BERLIN Consumer concerns about poor working conditions in Asian factories and toxic chemicals used in fabric production are driving interest in ethical fashion, helping it start to appeal to a broader market.
The collapse of an eight-storey garment factory in Bangladesh last April that killed more than 1,100 people drew global attention to the perilous conditions endured by many workers in Asia's garment industry, which supplies big Western retailers.
Since then, labor unrest over working conditions has plagued the sector in Bangladesh and Cambodia.
The fashion industry has also been the target of vocal campaigns from environmental groups like Greenpeace. They have piled pressure on global brands to stop using chemicals which they say can pollute rivers near factories and threaten the health of workers and consumers.
Awareness of these issues has helped ethical fashion start to shake off its reputation as a niche sector, said Olaf Schmidt, organizer of the Ethical Fashion Show in Berlin.
The growing consumer interest is underlined by the number of brands showcasing their wares at the trade fair this year - 116, up from 36 when the show launched two years ago and 85 last year, he said.
"It shows how important the topic is among consumers. But it is primarily about fashion. Being 'green' is in the background. The days of itchy jumpers are long gone," he said on Tuesday.
The January 14-16 show, part of Berlin fashion week, features brands which use organic cotton, wool and bamboo or alternative materials such as recycled leather and plastic, and pledge to improve pay and conditions for farmers and garment workers.
While the rapid rise of fashion discounter Primark (ABF.L) might suggest otherwise, recent market research by Mintel shows consumers seek quality over price when shopping for clothes in Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
Mintel said ethical and environmental concerns are strongest in southern Europe.
"We don't want to go with a wagging finger to the customer. They should find us cool, and socially and environmentally friendly," Juerg Braendli said in Berlin as he launched men's casualwear brand "Outfitters of Change".
"We are not green fashion in the classic sense ... We want the collection and the price to appeal to the mass market."
The brand is marketing a range of men's T-shirts, sweatshirts and jackets costing 39 to 149 euros ($53-200) in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. It offers an online tool to allow customers to trace the full supply chain of each item.
Sebastian Gluschak, co-founder of Berlin-based Kancha, is pursuing a similar strategy for embroidered felt and leather laptop and smartphone sleeves made in Kyrgyzstan, each featuring a label signed by the craftsman who made it.
"We don't just want green customers. We want normal design-conscious consumers. That is the only way to make change," he said in front of a big photograph of Kyrgyz craftswoman Elniza.
Consumer concern on ethical issues has also been recognized by big brands like Hennes & Mauritz AB (HMb.ST) and Marks & Spencer (MKS.L) who have been trying to improve their green credentials by offering to recycle unwanted clothes, while also making commitments to improve factory working conditions.
Mintel retail analyst John Mercer said mainstream retailers should also provide more information on the origin and ethics of their garments either through labeling or online.
"Retailers need to work together as an industry to make the clothing supply chain more transparent to prevent the government imposing legislation upon the sector," he said.
Emmanuelle Leveque says she was driven to set up fair trade clothing brand Origines Nomades by her experience as a buyer for the mainstream garment industry in Bangladesh and India.
"I was asking the supplier to work day and night and I realized you can't ask people to work 90 hours a week when in France we work a 35-hour week," Leveque said, modeling a hand-woven fitted jacket with embroidered edging made in Bangladesh that retails for 129 euros.
"People are still looking for a cheap price but if you give them a reason why, they are prepared to pay more," she said. ($1 = 0.7324 euros)
(Editing by Pravin Char)