Challenges and double standards in used clothing

Written by: RWW | Published:

As many RWW readers already know, the UK used clothing industry has been going through a difficult period, particularly since the start of the year. Values across all grades have dropped by around 25% to 30%. Alan Wheeler, director of the Textile Recycling Association, reports on the latest developments and reflects on the conundrum of national costumes.

Used clothing prices rose relentlessly between 2005 and 2012 and largely held level throughout 2013; however, for the last few years the market was being vastly overheated by itinerant temporary collectors attracted by the high value of use clothing, and who had moved into the market because they thought they could make money without really having any idea about how to run collections or how much they cost.

Most moved out quickly, but the effect was to make it much more difficult for established collectors to obtain supplies and therefore prices continued to rise and then stay high.

Chickens come home to roost

Despite a number of closures last year, it was not until January that the chickens really came home to roost with a number of key factors coming into play that created a great deal of uncertainty in key markets in Eastern Europe and Africa.

First, there are the ongoing troubles in the Ukraine which have not been helped by the shooting down of flight MH17 and the ensuing political ‘blame game’ between Russia and the West. In addition, there continues to be political unrest with Liberia declaring a state of emergency over the outbreak of Ebola and the World Health Organisation urging other countries to follow suit. This will not help exports to countries in West Africa, and this is before we consider the continuing improvement in the strength of the pound and the collapse in the values of some African currencies. So it would seem that the value of UK used clothing is likely to decrease.

In times like this, the reputable UK used clothing and textile collectors need all the support they can get as, after all, they do a brilliant job.

They promote re-use over recycling, they divert textiles from waste disposal which results in very positive carbon benefits, they raise hundreds of millions of pounds for charities annually, they create thousands of jobs in the UK (often in areas of high unemployment) along with millions of jobs in the key export markets, and they allow people throughout the world to buy good quality, fashionable clothing at an affordable price.

A flaky accusation

However, I would like to address a very flaky accusation that is sometimes cited as a negative impact of the used clothing industry.

There recently was a BBC This World programme called The secret lives of your clothes. The programme itself was quite positive for the industry. Although I would question that the life of an item of used clothing is secret. For anyone who is vaguely interested in what happens to their donation once they take it to a charity shop or textile bank, there is a huge amount of information openly available.

The BBC programme showed clothing being taken from the UK to Accra in Ghana and beyond. It demonstrated that the used clothing industry is hugely popular, is meeting the clothing demands of the population and employs millions of people in that region.

However, the programme also tried addressing an accusation made by some that the used clothing industry is responsible for undermining native textile production.

In the programme the first textile factory owner they interviewed was from Manchester and he said that the main threat was from new clothing producers in China, but in the follow-up articles that appeared in the national media, this fact was completely ignored.

Indeed an article in the Daily Mail described the popularity of second-hand clothing as “nothing short of disastrous” for indigenous textile producers.

In my opinion this assertion is wrong.

Nobody seems to be addressing the obvious fact, that in order for African textile producers to prosper they need to be competitive on the international market as well as in their national market.

If international garment producers continue to place the majority of their orders with businesses in Asia, then African manufacturers are not going to get a look in.

While initiatives such ‘Cotton made in Africa’ (a scheme that aims to improve the conditions of life of a large number of African cotton farmers), is most welcome, it does not support textile manufacturing in Africa.

I don’t just want to see cotton made in Africa, but also cotton garments made in Africa on sale here in the UK and elsewhere. Some people also say that it is a shame that Africans are wearing their traditional clothing in favour of so called ‘Western fashion’.

Why do they consider the likes of Versace, Christian Dior, Gucci, Dolce and Gabbana and other fashion labels as exclusively Western brands when surely they are global brands?

Furthermore, why shouldn’t Africans be able to wear such goods at affordable prices?

Why don’t Brits wear national costumes too?

I presume these people also think it’s a shame that English people do not wear Morris Dancing clothes, that Welsh women do not wear the ‘bedgown’ (their National costume), and that Scottish men are not wearing their kilts during their daily lives?

Hardly anyone in the West regularly wears their traditional national or local dress if at all, so why do we expect it to be any different in Africa?

If anyone thinks that African textile producers can remain competitive on a large scale by sticking to producing traditional clothing and not branching out into producing clothing for the global market, I think they may be surprised.

From a sustainability point of view, the main issues that need to be considered are the amount of clothing and textiles we consume, the sustainability of the supply chains, the durability of the products and the ease with which they can be processed at the end of their useful lives.

A vital cog

Textile collectors and processors are the vital cog at the end of line that performs a very effective and efficient role in dealing with an issue which is created by society as a whole.

If anyone continues to have a problem with used clothing being re-used in Africa, then they can choose to do something positive about it.

This can be achieved by keeping their purchases of new clothing to a minimum, buying better quality longer lasting clothing or second-hand clothing and helping to support work being developed by industry stakeholders and the likes of WRAP to help close the loop on textile reclamation.

However, if they are not prepared to give up their fast fashion lifestyles, then I feel it is a case of the proverbial throwing stones in glass houses, except that unlike the stone thrower, the used clothing industry is standing on the outside of the glass house and actually dealing with the problem.

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