Five Questions to Dr. Gerd Müller
Dr. Gerd Müller was Germany’s Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development from 2013 to 2021 and held responsibility in the European Parliament as well as the German Parliament (Bundestag) for over 32 years. Belonging to the Christian Social Union in Bavaria, in recent years Gerd Müller has championed social and ecological issues, especially in the clothing industry.
During his term in office, he established the “Green Button”, a state-certified label demonstrating corporate social responsibility in the garment industry. Moreover, he launched a debate on legislation to improve global production and working conditions in the fashion industry. Last year, on the occasion of our exhibition catalogue „Look! – Revelations on Art and Fashion“ Marta curator Friederike Fast spoke with him about the challenges in the fashion industry.
Friederike Fast (FF): As development minister, you travel a lot, and have also found out much about production conditions in the fashion industry in various countries around the world. What events and situations have stuck in your memory?
Dr. Gerd Müller (GM): In 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,500 textile workers. The images of the wreckage are etched in the memories of many people, including me. In 2015, I had an opportunity to talk to survivors of the disaster, who told me about the conditions they’d had to work under. Fourteen-hour days, starvation wages, and dismissal if they fell ill or pregnant were commonplace. Working conditions like that have long been banned in Germany, so why should we accept them abroad?
The worst thing about Rana Plaza was that the accident was foreseeable and could have been avoided. In recent years, I’ve also visited garment factories that apply high social standards, but sadly, they’re few and far between. I’m campaigning to make sure that there’s never another Rana Plaza.
FF: One of the projects you’re particularly passionate about in your role as development minister is a new supply chain law. What are the aims behind this, and why hasn’t it come about yet?
GM: Almost 75 million children are exploited worldwide—in cotton fields, on cocoa plantations, and in mines where coltan is extracted for our mobile phones. Many garment workers don’t earn enough to feed their families, send their children to school, or go to the doctor. All of us—politicians, consumers, and also the business community—have a responsibility to rectify this situation. The idea behind the proposed law is to make sure that large manufacturers are aware of the risks in their supply chains and take action to stop fundamental violations of human rights. The feasibility of this is demonstrated by the firms that have signed up to our “Green Button” clothing label. However, voluntary action isn’t enough by itself. That’s why we agree in the German government that we need a binding law. I’m confident that this law will be passed in 2021 while I’m still minister.
FF: How do you personally solve the clothing dilemma? Have you set yourself rules for buying clothes?
GM: The first thing I have to ask is whether I really need new clothes. On average, every German buys 60 items of clothing a year. But many of them aren’t even worn or are returned and thrown away. But there’s no need for that!
When I’m shopping, I look out for sustainability labels like the “Green Button”, because then I can be sure that the clothing has been produced under high labor and environmental conditions, and that the manufacturer respects human rights in the supply chain. What’s more, fair clothing doesn’t have to be expensive. Clothes bearing the “Green Button” are available for every taste and in every price range.
FF: How do you think the pandemic could affect the economy and the fashion industry in Germany and abroad?
GM: The coronavirus pandemic has hit the fashion industry hard—here in Germany, and above all in textile production countries. Once again, the dark side of the global garment industry has been exposed by the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of workers were laid off at short notice for lack of orders and left with literally nothing overnight. Those who only earn a pittance can’t make provisions for emergencies. For countless people, an economic crisis turned into a personal disaster.
Many companies have realized that smoothly functioning supply chains can’t be taken for granted. I hope they’ll draw the right conclusions and increasingly focus on sustainable production conditions, namely fair wages and working hours, and health and safety in the workplace. They must grasp that sustainable supply chains are a question of both social responsibility and economic rationality.
FF: You’ll retire from politics in autumn 2021. What advice would you give your colleagues to improve climate change as well as working conditions in the fashion industry?
GM: I don’t think my colleagues need any advice. But what we must never forget is respect for people and the environment. Every product starts with a human being, who must be able to live from their work. This planet’s the only one we have, and we should treat it accordingly.