Author Archives: criticalurbanmoments

Blue Jean Redemption: Fair Trade and the Axis of Evil

The other day I carried out what is a time-honored tradition with Samuel. We went shopping. We have been doing this since 2012 when Samuel lived in Freiburg, me in Worcester—Samuel now lives in Münster.

The tradition started pretty innocently. I needed clothing and had not found anything satisfactory at my haunts in the US. I refused to go to “The Gap Collection”—Old Navy, The Gap, or Banana Republic. H & M had not yet come to the US, or at least anywhere near me. I would have refused their invitation, too. I had been writing about social justice and sustainability for ten years, tried to integrate it into my life through my political action and my writing. I had decided that it was time to do it in terms of my consumption habits. I already had a basic wardrobe—against what the shops want me to do, I still shop seasonally or annually. In 2012, I placed on myself a sweatshop ban. Everything I bought had to be sweatshop free and practice basic environmental standards.

About five years before, I had tried to implement this policy when living in Bangkok. I bought clothes from Bobby the Bangkok tailor. This guy doesn’t run a tourist operation in Pat Pong or near Kao San Road. He’s legit. He makes clothes for John Kerry, the former US Secretary of State, and many other personalities and dignitaries. Despite the free suits, but very costly cocktails at his store, given his clientele, I figured Bobby would have good labor practices. I was disappointed to find out that a ‘sweatshop free’ tailor in Bangkok is like finding an emission free Tuk Tuk. Similarly, I tried high end shopping services, like Trunk Club, explaining that I wanted fair trade clothes. In return I got American companies who bought nice material and sent it to China for manufacturing. And, without fail, they wanted me to look like their catalogue, which didn’t interest me either. The point is that I don’t buy a lot and I am interested in paying the full price of my clothes, not the capitalmeister’s price provided on the surplus value of the environment or the marginalized.

Back to Freiburg…

Samuel took me to ‘Zünd Stoff’ a simple outfit that sells spiffy clothes for hipsters and wanna-be-cool middle-agers like me. You get clothes by ‘Revolution’ of Hamburg, ‘Knowledge’ of Copenhagen, ‘Armed Angels’ of Cologne, and ‘Nudie’ of Stockholm, Sweden. I became a fan boy of Nudie jeans. I had never owned jeans that ‘lycra’ woven into them. They made skinny jeans fun to wear, not like the ball busting APC raw denim that I was used to. And, unlike APC, I didn’t have to worry about where they came from. Each pair of Nudies has imprinted on the inside their solemn promise that these jeans come from organic cotton and are happily made by beautiful, smiling Swedes. Plus I am old enough to remember the American singer Gram Parsons popularized the Nudie Suit made by Nudie Cohn, the LA icon.

Since then I visited Freiburg a couple times a year and visited this shop nearly every time. I fell in love with the brand Armed Angels. I liked that they came from the unpretentious German city of Cologne, were hard to find, and, oh, so soft. They held up well, too. In fact, I have taken them to my tailor to be repaired several times. Great jeans, eh? They were ethically made and I contributed to my local economy, too.

Yesterday, Samuel and I contributed to our time honored tradition of shopping by going to Zünd Stoff’s ‘sister store’ in Münster. The store is a little bigger, the staff, still precious, was a little less interested in speaking English (Münster isn’t the tourist destination that Freiburg is), but the clothes, oh, the clothes. They were there in force and the shop was set up similarly so we could go in and do our thing without the anxiety associated with uncertainty.

Since I started buying at these stores in 2012, my middle agedness has advanced, and so has my mid-section. My 30” inseam has become 32”. I tried on one pair of ‘Lean Deans’ with a 32” inseam and ended up buying ‘Grim Tims’. I brought them to Samuel’s home (see photo 2), one size fits across styles, right? Rookie mistake: I didn’t try them on at the store. I had removed the tag from the jeans, another rookie mistake, and tried them on. I needed a 33” inseam—and no, I hadn’t eaten in between the store and arriving home. After installing handle bar tape on Samuel’s street slut we loaded up the jeans and took them back for an exchange.

Slavoj Žižek reminds us that even when we have the best intentions if they are conceived of in an immoral context they will be bastardized. This rings true in this story. Now, you might think that, through my ethical consumption that I am trying to buy redemption. Maybe I am trying to atone from that fourth transatlantic flight of the year. You would be right, but that isn’t the point of my story. See Žižek’s presentation to the Royal Society for the Arts several years back for a nice treatment of this position. No, it’s capital that’s seeking redemption here. But, because this erstwhile convivial relationship was founded in the belly of the beast, it is destined to portend evil.

In front of the store, Samuel kindly got off of his bike and went to the store for the return, while I listened to one of the many Catholic musical ensembles festooning Münster over the coming weeks. The offering was hoaky German folk music with a religious bent. I struggled to find redemption in the suffering I inflicted on myself as these people massaged my eardrums with rough grit sandpaper. Samuel ventured, unknowingly, into the belly of the beast with my ‘too skinny’ jeans. Just when my ears started really bleeding Samuel finally returned with the jeans in my size.

What had taken him so long?

Samuel explained to me that the staff flogged him with the jeans because the inventory tag, which, to the uninitiated, is disguised as a size tag, was removed from the jeans. During his beating Samuel was able to explain to the staff that “the American didn’t even have scissors”, but the tag was gone, see above; and the truth is that I used my teeth to get the damn thing off. They must’ve taken pity on him because the beating ceased they exchanged the jeans. Shouldn’t fair trade extend through the whole transaction, not just the part they can make money off of?


In the end, we have to confess: we are just too lazy to be sustainable


photo credit: Mobner

Apart from being a well-known fabricator of all things cool in interior design, The Vitra Co, located in tiny Weil am Rheine in Germany’s far southwestern corner, just five km from Basel, Switzerland, is famous for its postmodern architecture, a very high concentration of it. Situated within a few hundred meters of one another there are buildings designed by Frank Gehry (2), Herzog and de Meuron, Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates (SANAA), Tadao Ando, and Zaha Hadid. Indeed, Hadid’s installation the campus fire station, which was finished in 1993, was Hadid’s first realized design. The most quirky addition to the dreamy ensemble of structures is a Buckminster Fuller inspired structure that used to be a car dealership in Detroit, Michigan.

On a recent visit to The Vitra, we traveled from “Germany’s Greenest City” via RegioBahn to Haltigen and walked the final 2km, we were struck by the thought, design, and general aesthetic these buildings brought to the European production site of Vitra. Sure, Vitra likes beautiful design, but design also fits into their “global brand” alongside Ray and Charles Eames. We suspect that even the Jesus of beautiful devices, Steve Jobs, had visited the Vitra in his life, and “The Fake Steve Jobs” was outwardly jealous of their campus.

While Jobs’ products were made to be obsolete. The Vitra’s are not. If consumers could get away from spending $5 at Wal-Mart and consider something with a better design, higher quality, greener materials, and constructed by someone making a decent wage, we’d be happy. This is a rant for another post, however. Let’s get back to The Vitra’s beautiful built environment; in particular its most recent addition, the building designed by Japanese architect Tando Ando.

We were struck by Ando’s contribution for a number of reasons. First, if you didn’t look for it, you might not see it (see photo at right). This is somewhat ironic since the building is in the vitra-conference-center-8front part of the campus—its most publicly oriented section. If you are an employee, however, you know the building well, as it serves as the company’s conference center.

One approaches the building via lengthy, out of the way, footpath that crosses the public part of the campus via a series of right angles. This path is a central element of the Ando’s design. This feature also serves as the organizing metaphor for this essay.

Ando planned the footpath to serve as a non-direct connector between the campus and the conference center. The idea was intentional: to force people to walk a longer distance than the direct way, Ando wanted to create a meditative opportunity, so the path is reminiscent of a Japanese monastery or Zen garden. They even saved existing cherry trees.  See photo below.

 vitra google

The walk is supposed to encourage people, maybe Vitra managers and guests, to slow down and to become more mindful. Maybe you need to get away from the phone a little longer. Perhaps you could process your earlier disagreement with a colleague about whether the formal language of the company should be French or German. Moreover, the footpath is so narrow you couldn’t continue your debate with your colleague because it’s not wide enough to walk two abreast. Had this path been installed on the Bentonville, Arkansas campus of Wal-Mart we might think the purpose was to better prepare people for their meetings. Here, we hope it’s merely a generous offer.

We understand and appreciate Ando’s vision. It is a very interesting connection between space and individual emotion: By walking these ostensibly useless longer distances, around three corners and along a high wall on a narrow footpath, the daily business, daily stress and the last phone call can literally become more distant events bringing the topic of the meeting slowly closer to the manager’s perception. This simple architectonical trick works very well in theory.

This brings us to the point of this essay. Ando’s technical intervention is well intended and consistent with his design. But technical fixes are not tantamount to social change. You see, there is a well-worn grass path, in a straight line, that connects the Ando building with the campus. What’s the shortest distance between two points? It’s a straight line.

While Vitra went to great expense to commission and implement this design and, alas people don’t follow it. We didn’t either. Indeed, one of us (who it was will remain our secret) in an act of knee-jerk defiance insisted on taking the worn path of dead grass that looked a lot like a cow’s path going to a favorite watering hole.

Maybe the instigator of the tantrum is an unrelenting and churlish iconoclast. Or maybe his act of defiance triggered something more important. Suddenly, along that goddamn soggy footpath that got my fair-trade, organic boots all muddy made us think: The footpath is a metaphor for sustainability transitions. A sustainable urban lifestyle is a much longer footpath, around corners and walls. It makes life a bit uneasy, more challenging, than the direct way, at least that is the way it’s perceived.

For example, many cities around the world, Chinese eco-cities, Singaporean “smart city” models, New Urbanism and Smart Growth in the US, and Freiburg and Montpellier in Europe, are clamoring to develop well-designed quarters where people can live more sustainably. In actuality, these are enclaves of people who chose these developments for the very same reasons that white, middle class Americans moved from the suburbs to the city. Today, however, the discourse is one of sustainability, not some goddamn western-centric dream. Buying into, say, The Vauban in Freiburg one seeks to purchase much more than a solar house. Rather, what they are really in the market for is the dream of redemption—that their act of hedonism is somehow good for other organisms, sentient or otherwise.

It’s a lie. While they are metaphorically “buying” the Ando’s design, they are unwilling to accept the change it requires to take full advantage of the benefits of the space. They are not taking Ando’s path to get their front door, they are, perhaps without thinking, taking the short cut. Are we just too lazy for the social change that must accompany a sustainable transition?

Climate Change is the variable, Mercedes-Benz keeps the constant

(photo courtesy of

We recently visited the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart,Germany (see Photo 1). The building, which is designed by Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, appears at first glance to resemble three gigantic loops turning endlessly back into themselves  (see photo below). This architectural design underlines the company’s view of itself as being the quintessential automobile designer and producer in Europe, if not the world. Even the museum’s location, which lies next to the highway in Unter-Türkheim, is intended by Mercedes-Benz to symbolize a fixed point greeting the passing motorists who are ensconced in their daily routine of driving ever longer distances.

In the museum, Mercedes-Benz has documented its 125-year history of spectacular design and productivity; with the van Berkel and Bos building they establishing an iconic and material representation of their proud history.  The building’s interior is equally extraordinary (Photo 2).

photo credit: authors

photo credit: authors

Within in the interior, visitors are lead along a historic time-axis that sets the company into a historical path-dependency of German history and the history of Fordist production.  Walking down the aisle in this cathedral dedicated to engineering and business prowess, images and information panels enlighten the visitor and document important events in the company’s history.  For example, one series of panels explains how the company bore witness to the horrific events of World War I.  Another series of panels 100 meters down the ramp informs the visitor of the company’s relations with the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945, when the company was turned into a armament factory and employed slave and prison labor.  It engages emancipation and tells the story of Bertha Benz, Carl Benz’ wife, who was the first woman to make “long-distance” car ride – without Carl Benz knowing of it.

These events came and went.  Society changed.  The economy changed, too.  Daimler-Benz witnessed it all.

Toward the end of this proud and colored history there is another panel that made us stop and take pause.   The topic of this panel is climate change.  The panel explains the new challenges climate change has brought to the automobile industry and shows how Mercedes-Benz deals with it.   First, solar cars were developed in the 1970s, electric vehicle prototypes in the 1980s, the “Smart Car” in the 2000s.  Daimler’s engineers were there changing technology, improving lives, modernizing society.

The reader is left with the impression that — like the war to end all wars, the Nazi’s, and human alienation — climate change too will come and go.  Furthermore, in the rhetoric of the auto industry, as in the Obama Administration and others, just like new technology that is implemented in the cars:  climate change is there to be managed.  In fact, according to the panel it already has been.

Freiburg awarded Most Sustainable City in Germany

This year’s German Santa Claus had a big present for Freiburg in his sack: on December 6th the City of Freiburg was awarded the most sustainable city in Germany.

The award, which was given since 2008 every year to private enterprises and personalities engaged in sustainability, was this year extended by three categories of large, middle and small sized municipalities. Freiburg won in the category of large cities successfully competing against Augsburg and Leipzig. The argument of the jury of 16 experts was that Freiburg has since many years rooted aspects and principles of sustainability in both their administrational practice as well as the civil society. Green party Lord Mayor Dieter Salomon states that he often feels literally pushed by its citizens. It’s the same old green tautology we are already more than familiar with but that seems to work anyway.

Most sustainable enterprise is Bochum based GLS Bank, among the most sustainable products is Procter & Gamble’s Baby Pampers. The award is an initiative of the German Foundation Sustainability Award (Stiftung Deutscher Nachhaltigkeitspreis e. V.) cooperating with the German National Government, the German UNESCO commission, several research institutions as well as some NGOs. Among the jury is conservative politician Klaus Töpfer, member of the Christian Democratic Party CDU. Since he was the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme UNEP in 1998, Klaus Töpfer is considered the German human reincarnation of the environment an sustainability. It is not really surprising that some of his old fellow party members are joining the jury, such as Ole von Beust (Lord Mayor of Hamburg between 2001-2011) and Petra Roth (Lord Mayor of Frankfurt am Main between 1995-2012), both well known for several political programs they’ve run in their cities during their governments, however, not really for a greater awareness of sustainability. Sustainability seems to be a hobby for retired politicians; it’s the political equivalent to playing Golf or Polo.

Interestingly, while Freiburg’s Salomon thankfully regarded the citizen’s as the promotors for his green politics, he seems to forget that it was us citizens who protested on November 11th against his own housing policies and resulting for this, increasing rents in Freiburg. It is particularly the housing sector to which all refer to when applauding for Freiburg’s green strategy. SM