The world around us could look a whole lot better, most of us would agree on that. And thankfully many of us are trying our best to contribute in a positive way. But actually starting an entire company to make the world more fair and clean? That’s bold. The German skateboarder Michael Spitzbarth (40) did it.
Dissatisfied with the practices in the fast fashion industry, he founded bleed in 2008 – a more sustainable and vegan clothing brand for outdoor sports. Who is this brave and sustainable entrepreneur from the mountains of Franken? I had a zoom call with Michael and peppered him with questions!
Michael, after studying textile design you worked as a freelancer for fast fashion companies for a few years before you decided to start bleed. What happened?
"Nature has always inspired me to live more sustainably. And as an outdoor athlete, whether I'm skateboarding, snowboarding or surfing, I see up close how badly we treat nature.
The textile industry is one of the most destructive industries in the world. I’m not only talking about the environment, but also about the exploitation of workers. These are issues not only in Asian countries, where the majority of clothing is produced, but also in Europe.
Working conditions can be very bad in southern European countries, especially among undocumented immigrants. I soon knew I wanted to do it differently.
If something doesn't work for me, then I have to change it, it's that simple. And I don't want to have to tell my daughter in the future that I didn't do anything to save the planet for the next generation. That's my drive."
To what extent is outdoor sportswear different from 'normal' sportswear?
"As a skateboarder, you wear the same clothes while skateboarding as you do at the office or at school. This is unique for urban outdoor sports: as a tennis player you naturally put on different clothes before and after exercise.
Outdoor sports is more of a lifestyle: you only need one jacket that can be worn in all kinds of situations. Such a jacket preferably consists of different layers that 'breathe' well. Tencel, a more durable synthetic material well suited for this purpose, didn't even exist when I started."
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Nowadays, no one is surprised by a more sustainable and vegan clothing brand - many people are aware of the importance of consuming differently. But I can imagine this was not the case when you started your company in 2008, thirteen years ago.
"Everyone thought I was crazy! It was very difficult, especially in the beginning. The sports and outdoor sports scene were the opposite of sustainable, so it was pioneering. I started with a collection of only 20 pieces and quickly I won a start-up competition.
The internet was not that big at that time, so I went to a trade fair to show the collection. I was curious to see the response of the public. But there was no response at all, haha! Nobody was interested in more sustainable and fair outdoor sportswear yet."
"I contacted several factories and asked if they would want to buy GOTS-certified cotton. Not everyone was interested in that at the time, but some companies were.
We still work with them to this day. The German Sympatex is a good example: a manufacturer that develops innovative fabrics, such as textiles that are waterproof, yet breathable.
They grow with us. I say what I need and they try to make it. Bleed now has twelve different suppliers in total."
"Fortunately I was able to hire someone in 2009. And I've been very lucky too. My good contacts in the skateboarding scene and press, from the days when I was still a professional skateboarder, have helped me a lot. Eventually, we got on the radar of stores and customers. Bleed now has ten employees."
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Michael Spizbarth used to be a professional skateboarder – and he still knows his tricks!
As a pioneer, how do you view the sudden ‘green’ claims of large companies?
"On the one hand, it is very important that the big brands and companies now also start producing in a more responsible way.
But on the other hand, it’s sometimes more marketing than real sustainability.
Burger King and their plant-based Whopper is a good example: should a conscious consumer support this? Is it a form of greenwashing? The real vegan and more sustainable consumers would rather go to a vegan burger bar than to such a fast-food chain anyway, I think. But it's a start."
"A while ago I was at a fair for outdoor sports and I noticed the stands of big brands were all full of those empty, 'green' slogans.
They have the same collection they always did and suddenly call it 'sustainable'. And if you keep on asking questions, it turns out that they only added two items that have actually been made in an environmentally friendly way! That’s not a good development.
Fortunately, we see that consumers are increasingly better informed and can make better choices."
What kind of cool things is bleed up to?
"It used to be my goal to launch a new innovative and more sustainable product every year, just to show what is possible.
I now see that more broadly, the innovations do not always have to concern our garments. Adjustments to the production chain can also significantly reduce CO2 emissions. That is where our focus is now: we want our products to be produced as close by as possible.
Fifty years ago that was the most normal thing in the world, but now the entire fashion industry is located in low-wage countries."
"In addition, it is also a lot more expensive to have clothes made in Germany than in Asia, for example.
Anyone who knows anything about business economics will think we are crazy. But I believe this is the right, more environmentally friendly alternative. But of course, we also want to continue to innovate in the field of materials.
We are looking for more and more biodegradable materials to use for our clothes. We actually want to avoid packaging altogether, but unfortunately, that is not possible, haha. Of course, we go for minimal waste: no stickers, no flyers, just a cardboard box made of recycled paper."
Most consumers do not directly associate Chinese textile companies with fair and sustainable production. You do work with a company in China. Can you tell us more about that?
"We use organic cotton from Turkey, cork from Portugal and indeed hemp from China.
Hemp is an important raw material for us: it is a particularly sustainable plant that requires little or no pesticides. We like to make our clothes out of that!
We do business with a Chinese textile company that is GOTS-certified, a member of the Fair Wear Foundation, and a great example that it is indeed possible for Chinese textile companies to do better.
Several times a year we have the conditions in the factory checked for our standards.
I’m not against working with Chinese textile companies per se. You have to support those who do well and are ‘clean’. This way you motivate other companies to do better too.
In addition, we avoid unnecessary transport and therefore CO2 emissions by having the hemp processed on-site. Sending the hemp to the factory in Portugal first and then getting it back to Germany just means making senseless miles. Not so environmentally friendly."
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But how do the people at bleed know whether their clothing has the right quality to withstand all those sporty outdoor spectacles? The team members test the products themselves!
This means either being worn on the board in the city skate park, jogging through the Helmbrechts Wood, climbing in Franconian Switzerland or surfing at beaches around the world. The employees of bleed want to experience for themselves whether their clothing is fit to stand the challenges of weather, wind and adventure.
Do you also try to live as sustainably as possible in your personal life?
"Yes definitely. I only eat vegetarian or vegan, I don't fly for personal affairs, I mainly exercise in front of the door, avoid the car and like to buy second-hand, especially for my daughter.
I think everyone can contribute something. It's not that difficult to go carpooling every now and then or eat vegan one day a week. And then you can expand that.
But there is no use in pointing an accusing finger at 'wrong' choices. Many people still think that living more environmentally conscious is a hassle. But if you take small steps, you make it easier."