Losing the thread

Written by: Alan Wheeler, | Published:

The textile recycling industry is enduring turbulent times, not helped by the misconception abroad that restricting used clothing imports will help to protect local producers. The answer is for the industry to secure new markets and be less reliant on exports, says Alan Wheeler, director at the Textile Recycling Association

At our recent AGM, the first thing I reported was that last year brought further closures in the industry, the most recent one of note being BCR Global Textiles. I accompanied this by reiterating the startling fact that 23% of collectors and sorters that were members of the Textile Recycling Association (TRA) at the beginning of 2013 had since ceased trading. Unfortunately, based on what I have heard recently, it seems as though we may see yet more closures this year.

To add to the current woes of the market, two major issues have arisen that have the potential to severely impact our trade: the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and the proposed ban on imports of used clothing by East African Community countries by 2019.

The TRA has been very active in trying to focus attention on these issues as it is becoming more and more apparent that there is a disconnect between environmental priorities and trade governmental departments within the UK and the EU.

On the one hand, Defra and DG Environment want us to collect and process more used clothing and textiles, but as our president Ian Woods eloquently put it, some of the trade discussions that we have had would lead us to believe that second-hand clothing is some form of sacrificial cow that can be offered up to obtain a trade agreement. For example, why is it that in the trade agreement between the EU and Ukraine, used clothing imports into Ukraine, along with used car imports, have been singled out for special treatment?

New ‘entry price’ mechanism

Whereas import tariffs on all other goods are being phased out completely, used clothing imports will be subject to a new ‘entry price’ mechanism, which could result in a massive hike in the amount of money UK businesses have to pay to sell their goods into Ukraine. Unfortunately this does not seem to be an isolated incident.

We have seen other roadmaps for future trade agreements which suggest that used clothing could be given more special treatment in the future. And why is it that EAC countries have also chosen to highlight used clothing and used car imports for banning? This has to stop. Our industry needs to be treated fairly.

Some politicians believe that banning or restricting used clothing imports will help to protect local textile production industries. This is mistaken. It will only serve to threaten the jobs of hundreds of thousands of people in places like East Africa who are employed by the used clothing sector; by far the most sustainable part of the clothing supply chain.

If protection and increases in production of new textiles in developing countries is the desired goal then local producers need to be competitive in the global market and produce items that the local and international public want. Their governments need to invest more in infrastructure including the electricity supply network, which is often highly unreliable and costly and puts African textile producers at a huge disadvantage compared with their Asian counterparts. I also question whether increasing textile production anywhere in the world is desirable.

Last year, clothing magnate Eileen Fisher said that “the clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world … second only to oil”. We are buying five times as much clothing as we did in the 1980s and, even putting sustainability issues aside, if textile production is increased, say in Africa, presumably this will have a huge negative impact on jobs in places like Bangladesh, which is one of the world’s biggest textile producers and one of the world’s poorest countries. Is that really what we want?

There are better solutions and I would urge politicians who have the power to make things happen to make the right decisions. These may not be popular or easy decisions.

Perhaps politicians in East Africa might be better off pursuing a goal of promoting and supporting manufacturing jobs in the textile and fibre recycling industry, which has real long-term prospects, rather than spending their time, efforts and resources on trying to prop up a new textile production sector that is already awash with textile producers globally and unsustainable in its current form.

As for the future of the used clothing and textile recycling industry, it has become increasingly apparent that it needs to take a long-term view and seek to secure new markets for used clothing and textiles, and to understand that we will have to be less reliant on used clothing exports in the future.

How will we find new markets?

Research and development will have to play a key role, but how will this be funded against a backdrop of reduced government funding?

Extended producer responsibility on clothing has to be given serious consideration. We already have producer responsibility schemes for electrical products and packaging, which have been in place for many years. Clothing and textiles were overlooked at the time. I would say this was because, compared with most other material streams, the tonnage ending up in the bin is quite low and used clothing/textile collectors tend to keep themselves to themselves, whereas perhaps they could have been more vocal when these other producer responsibility models were being introduced.

However, through the excellent work delivered by the sustainable clothing action plan and other bodies, we have a much better understanding of the huge environmental impacts that the clothing and textile supply chain has and where these impacts are most acute. We also appreciate there are significantly bigger environmental benefits to be realised by diverting a tonne of textiles away from the waste stream compared with most other household waste streams.

To date, France is the only country that has introduced extended producer responsibility on clothing. Since its introduction, results have been impressive and I have heard it described as a “game-changer”.

Collections of used clothing have increased significantly and each year millions of euros are generated, not only to help finance collection infrastructure, but also for research and development work into new markets and a high-profile communications programme.

Other countries are also giving consideration as to what future funding options could be implemented to finance textile collections.

All in the timing

This includes detailed research in the Nordic countries through their green growth initiative on extended producer responsibility and new business models.

The time is right for a similar piece of research on funding options in the UK to support a more sustainable clothing and textile supply chain. The research will give us the knowledge and this will help our industry to implement the correct funding mechanism to secure the future of our sector.

We also need to get a grip on bogus operators while their numbers are more manageable. It is completely wrong that while members of our association operate to high professional standards, some businesses continue to flout the law by dumping banks and simply stealing used textiles with impunity.

I would like to see the requirements of our membership used as a basis for a new voluntary licensing agreement for the industry with an effective publicity campaign to promote the licence. However, for this to work, it must be backed up by effective enforcement of legislation (and possibly new legislation) and to prosecute those who break the law.

In these straitened times we also need to manage the expectations of charities and local authorities in terms of what price they can expect for their used clothing.

I recently saw a communication from a representative of a national charity which was sent to some of its shop managers, instructing them to put all their “rag” out for their used clothing/textile collector and not to enter into communication with the collector.

Unfortunately, “rag” by its definition is worthless, has no value and is of no interest to our members.

This is why we haven’t used this term for around 10 years, and I would urge others to follow suit. For more than 15 years, the TRA has been publishing the Charity Shop Grade Specification, which can be downloaded from our website at www.textile-recycling.org.uk.

We would recommend that charity shop managers revisit this specification to get an appreciation of what quality of mix their used clothing/textile collector is seeking. If this can be achieved, then both the charity and the collector should be able to reach an agreement with which both parties are happy.

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