From rags to riches

A family-run textiles recycling firm has sprung a long way from its roots a generation ago. Phil Mellows visited the London-based company to find out more

Old Albert Steptoe might have screwed up his face at the prospect, but Harold would probably be smugly satisfied. The rag and bone trade has come up in the world. At least that's the - literal - rags to riches story at Chris Carey's Collections.

A generation ago the young Christine Carey toured the streets of Deptford, South London, totting on her parents' horse and cart. Today she sits in a boardroom above a large modern warehouse in leafy Beckenham, Kent, managing director of a textile recycling empire. A relatively small empire, perhaps, but still more than Hercules the horse could have managed.

Each month around 450 tonnes of old clothes and footwear collected from local authority recycling banks, schools and charity shops pass through the Carey plants at Beckenham and at Deptford (still in the railway arches where the rag and bone yard used to be). On average 65% is reused as clothing, most of it exported overseas. Another 32% is remanufactured into anything from cladding to traffic cones. Only 3% is so contaminated, by paint for example, that it has to go to landfill.

Ten vehicles are constantly on the road making collections and more than 100 staff hand-sort clothes into 32 fabric categories and press them into tight bundles. Next time you're watching a period drama, on stage or screen, you might see actors wearing costumes that have been cherry-picked at Carey's. Artists and aspiring fashion designers raid the warehouses for rags they can turn into things of beauty. As a result, some £70,000 a month goes to the 100 or so charities the company buys unsold clothes, shoes and books from.

Chris Carey's Collections takes its educational role seriously, too, working with local schools to help create a new young generation for which recycling is second nature. What's remarkable is how suddenly much of this has happened. Christine's grandparents started the rag and bone business a century ago.

Her parents were among the first to export recycled textiles in the 1980s, the first charity - the local St Christopher's Hospice - came on board in the early 1990s, and the first local authority - Norfolk County Council - just five years ago. "I still see us as rag and bone men, but we've certainly evolved," says Christine Carey. "We've gone from paying £1,000 a year in rent for the railway arches to £105,000. That shows you how we've grown."

Turning point
The turning point came when London Remade discovered the company a few years ago. "London Remade gave us confidence and helped us write business plans and gain the funding from the London Development Agency that enabled us to purchase the Beckenham building in 2006," Christine explains. "It was one of the best things that has happened to us. We didn't realise until then what other people thought of the business."

With expansion in prospect, Christine's daughters Alison and Susan joined the business, with their father Trevor following them. "Before we were approached by London Remade we didn't think about what we did, we just did it," recalls Alison. "We were the ragman. We didn't think it was a good cause. They made us realise what we were doing; how it was a benefit to society."

Waste management firm May Gurney subcontracted Carey to collect weekly from Norfolk's textile banks. A direct contract with Kent County Council followed, from which a lot has been learned about the needs of local authorities. From having little in the way of information, the company can now offer a breakdown of textile tonnages from each borough and each school to help councils keep check.

Drivers carry handheld terminals that speed up the old docket system and keep track of where they are on the round, and the textiles they collect from the banks are weighed on-board the lorry. Councils can have a figure the same day by email. The company now also makes collections through Waste Recycling Group for Luton Council and from schools in Lewisham and Bromley where kids design their own banks.

It wouldn't be a surprise if Chris Carey's Collections picked up more local authority contracts, but there are obstacles to future growth. As a fully licensed operator, the company is undercut by a proliferation of unlicensed 'white van' textile collectors. "A lot of what they collect ends up as landfill abroad," says Alison. "It's so important for people to think about what happens to their waste. Local authorities are very much into that. They inspect us, look at every aspect - and we want them to do that."

Future dreams
Consciousness of the importance of recycling is increasing all the time, and that should work in the company's favour. "We want to make textile recycling a part of everyday life with banks in schools, community centres and wherever it's convenient for people to drop off old clothes," explains Christine. "We'd also like to remanufacture. Ideally I'd like a five-acre site by the river so we can use barges.

"It's easy for people to laugh, but I've got big ideas," she adds. "I want an academy, a gallery for the textiles that have been turned into art, fashion shows with designers and a creche for staff. I want it all!"

And considering that not so long ago she was on a horse and cart, who's to say she won't get it.

Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist

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