Acclaimed German social entrepreneur Sina Trinkwalder came to Melbourne as part of the Fast Fashion: dark side of fashion exhibition at RMIT Gallery, courtesy of the Goethe-Institut. Don’t miss seeing the Fast Fashion exhibition before it closes on Saturday 9 September!
Sina’s inspiring talk on 24 August “fashion as social business” about combating the scourge of fast fashion, is transcribed here:
“I started my first career in an agency in the advertising industry. During the time that I worked there, I often asked myself is it right what I’m doing here? We often discuss the resources, and the restriction of resources and we had to think about how much we consume. I was one of the people that helped companies increase consumption. That was a problem for me.
“After about 7 or 8 years in the agency I had a really aggressive encounter with a homeless person in Wuppertal which is an ugly city in Germany. I was at the station with my friend.
“I had some magazines in my bag and none of them were interesting to me so I threw them in the rubbish. A homeless person came over and took them and put them in his bag. I was interested in why he was interested in my magazines, he looked like a homeless person and these magazines where about women, affection, psychology and all these things.
“I asked him why are you so interested in having my magazines? He was charming, saying he wasn’t interested in the images or stories, but the colour. He said, “the only reason I need this magazine is because there are lots of colourful foils, and we prepare our Christmas decorations with these covers.”
“That was the night that I realised that that is the other side of Germany. I realised that there are people that prepare Christmas decoration with my rubbish. That was the point when I said that I quit my job because it is not useful. There is no use in an advertising job. But what would I do? It was a good job, I met a lot of people, made a lot of money. I was successful and I travelled around the would. But I have learnt nothing. What can I do? What can I do for the future?
“Then I had an epiphany. When we meet someone in Germany the first question is not ‘how are you?’ The first question is ‘what do you do?’ ‘What’s your job?’ If you don’t have something to tell me you are not interesting. That means that in society it is very important to have a job and you’re only a part of it if you have a job. You’re out of it if you don’t.
“So I decided to give everyone a job that does not have a job. In Germany we have a very strict rules in labour. You don’t get a job if you’re a single mum with two children, and you don’t get a job in the advertising industry if you’re over 35 years. You don’t get a job If you are handicapped. There are lots of reason why you aren’t allowed to participant in the labour market. There are a lot of people that don’t have any chance in any market.
“My idea – I will take all these people together and make a company. But what will I do with these people? They can’t do anything? It’s clear to me. I will produce something, something to hold in my hands, clothing. Because there’s a chain of production, or possibilities, where everybody is able to participate.
“When I started my company Manomama 8 years ago, I gave it the name because Mama originated from mother. Mama internationally has the same sense for mothers. The target group for the company is mothers. They are the losers in our society. When their children grow up, they didn’t have a job and nobody is interested in employing them. So I took all these ladies together, at the start there were 40 ladies from all around Germany, and I said ‘let us start and we produced fabric.’
“I had never produced fabrics before. I didn’t know much about it. Pippi Long Stocking said “I have never tried this, but I’m sure I can do it. If I can not do everything I will learn it.” That’s what I said. I’ve never been in the textiles industry so who cares let us start.
“When I decide to start a company I went to the bank at the end of the financial crisis. I told them that I want to start a company with all these ‘handicapped’ people, in a ‘dead’ industry. What do you think they said? They said no no no. ‘She’s stupid – no’.
“So I went to the government. They said ‘that’s really nice’, and they are very interested in the solution because we helped people without jobs. They are people of interest as they all get money from the government, so you will save if I give them a job. They said no. ‘It’s nice but we don’t believe in it’. Why do all the other companies go to Bangladesh? Why you? How will you change anything?
“The only thing I was able to do is take all the money I earned. I gave up my flat, and my car, because I was the only person who believed in the company. I thought ‘hey’ it will work and if it doesn’t then I did not work hard enough’. Today we have 250 employees and all have a contract with out restriction (secure employment with us), and earn more money than the government gave as a base.
“The first step was how to make textiles and how to produce it. It was hard to learn all these things from the start of the supply chain. From the beginning. It was really big, and complicated at first, but it was okay. I got more and more information about the situation of the textile industry and was very shocked.
“I never thought about how my t-shirt was made. I bought it, I wanted it, I gave it away. I decided that that is not the way I would like to do it. A lot of international people were interested in how I do it in Germany, in a country were textile doesn’t exist anymore. I was shocked at what I saw of society and the labor work in the textile industry.
“I decided we have to do it our way, we have to produce regionally, ecologically, organically and eco-socially. All these things, concerning the whole supply chain. So after three years we started again.
“We have to find the best small farmer for organic carbon fibre. So I go to Africa, to Tanzania. Today I have 4,500 small farmers who produce fabric for my Mama. Each has around 15 acre in rotation and they produce what they need, fruits and vegetables and the rest of the time they produce cotton.
“The problem in Africa is that cotton is cash crop, it’s not needed, small farmers produce everything they need for family and everyday life, and no more. If they need money, for school fees etc. they plant cotton and this goes to a buying centre, to officers, to bigger companies, and is exported, and brought to Germany. It is organic, grain grown, as this is more ecological. There are no pesticides, and it is a structure of economies, with lots of small farmers in the one big company.
“I live with the farmers in Tanzania two times a year. I farm the crop, it’s very hard. When I was there for the first time I was very proud to do it. I took a bag and filled it with cotton, only picking with my hands, it was hard. I did it for four hours, pressed the cotton, I gave it to the farmer, I was proud. We checked the weight and I was crying, it was nearly 4 1/2 kilos. Only 1 1/2 was usable. For one t-shirt we need 1 kilo. So after 4 hours it was one t-shirt.
“We can buy t-shirt for 99 cents. Some Germans buy clothes and don’t wash them. They wear them once and chuck them away. When I hear these stories I want to take them to Africa. People only learn if they feel it, we can talk and talk, fashion revolution, work we have to change, but we do not change the world.
“The best is to wear your clothes as long as you can, that’s the best recipe, because we have to respect, concerning the people that produce, the fabric, the clothes and also concerning the environment because our resources are restricted and it’s a problem. So, you as a consumer have to wear clothes as long as you can. I do!
“My goal was to produce products the same way as others, not the cheapest. A good quality T-shirt costs around $15-$20 – that’s the price best for a good social ecological T-shirt in a transparent supply chain. You can’t trust the information on the label, it’s not possible, so what can you do at the moment? We don’t have legal rules concerning the transparency of the supply chains.
“The manufacturing cost of a t-shirt is $2 and you will pay $25. We have the same price at the end but we are different. We put the profit into wages for the employees, having a better quality product and fibre, and more money for the supply chain. That’s the only reason we work. It’s not useful to start a good company with such a good concept to solve problems when the product is much more expensive than comparative labels.
“I believe that only companies have the right to exist in the market if they solve social ecological problems. At the moment I have a new project. It is bridge bag. It’s much more than a bag. We have a lot of homeless people in general, half a million in Germany, and nobody cares. They simply ‘don’t exist’ and people are not interested in their problems.
“The first step for homeless people to became part of society is to solve their hygienic problem. They feel dirty. So, help the homeless with their outward appearance, so they don’t look homeless. There is no second chance for your first impression. This bag solves the problem. We give big bags, new feeling, that they look like a back packer, not a homeless person. The bags are water resistant and dirt resistant. Organic companies put stuff in them, hygienic products, mouth water, foods, dry foods, other things you need. That’s the first step to becoming part of society. We call it a ‘bridge bag’, the bridge across the pool to the rich people.
“If you see people with orange bag, maybe you will give them some coins, a smile, that will be the bridge from outside society and people in society, that’s the new project, I’m proud of it. Thank you.”