A new approach to design is taking root in Berlin, and it has nothing to do with all the tech startups that have set up shop over the past few years. The city's fashion scene—which ascended to the worldwide stage in 2007 with the launch of Berlin Fashion Week—is increasingly being defined by a growing cadre of eco-designers: more than 100 labels that use organically produced, ethically harvested, and recycled materials for their garments. Both avant-garde and green, the shift represents the convergence of multiple threads of German heritage and culture. It's also one of the fastest-growing segments in the $3 trillion clothing industry.
As trends go, Berlin came by this one honestly. Designer and fashion-show organizer Magdalena Schaffrin attributes the city's place at the epicenter of sustainable fashion to myriad factors: There are eight fashion schools in the area; Berliners harbor a decades-old appreciation for all things green; the city's high rate of unemployment encourages entrepreneurship; rent is cheap. Those traits coalesced to facilitate a subindustry that Tanja Muehlhans, who works with the Berlin senate as a strategist for creative industries, thinks could account for 10% of annual fashion sales within 10 years.
"Sustainability is a megatrend in fashion," says Peder Michael Pruzan-Jorgensen, a VP at BSR, a San Francisco-based firm that helps businesses create sustainable strategies. "There are few brands not considering it. That was not the case 10 years ago." It certainly was not: According to the not-for-profit Textile Exchange, the global organic cotton market grew from $240 million in 2002 to $5.16 billion in 2010.
If Schaffrin and her peers stay their course, that figure will continue to rise. Schaffrin runs the Ethical Fashion Show and Green Showroom events during Berlin Fashion Week, giving exposure to sustainable labels from around the world. She says that buyers from the U.S. and Japan were considerably active during BFW in July, and expects as much enthusiasm for this January's upcoming gathering. "It's a fashion movement," she explains, "not a fashion moment."
A version of this article appeared in the December 2012/January 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.