides should be banned, how a good workplace should look, but we deny those accomplishments to the people in the south by just looking away. This is something I did not want to do.
Nobody is 100% perfect, but when it comes to choosing my clothes, transparency is the most important for me. And of course with this attitude I am trying to influence my friends and family as well.
What was one of the hardest obstacles you faced with Lebenskleidung, and how did you overcome that?
Over the years we have faced many, many obstacles. Beginning from financing your venture, to bad production partners to internal problems. We have founded the company with 4 people. Now we are 3. The hardest for a young company is to go the long way. We overcame most problems with our passion. My colleagues Enrico and Christoph are passionate about what they do. So am I. And we overcome obstacles also with a good amount of humour.
Sustainable and fair fabrics are usually more expensive than 'regular' fabrics. Do you also have products which are suited for designers who wish to offer their customers 'affordable' prices?
We have very competitive prices, you can get 1 meter of fabric starting from 3€ for a light fabric which you by per kg. The usual meter price in average is around 10€ upwards. We work with staggered prices in general.
We are only working with premium quality yarns and finishings. Our fabrics usually have a bigger width than most as well. Every meter of fabric passes our quality control in Germany after the control at the production place. We cut, fold, and double the fabrics. Then we stock the fabrics for our clients, which usually nobody does. So you can buy even only 1 meter of fabric in the most trendy quality directly from stock without investing a big amounts if you want to start your own ethical fashion brand. Many designers are working with our fabrics and we love to see them grow.
If you live in Berlin you can come to our stock sale on Wednesday afternoon from 14:00 to 17:00 or Friday from 10:00 to 14:00 where you get more good offers, limited editions, cuttings etc. So I think we have an excellent offer for all designers, secondly we also give students the wholesale rates as they are the future of the fashion industry. We want to empower them using sustainable materials.
What does sustainable and fair production mean?
A sustainable and fair production looks at the full supply chain, starting with the fibers used, the knitting/weaving, dyeing and finishing to the production of garments. We are certified since many years according to the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). I quote the GOTS shortly here:
“Only textile products that contain a minimum of 70% organic fbres can become GOTS certifed. All chemical inputs such as dyestuffs and auxiliaries used must meet certain environmental and toxicological criteria. The choice of accessories is limited in accordance with ecological aspects as well. A functional waste water treatment plant is mandatory for any wet-processing unit involved and all processors must comply with social criteria. The key criteria of GOTS, its quality assurance system and the principles of the review and revision procedure are summarised in this section.”
For us a fair production means to be fair partners with our production partners. We work closely together. For the production of fabrics the main source is certified organic cotton which improves the livelihood of the farmers, after the fiber stage mainly environmental criteria are important as knitting and weaving is done mainly with machines. The input of dye- and finishing stuff is highly controlled and we are always looking for even better options. For example for bleaching the fabrics no chlorine is used but Oxygen (Peroxide). For the dyeing no heavy metals or Azo dyes are allowed. For the finishing and softening steam or mechanical methods together with enzymes are used against heavily toxic softeners. You can see all these infos also in the recent Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS).
The merchandising collections we offer with our partner are produced on top with the Fair Trade certificate. The unit producing them is located in Tamil Nadu/India and acts as a lighthouse and model unit. Living wages over the minimum wages are being paid to the workers and the people are working according to the highest possible criteria, basically like a small and medium enterprise here in Europe.
How do you deal with people who have no understanding or interest in being fair or sustainable?
The people today are bombarded with tons of information daily. From environmental pollution, via food, the right education of their kids, how they should live, love and so on. Many people are working so hard every day and cannot even afford the basic necessities. The gap between rich and poor is getting bigger and on the one hand big corporations are making millions while many people are struggling. Being fair or sustainable is not an elitist topic. It affects all of us. Because if we accept unfair and unsustainable practices, we support those, who stand for the destruction of our planet, selfishness and greed. Fair and sustainable practices have reached the masses, especially in the food sector. Of course many copycats entered the market as well, doing green-washing and so on. But the good thing is, that Fair Trade and Sustainability have never been engraved so deeply in the consciousness of the people’s minds as today.
Can you blame a single parent struggling daily with her money not to buy fair trade garments?
No, you can't. But you can force the garment companies with the purchasing power of those who can afford it to re-think and change their production practices as well.
You can see this change already, especially after the tragedy at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh a lot has changed. It is still a long way for the garment industry but there is a lot of movement now. The Detox campaign of Greenpeace has had a huge impact on the toxic free production of garments. Initiatives like the Textilbündis in Germany have brought many stakeholders together. The IVN (International Association for Natural Textile) where my colleague is a board member are lobbying for a sustainable future.
I like to keep Mahatma Gandhi's words in mind: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” But to solely put all responsibility to the consumer is a very cheap trick not being responsible for your actions as a company. The fast fashion companies always tell us, that the consumer wants cheap fashion and is not ready to pay more for clothing. But did you know that even 0.20 € more per piece which would directly go to the garment worker would make a massive impact. There is no right for cheap fashion. But there is a right for social and environmental integrity and there are human rights. Who violates them are the companies not taking care and externalizing costs. So I think the fashion industry and the companies producing fashion have the biggest share of responsibility to change and stop bad practices. Politics have the duty to support if they are serious. For example are toys with toxins banned from entering the European Union. Why cannot garments made with toxins and/or under the worst labor conditions be banned from entering the European Union or the USA? We in the west can force the companies to re-think, to act responsible and caring.
When we give people fair and sustainable products, more people will also purchase fair and sustainable - it comes naturally.
Do you have any facts you find important to share about the fashion industry?
A: About 60 million to 75 million people are employed in the textile, clothing and footwear sector worldwide formally today. In 2000 only 20 million people were employed in the industry. Those are the formal figures. Informally even more people are working in the industry. You can see that fast fashion brought many people into labor. But on these figures you can also see that much more garments are produced than 20 years back. This also means much more resources are eaten up and the landfills are filled with garments. The fast fashion industry has made the garment a throwaway commodity. This is horrible and has to be turned around. Clothing has to have a value again. And of all workers about three quarters of garment workers worldwide are female. So the issues the fashion industry are facing are also mainly women issues. The natural fiber cotton alone gives livelihood to more than 300 million people worldwide. Taken all the other textile sector workers worldwide into account, we roughly speak about 500 million people worldwide working for our clothing! We all have a responsibility for them and if we make changes in this sector the impact is huge and huge and huge.
- International Labour Office (ILO) - Wages and Working Hours in the Textiles, Clothing, Leather and Footwear Industries
- Workers' conditions in the textileandclothingsector: just an Asian affair? Issues at stake after the Rana Plaza tragedy
- Facts on the Global Garment Industry
- Sustinable textiles: What German development policy is doing
- Pollutants of Textile Industry Wastewater and Assessment of its Discharge Limits by Water Quality Standards
- Greenpeace: Detox: Welche Firmen entgiften?
- Toxic Threads: Putting Pollution on Parade
Interviewed March 2017February 2017by Cherie Birkner