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The Quest to Mend Geneva's Sustainable Clothing Scene

By Sarah Zeines

Tuesday, December 7, 2021



This post is an on-site edited version of The Geneva Observer's SUSTAINED - The SDGs Decoded bimonthly newsletter, December 6 2021 edition. To receive SUSTAINED directly in your inbox, register here.


Researcher Katia Vladimirova received a CHF 50,000 grant from the Municipality to study the city's textile ecosystem. What she found was a complete lack of alternatives to fast fashion.

Katia Vladimirova walks the sustainable garment talk. “I haven’t bought any new clothing in five years, besides underwear,” says the University of Geneva-based researcher. “Consuming ethically and being well dressed at the same time are accessible to all. Even if the limited local market makes it very difficult for us idealists.”

Her disappointment of the city's sustainable fashion scene is backed up by research she has been conducting for the past two years. In addition to teaching at the University of Geneva, Vladimirova has been “mapping out the city’s circular fashion economy through a series of interviews, visits and events” for her Genève : ville de la mode responsable project. “Our sustainable fashion scene is pretty dead in comparison to other cities in the country, such as Zurich,” points out the researcher. “Fashion has been recognized as the fourth most polluting industry since 2019, but people haven’t quite caught on yet. Nearly every second-hand shop I visit here looks like a place only my Grandma would be interested in. The city is missing trendier options for young conscientious adults like myself.” Lack of projects or of interest? For the Department of finance, environment, and housing (DFEL), which funded Vladimirova's study, the government’s supposed lack of interest is not the reason for the shortage of second-hand clothing shops, swapping events or garment rental services. “Were we to receive more proposals for projects in connection with these alternatives, we would be open to discussion,” says spokeswoman to the DEFL Anna Vaucher. “Initiatives are beginning to blossom right and left. We recently launched the platform Ge-réutilise, which promotes a circular economy. Ge-répare has been around since 2014. Textile production and consumption are important aspects of these initiatives.”

Giji Gya, co-founder with her partner Christophe Obradovic, of the Geneva based second-hand luxury and ethical boutique DOWNTOWN UPTOWN, believes that having better engagement is particularly important. Being an ESG, human rights and security policy expert, Gya saw it as a natural path to build the kind of business—a socially and environmentally conscious one—that she had been promoting over the course of a 20 year-long international career. “This city has such vibrant international dynamics that are making incredible progress at a global scale, but we don’t see the same at the local level,” she laments.

Who’s to blame for the city’s ethical fashion poverty? According to Gya, the issue takes root in both the political and commercial entities present. “Geneva is not fulfilling its full potential. It doesn’t have a good long-term vision eco-system for sustainable small businesses and there is little support or promotion for us. There is also a lack of visible and cross-stakeholder engagement of Genevois—in particular the youth—on sustainable fashion values. Go into any normal clothing shop in Geneva and no one understands the basic notion of ethical fashion. Is there exploitation in the supply chain? Is it fair wear? Let alone is the international community here in Geneva demanding it? If policy makers and large luxury corporations in Geneva are really behind human rights, then they need to step out of their silos and buy ethical, sustainable fashion in their local community.”

The challenges of location have not prevented the boutique co-owner from turning her ideals into a small-scale reality with determination. “It’s a tough business where profit is limited and income is irregular, especially since the beginning of the pandemic,” notes Giji Gya. “Despite this, we maintain our strong principles, even though we often feel we are swimming against the current in Geneva. To make fashion sustainable, we don’t do large commercial discount events like Black Friday that encourage over-consumption. We also think that it is important that customers understand that everything has a cost, so we are against the promotion of free shipping and customers need to pay for that. We are proof that a true ethical fashion business works, as after eight years, we have achieved our best year ever.” Awareness on the rise Typhaine Guihard, who presides over the Coordination textile genevoise, an independent association partly financed by the city’s 45 communes, believes that the decision-makers are less at fault than the population and its over-consumption of fast fashion. “Garments of very poor quality are on the rise,” says the activist. Her association is responsible for retrieving the clothes donations dumped into the clothes bins. Currently, over 700 bins total an average of 6,300 kilos of clothes registered every day. The massive amount is then distributed to a constellation of local associations—Red Cross, Caritas and Emmaüs, to name a few—who then proceed to sort out the goods and sell selected items. Those that are not wanted are sent back to the Coordination textile genevoise, where they are assembled and purchased in bulk by Texaid, a company that recycles and redistributes used clothing globally.

Vladmirova believes that the massive amount of clothes donations could be better managed. “Rather than selling to Texaid and giving first pick to local associations, the garments could be offered to alternative shops and events.” Her action plan, to achieve this goal? “Work locally by encouraging initiative in sustainable fashion.” The fight for more ethical garment consumption is also gradually catching on in the corporate world. Manor launched Tilt Vintage, a second-hand boutique area in Geneva and Basel at the end of last year. H&M-owned Sellpy has been around since 2015.

Donations Gone Bad

Texaid's treatment of textile donations has been harshly criticised by activists. “It is a known fact that most of these garments end up in landfills of the global south,” deplores Katia Vladimirova. “The ‘Dead White Man’s Clothes’ blog is a good illustration of how Western society’s unwanted goods are bought at outrageous prices by poorer countries, before becoming a major source of pollution for their ecosystems. In other words the poor pay for products that hurt them in the long run.” The Texaid Group operates in Switzerland, Germany, Austria and the USA, and runs sorting plants in Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Bulgaria, Hungary and the USA. "Around 60% of the collected textiles can still be reused. Texaid sells used clothing and shoes in its own second-hand shops and exports sorted old clothing to Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Asia and Africa, informs spokesperson Jana Mikulasch. Unsorted textiles, but cleaned of obvious waste, are sold to sorting plants in Italy, Belgium and Eastern Europe." According to Jana Mikulasch, a negligible amount of the remaining merchandise is garbage: "About 42 percent of the collected goods consist of severely damaged textiles or non-textile materials. About 17 percent, can be processed into cleaning rags, which are used in industry for cleaning and polishing. Another 17 per cent goes into textile recycling - it is shredded and mixed with other materials as a raw material or processed into insulating materials. Only 8 percent of the collected material is textile waste or non-textile materials, which are disposed of at a charge or sent to the appropriate separate collection."

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