Textiles suffer shortfall

Uncertainty surrounds the UK textile recycling and reuse industry as reclamation merchants are struggling with a shortfall in supplies, reports Alan Wheeler

Prices for good quality original clothing are being driven up in the UK due to Eastern European traders who are picking it up in large quantities, according to Textile Recycling Association president Terry Ralph.

Speaking at the Bureau of International Recycling conference in Milan last October, Ralph reported that these traders are running door-to-door collection services which may be illegal, and some are parading themselves as bogus charities. They distribute leaflets, which give the impression that the clothes that are put out by the public are being donated to worthy charitable causes.

Other Eastern European traders are buying up charity grade rags direct from charity shops in large quantities despite the fact most of the Eastern European traders do not have the relevant licences to collect these goods which are considered as waste by the Environment Agency.

Merchant struggle

The resulting shortfall in supplies of second-hand clothing is making it difficult for UK-based textile reclamation merchants to supply their regular clients with the quality used clothes they have come accustomed to.

Charities are being urged to secure the long-term future of their clothing collections by working and co-operating with established textile traders. Otherwise some textile reclamation businesses may be force to close because the high prices that have to be paid by merchants for second-hand clothes is leaving little room for profits.

Meanwhile, the state of the European textile recycling was discussed at the ‘European conference on the future of the textile and clothing reclamation industry’ held in Brussels last October.

Delegates warned that if calls for help continue to fall on deaf ears, tens of thousands of jobs across Europe could be lost. This would also seriously affect employment opportunities for millions of people in Africa.

Mounting danger

Clothing mountains are a distinct possibility – the large scale importation of new low quality clothing from Asia, which is hard to recycle, is intimately linked to the rash of shutdowns in the second-hand textile industry.

This problem exacerbated when trade tariffs on the importation of new clothing into Western Europe and North America were abolished last year. Delegates also called for a mechanism to fund clothes recycling.

Despite all this, there is some good news. Studies into the affects of the second-hand clothing trade in Sub Saharan Africa have concluded that the trade has overall positive social and economic benefits in the region.

Dr Simone Field from the Institute of Development Studies (University of Sussex) presented interim findings on her study in Kenya at the Brussels conference. She cited estimates that suggest that the trade affects five million Kenyan inhabitants, through employment and income generation.

When you consider that the country’s population is only 30 million and unemployment is currently 40%, the impact of the trade on employment creation is substantial.

Research published by Oxfam stated that the second-hand clothing trade “is a dominant feature of the clothing market in many sub-Saharan African countries” with “clear consumer benefits” and supports the livelihoods of many people in developing countries.

So what does the future hold for the world’s oldest recycling industry? It seems very uncertain. The industry helps to protect the environment and sustains many thousands of jobs and training opportunities here in the UK’s private and charity sectors.

It also helps millions of people in some of the world’s poorest nations by providing them with employment/job creation opportunities and enabling them to buy good quality clothing at reasonable prices. With this in mind, it is crucial that the long-term future of the industry must be safeguarded.

Alan Wheeler is national liaison manager at the Textile Recycling Association

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