The height of fashion? Mountains of clothes pile up as recycling crumbles



MADRID / NAIROBI (Reuters) – Garment recycling is fast fashion’s pressure relief valve, and it’s shattering under COVID-19 curbs.

The multibillion dollar second-hand clothing trade keeps the growing heap of garbage from the global fashion industry from going straight to landfills, while keeping wardrobes clear for designer designs. next season. But he is facing a crisis.

Exporters are struggling, as are traders and customers in often poorer countries, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America, who depend on a steady supply of used clothing.

The signs are everywhere.

From London to Los Angeles, many thrift stores and clothing banks outside stores and on the streets were inundated with more clothing than could be sold, causing mountains of clothing to pile up in sorting warehouses.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year, textile recyclers and exporters have had to cut prices to move inventory as lockdown measures restrict movement and business slows in end markets across the country. ‘foreigner. For many it is no longer commercially viable and they cannot afford to move goods.

“We’re getting to the point where our warehouses are completely full,” Antonio de Carvalho, boss of a textile recycling company in Stourbridge, central England, wrote to a customer in June, asking for a price cut. for the clothes he collects.

De Carvalho pays the cities for the clothes collected in its containers and then sells them at a profit to traders abroad.

Since May, he said, the price he was able to charge overseas buyers has dropped from 570 pounds ($ 726) per tonne to 400 pounds, making it difficult for his company, Green World Recycling, to cover. the costs of collecting and storing the items. .

Buyers were also asking to increase credit periods before having to pay from 15 days to 45-60 days, adding to cash flow problems, de Carvalho wrote.

“We are losing … a huge amount of money, making a big loss for the operation.”


De Carvalho’s experience is mirrored across the industry, suggesting that even after the pandemic has passed, battered trade could take a long time to recover.

Recyclers are taking clothing banks off the streets, reducing the number of times they are emptied per week and considering laying off workers to save money, according to Reuters interviews with 16 market players in Britain, in the United States, Germany and the Netherlands.

At the same time, in a grim irony for such businesses, donations have increased as people trapped at home clear their wardrobes – a godsend in normal times.

“This is unlike any other recession in a century,” said Jackie King, executive director of the US trade body, the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART). “I predict there will be businesses that go out of business.”

The withdrawal of recyclers has far-reaching consequences for an industry that has seen an annual average of more than $ 4 billion in used clothing exported around the world in the five years to 2019, according to trade data from the UN.

Exports have declined this year.

In Britain, the weight of used clothing exported from March to July was about half of what it was for the same period last year, according to official trade data. Exports improved in July – the last month on record – as traders rushed to move stocks as countries began to reopen but were still down by around 30%.

In the United States, the value of exports from March to July fell 45% from the same period last year, according to government data.

Up to a third of clothing donated to the United States – the world’s largest exporter of used clothing – ends up sold in developing country markets.


The consequences of the decline are visible in countries like Kenya, which imported 176,000 tonnes of second-hand clothing in 2018, or more than 335 million pairs of jeans.

Business is stagnant at the Gikomba open-air market in Nairobi, one of East Africa’s largest second-hand clothing markets. Sellers sit idle while traders call shoppers to ask them to try on their clothes

Traders have been hit by a double whammy of the decrease in supply, exacerbated by the government banning the import of used textiles in March, fearing they may carry the new coronavirus, and a drop in footfall due the fact that people stay at home.

“Before the coronavirus arrived, I managed to sell at least 50 (pairs of) pants a day,” said trader Nicholas Mutisya, who sells jeans and hats. “But now with the coronavirus, even selling one a day has become difficult.”

“We can’t buy balls (of clothes) directly, so we buy our stock from those who have already bought them. “

The ban on imports of used textiles was lifted in August after traders in Kenya and industry bodies in Europe and the United States refused to say second-hand clothing was safe because the virus could not survive on the trip to Africa.

Yet the struggle continues for traders like Mutisya and Anthony Kang’ethe, who works as a driver for a shop selling second-hand bales of clothing shipped from Britain. He said the company had been hit hard by the supply crisis.

“Before, we had five employees in our company,” Kang’ethe said. “We have two left. “


The large-scale commercial trade of second-hand clothing from Europe and the United States to emerging markets boomed in the 1990s due to growing demand in Africa and Eastern Europe for western fashion.

Such demand has provided much-needed output value for a booming fashion market, where apparel production has roughly doubled in the past 15 years, according to sustainability charity, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The fashion industry is the second largest consumer of water and is responsible for up to 10% of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and shipping combined, the environmental program of the UN in March 2019.

Meanwhile, the clothes represent a massive and growing pile of garbage that ends up in landfills.

In Britain, shoppers buy more clothes per person than in any other country in Europe, about five times what they bought in the 1980s, according to a 2019 UK Parliamentary report from the Audit Committee environmental.

About 300,000 tonnes of clothing is landfilled or incinerated each year, according to the report.

The United States produces just under 17 million tonnes (15.4 tonnes) of textile waste per year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, or the equivalent of about 29 billion pairs of jeans. Two-thirds end up in landfills.

Many fashion retailers, including Zara’s owner Inditex and H&M, encourage shoppers to bring unwanted textiles to their stores for collection and, in the case of H&M, even offer discounts on new purchases in exchange.

Only a small portion of the clothing Inditex collects is sold in international markets, a company spokesperson said. H&M said clothing collected from its stores is processed by I: CO, a unit of German textile recycling company Soex.

“The whole problem is only getting worse,” said Anna Smith, a doctoral student at King’s College London, examining a so-called circular economic system, which aims to eliminate waste.

“People are consuming more and more.

Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles and Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm; Editing by Pravin Char


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