Berlin. A magical city renowned for its ‘cool’ underground status, painful modern history, artistic creative inhabitants and hectic techno nightlife. Like so many before me, I moved here from Australia last spring, looking to experience cultural differences and adventure.
There’s been many things that living as an expat has taught me, for example ‘How many döner shops can one city realistically have??’ (answer: a LOT) but the most surprising yet influential education has been in regards to sustainability, particularly in fashion.
Prior to living in Berlin, I was a standard, cookie-cutter fashion consumer. I loved clothes, but being only a recent addition to the workforce, I wasn’t particularly affluent. Shopping at cheap fast fashion chains like H&M, Zara, and dare I say it – Kmart – made up a sizeable section of my wardrobe.
Related Post: Can H&M Ever Be Sustainable?
Moving was the first step towards a more minimalistic attitude. I was determined to only take one suitcase overseas, because travelling light is simply easier. Plus, I had to face the fact that a huge chunk of my favorite summer clothes (I proudly owned at least 20 pairs of shorts) were going to be totally useless in Berlin for nine months of the year.
Surprisingly, I actually enjoyed having less stuff. It was a slightly traumatic yet ultimately freeing feeling to pack up my old life and set out for my new one, unburdened. I decided I wanted to hold onto this feeling.
Delving deeper into minimalism inspired more and more research, and I was shocked to realize the environmental harm and ethical issues that are intrinsically linked with fashion. Excessive waste, exploited workers and environmental pollutants can be found at every stage of the fashion production cycle.
There’s a wealth of resources and devastating facts regarding this, so I won’t be going into the gory details here. If you aren’t yet aware, please have a read around the site.
For me, learning about the current state of the world was enough to make me fully commit to a minimalist lifestyle. Sure I wanted to look good, but not at the expense of my own personal morals and ethics.
Luckily, there was so many cultural differences about living in Berlin that made it easier for me to start the transition than it would have been if I had lived in Sydney.
1. Recycling and reusing permeates into every aspect of Berliner life
Germany takes recycling to a whole new level. There’s about six different bins for varying types of waste in every apartment building, different types of glass recycling, and a rewarding payback scheme at the supermarkets, which gives you between 8 cents to 25 cents refund for every plastic bottle or aluminium can returned. Score.
However, recycling is not the be all and end all of being sustainable. It takes time, money and resources, and many materials are often ‘downcycled’. Downcycling occurs when the material is made into an inferior or lower quality product than its original state, like when a garment is downcycled into insulation material or rags.
It’s more constructive than an item going straight to landfill, but if a material or element is still in high quality, there is no need to recycle or downcycle it yet – instead, the focus should be on reusing it until it is no longer viable to do so.
Fortunately, Germans seem to be great at reusing as well as recycling. Furniture, appliances and homewares are rarely thrown out onto the street, and if they are, scavengers usually collect it within hours. There are also extensive online communities such as the ‘Free Your Stuff Berlin’ Facebook group, which promotes sharing and giving away items you no longer need – for free.
It’s not just households, it’s businesses too. There’s countless clubs, bars and cafes in Berlin that have this homey, almost ramshackle feel to them because they’re filled with mismatched old furniture or DIY decor. It might not be the pinnacle of interior design, but it certainly is unique and contributes to the city’s underground charm.
In regards to clothes specifically, markets are hugely popular. It’s basically the only thing that is even open for business on Sundays. Buying second-hand or vintage clothes is not just normal, but applauded and as a way to express individuality and resourcefulness.
2. Berliners are very non-judgemental.
I like to tell people that in Berlin, you could walk down your street in a gimp costume and barely anyone would look twice. During the summer it’s not uncommon to see people just sunbathing nude in the park.
You might think this is linked to all the kinky sex clubs that Berlin has to offer (maybe a little?) but mostly, I think this is a reaction to the oppression that Berlin suffered during the years of foreign occupation. Since the wall came down 30 years ago, Berlin has been an icon for inclusivity, individualism, freedom and self expression.
The best part is, these open-minded values and body positivity significantly alleviates the societal pressure that we so often get from external sources like advertising or the media saying that we’re ‘ugly’ or ‘unstylish’ if we don’t keep up with the latest trends.
The result of this attitude is that anyone can wear anything with minimal judgement from others, and you can do this anywhere, in every facet of Berliner life.
Even places that traditionally require a more stringent dress code are flexible. Forget high heels, people wear sportswear to nightclubs. It totally makes sense really. If you’re going out and dancing up a sweat all night, you might as well wear something that moves and breathes.
Even in professional circles, office attire is often optional. Berlin has a vibrant start-up culture due to cheap operating costs and a huge talent pool of international creatives. As such, most offices have a very relaxed, very casual dress code. When I say casual, I mean casual.
I think I can count on my fingers the amount of times I’ve seen someone wear anything resembling a suit in Berlin, and if I’m being totally honest with you, I wore trackpants to work today and no-one batted an eyelid.
3. Form follows function.
This motto is usually linked to sleek scandinavian design, but thanks to Berlin also have found it relates to my wardrobe just as easily. Germans are sehr praktisch, and it’s a totally underrated design value, especially in women’s fashion. The fact that so many women’s clothes come without pockets is a testament to this.
Once my first winter here started to really creep in, I started to panic about my lack of a winter wardrobe. As an Australian, I considered anything under 15 degrees Celsius cold – how naive I was. I became obsessed with the idea of buying a glamorous faux fur coat that went down to my knees. I shopped around for several weekends before finally finding one in my price range. The only caveat? It just wasn’t that warm.
My other option was a relatively bland, but incredibly warm, waterproof plain grey jacket. While bemoaning my difficult fashion choice to my German friend, she wisely advised me to be pragmatic: ‘No-one looks good when they are cold’.
Of course, she was totally right. Now, not only am I surviving in the sub-zero temperatures, but I’ve discovered this focus on function over style is so important for sustainability. Of course, you still need to resonate with your purchases on an aesthetic level, or you probably won’t wear them regardless of how functional they are.
However, if we purchase our clothes because they are practical, useful or comfortable, we’re much more likely to wear them, and more often. Same goes for materials – the higher quality of production and materials, the longer they last, and the better they feel on.
Linking back to the first point, usually if an item is better quality, it’s easier to reuse or recycle as well. Not only do you get more use and enjoyment out of it, but it could have a potential second life. Approaching clothes in this way helped me a lot with tackling the problematic ‘disposable clothes’ cycle of buy cheap, wear once or twice, and throw it away.
Considering how grey Berlin is most of the year, it’s got a surprisingly green nature. But the most important thing is that you don’t need to actually live here to live the Berliner values. Educate yourself on the issues, buy less and make conscious purchasing decisions will take you a long way to being more sustainable.
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