Going Green on Germany’s Catwalks

As far back as the 1970s, some of today’s global German brands began establishing themselves as a symbol for sustainability.

August, 2018

Today, taking care of the environment and using resources sustainably is fast becoming an essential characteristic of forward-thinking societies. In times in which demand for “fast fashion” is higher than ever before, it is hard to believe sustainability has also arrived in the textile industries. Nevertheless, the German multi-stakeholder initiative Partnership for Sustainable Textiles (Bündnis für nachhaltige Textilien) now has around 150 members, including 50 percent of the 100 top-selling textile retailers in Germany. A survey conducted by the publication TextilWirtschaft in 2016 found more than 73 percent of respondents considered sustainability important when making a purchasing decision and about half of respondents were willing to pay more for environmental-friendly, sustainable and fair-trade clothes. Nevertheless, with only 1.01 million tons of unwanted clothes being collected per year, and just 17% of those being recycled (bvse 2015), the market is not living up to its full potential.

Fibers are made from raw milk waste. © QMilk

The future of fashion and textiles is green 

In 2017, Germans spent more than EUR 75 billion on clothing and shoes, making the country home to one of the largest clothing markets in Europe (Destatis 2018). However, according to the German Environment Agency (UBA), the majority of apparel purchased in Germany is imported from China, Turkey and Bangladesh. More than 50 percent of the textiles manufactured in Germany are specialist materials with applications in the automotive, construction and landscaping industries, as well as in healthcare and environmental protection. The market for such technical textiles is expected to grow by 2.4 percent through 2020, outperforming the wider market and demonstrating the increasing importance of the segment (Statista 2017 & UBA 2018). While still a niche, the sustainable textile segment offers particularly attractive opportunities for new market entrants.

The developments in Germany’s fashion and textile industry have created a series of niche markets with growing potential for innovative foreign companies.

Innovations needed as hurdles remain 

Instigating sustainability across the whole value chain from crude fiber to the finished product continues to represent a huge challenge. Nevertheless, efforts are being made to completely revamp the way we produce and consume textiles. Several solutions that are not based on classic raw materials are already available for purchase; for instance fibers made from seaweed and zinc (Smart Fiber AG) or raw milk waste (QMilk). Adidas is implementing a sustainable approach along the whole value chain using recycled nylon yarn from old carpets and fishing nets. Other examples are Aevor from Cologne, which produces PET-recycled bags and accessories, and Tchibo, which introduced a sportswear collection made from recycled fishing nets and PET bottles. Germany remains a top location for the development and application of innovations: It is not by chance that sustainable fashion has been the focus of the Berlin Fashion Week since 2017. Numerous young companies specialized in sustainable clothing have set up business in Germany in recent years, seizing the opportunities as the country’s catwalks become green.

Sportswear made from recycled fishing nets. © Tchibo

Of course, a catwalk is only truly sustainable if energy and water consumption in the production processes is sustainable too. The German textile industry has already made considerable improvements in this regard, for example by recycling process water and utilizing waste heat to generate power. Some of these measures were funded under the German Federal Ministry for the Environment’s Innovation Program.

Recycling and environmental research is a thriving field in Germany and is backed by strong political and financial support. The publicly supported research project InNaBe for instance examined how innovative concepts can extend the lifecycle of a piece of clothing. The country is a hub for the development of new technologies and innovations in the sector, as demonstrated by the large number of textile research institutes. As the umbrella organization for 16 such institutes focused on fiber-based materials, Forschungskuratorium Textil e.V. (FKT) explores future applications and highlights new research. Its report “Perspectives 2025” investigates potential new fields of research for the next ten years. It foresees a revolution based on ecological materials, smart textiles and new production and recycling technologies that will change significantly the face of the industry.

adidas TERREX and Parley Runner, made from Parley Ocean Plastic ™ yarn – made from upcycled waste © adidas

Ready support for new market players 

The developments in Germany’s fashion and textile industry have created a series of niche markets with growing potential for innovative foreign companies. Germany’s economic development agency Germany Trade & Invest (GTAI) offers free support services for companies planning to expand to this promising market. GTAI’s industry experts Flérida Regueira Cortizo (flerida.regueira@gtai.com) and Annika Förster (annika.foerster@gtai.com) will happily discuss how you can grow your sustainable business in Germany. E-mail them to arrange a call or to meet them at these upcoming events:

  • Circular Fashion and Textile Recycling in Eastern Germany, October 16, 2018, Borås, Sweden
  • Techtextil, May 14-17, 2019, Frankfurt, Germany