Dress sense

Written by: Geraldine Faulkner | Published:

It seems the used textiles industry currently faces more challenges and uncertainty than ever before – from doubts surrounding the fallout of Brexit to countries banning imports of used clothes. But, as Geraldine Faulkner discovers, there are some glimmers of light

If political pundits wanted to find a business sector which encapsulates the issues raised around Brexit, they need look no further than the used textiles industry. And if they wanted to find a family-run business which typifies the discussions that arose during the EU referendum debate, London-based LMB would be a perfect starting point.

“My personal feeling is that ‘whatever will be will be’,” says Ross Barry, who is the third generation of a family who has worked in the used clothing sector since after the war.

“But from a company perspective, the EU referendum is a double-edged sword. For an employer of non-British EU citizens, it has created all sorts of tensions. Now there is no certainty for them stay in the UK, to buy a home, have kids and build a future. It also means that as a company we will struggle to employ staff. The irony is that some people believe jobs are being taken away from English people, but we don’t have that many English people working here.” This is a view echoed by Alan Wheeler, director of the Textile Recycling Association.

“Our industry employs many migrant workers including a lot of EU nationals who largely take on jobs that British nationals do not want to do. It is therefore vital for our members that they continue to have free unfettered access to the EU labour force,” states Wheeler, before warning: “If this is not maintained then it will make it even more difficult for used clothing/textile collectors doing business here, and this is against a backdrop of 25% of all TRA members closing due to dire market conditions since 2013.”

Employing the right people

Barry also points out that when you’re sorting used clothing to send abroad, it helps to have people from those countries separating out the clothing as they know which items are the most sought-after.

“At the moment, non-British EU staff don’t need visas to work in the UK, but if that changes it’s going to make life difficult. What doesn’t help is that no-one is telling us what’s going to happen,” laments Barry. “For the time being, we are telling our staff that nothing is going to change. As it happens, I voted to stay in the EU, but my father voted to leave. Like many other people he was surprised by the outcome. ‘I didn’t think we would leave the EU,’ my father said.”

One aspect of Brexit that has been welcomed by Barry and other TRA members is the pound that plummeted in the first week of July.

“We have seen the pound drop by around 10% overnight to a low of $1.35, which has not been seen since 1985,” says TRA’s Wheeler. “Who knows when it will stop falling or what the ramifications of this will be on the economy? One thing is certain, where we had some clarity before the referendum, the situation at this moment is anything but clear.”

Easing the situation

Barry agrees that a weaker pound makes trading easier. “Eighty per cent of our business is comprised of exports to countries in eastern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa,” explains the MD. “In an average week we collect 170 to 200 tonnes of textiles, clothing and shoes. From what we collect, 50-60% is suitable for reuse, five per cent will be waste while the remainder is split 50/50 as wipers or turned into flocking.”

Is trading in the used textiles sector as ‘challenging’ as ever?

“It’s always challenging, especially as things change very quickly,” says Barry without hesitation. “Most people have no idea of the unpredictable conditions under which we operate. I did a business course at Cranfield University in 2013, and a course lecturer exclaimed that without a shadow of a doubt in the 30 years he had worked with small and large businesses, ours was the most complicated and inherently the riskiest he had ever seen. Basically, he had never come across an industry that is as complicated as ours. Due to items in a textile bank changing over time, you buy your products blind, which people think is weird.”

Other factors

Besides being vulnerable to variables in sterling, there are also seasonal factors when the demand for either summer or winter clothing can double depending on the market. Apart from the emergence of new markets over the past 20 years such as the one in eastern Europe, there are other factors such as countries developing their own sorting systems rather than relying on the UK to supply them with ready-sorted items.

“We carry on employing people, but we are competing with low-cost labour in other countries,” states Barry. “Plus, we are one of the biggest employers in Newham.”

And if all these factors were not challenging enough, there is the issue of textiles going through materials recovery facilities. “Unless used clothing is separated before it ends up in MRFs, it is very unpopular with MRF operators as textiles have an ability to wrap themselves around every conveyor in the facility. Consequently, MRFs try to keep clothes out of their plants, but thanks to mixed messages from charities, merchants and local authorities, the general public is still not clear as to what they should do with it,” explains Barry. “High-quality clothing is where the money is and everyone wants it, but trying to get charities, merchants and local authorities to take low-grade clothing is a massive challenge, particularly when you consider that the cost of the collections is three times the cost of the clothing.”

The company director, who was president of the TRA until March 2015, admits that dealing with used clothing is sometimes like “banging your head against a brick wall. The problem is that you think something will work and you believe you can see light at the end of the tunnel, then you get so far down the line and you don’t want to admit failure,” he says.

One of the major challenges for Barry while he was president of the TRA was helping to get a conversation going between manufacturers and recyclers. “The work that has been carried out with the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan has been really positive; just getting the manufacturers and recyclers together has helped no end. Indeed, the TRA would rather set up a similar scheme to the French extended producer responsibility scheme here in the UK before it is forced upon us at a later date.”

Potential ban

Another source of frustration for the UK used clothing sector and the TRA is the threat of countries such as the East Africa Community (EAC), comprised of Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, banning imports of second-hand clothes from Europe in the next three years.

“The problem with politicians is that they have no Plan B if they stop the import of clothing. What are people in the EAC going to wear? They won’t want to buy Chinese clothes which are not as good as used clothing from Europe,” says the director with obvious frustration. Another threat looming on the horizon is a proposed import tariff on used clothing being imported into the Ukraine. “It is an incredibly complex formula and the Ukrainians aren’t keen to tell anyone what they are going to do until January 2017.”

What new markets are there for TRA members such as LMB? “Mongolia has a massive market for jumpers, and Russia is a potential market. A county like India is unlikely as it has such a high volume of clothing manufacturers, so it would be like taking coals to Newcastle.”

Although the UK tends to beat itself up over the way it handles things, Barry says the used clothing infrastructure in the UK is “very advanced. We reuse around 30% of clothing in Europe, which is incredibly high.”

On occasions there are even instances where used items from one European country cause a bit of a sensation (albeit a bemused one) elsewhere. “We sent a guy in France some onesies and the French sold them really quickly as they were seen as a novelty,” recalls Barry with a chuckle.

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