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Hanging around a lot longer in the retail supply chain

You are at the cashier paying for a new item of clothing in shop. It’s on a hanger.

Does the cashier ask if you want to keep the hanger, remove it, or pack the hanger along with the item? It is an interaction that takes only seconds, but its outcome has repercussions.

Increasingly, retailers are trying to hang on to their hangers – for cost and environmental reasons – so that they can be reused, or at least recycled.

Braiform supplies more than 2.5 billion hangers a year to the clothing retailer sector around the world. It operates a global reuse programme, which sees more than one billion hangers reused and 250 million recycled every year – numbers the company is hoping to increase. As it has made a commitment to reuse, it no longer owns any virgin manufacturing facilities, although it does use third party manufacturers to fulfil its supply agreements.

Retail_opinion

Braiform has long-term reuse programmes in the US and Europe, holding a 15-year relationship with the retailer Target across the US and Canada. In the UK, its reuse programme was set up in 2001, initially from a facility in Nottingham, to process hangers for BHS and Mark 1 in a 25,000sq ft workshop. This facility was closed in 2006, when it no longer had the capacity or efficiency to keep up with demand.

All hanger processing was moved to a 60,000sq ft reuse centre in Barnsley in 2005, created to process hangers for Marks & Spencer. This operation was upgraded to a 150,000sq ft site in Sheffield in 2010, which also warehouses stock to cater for the growth in reuse clients, which included Matalan, Peacocks and Mothercare.

Jim Collingham, Braiform’s reuse programme manager for Europe, explains that the scheme’s growth has been driven by packaging legislation, cost, efficiency and environmental benefits for retailers. As well as the UK reuse centre, Braiform has two in the US, in North Carolina and California. In other parts of the world, it uses third party firms.

The company’s closed loop programme is aimed at retailers that use garment-on-hanger (GOH) supply chains. Such retailers source their hangers locally to the garment manufacturer then use the hanger as a piece of packaging, shipping it all the way through the supply chain to the shop. Retailers such as Matalan, Peacocks and Mothercare use this model. Others, including H&M, keep their hangers and put garments on to them in-store, which suits their business and supply chain models.

For retailers that use the GOH model, Braiform offers a range of reuse hangers, and supplies them by manufacturing locally to where the garments are being made. At the other end of the supply chain, it works with retailers in-store, putting in place best practice and educating staff not to give hangers away (see box: Holding on to hangers). A field-based team trains store staff and monitors performance. As Collingham explains, the reason for intervention at this point is simple: “For every hanger they give away, we have to mould a virgin one.”

The company’s reuse centres are now highly automated for efficiency. “We developed a system that had a plaque on the front of the hangers for the branding, so that when it comes back to us, our automation can take the branding off the plaque and the hanger becomes a universal hanger again,” he says. “The hangers have been developed to fit in within a reuse programme, to make sure we maximise the number of hangers we reuse and reduce the amount of waste that we output.”

Because the point of sale is likely to be across the world from where clothing items are manufactured, the reuse centres send their processed hangers back to the most economically feasible place, going from west to east.

Hangers not suitable for reuse go to Braiform’s recycling facilities, which separate the steel from the plastic.

“One of the reasons we do that is because it makes commercial sense,” says Collingham. “As well as reuse, we are proactively looking for retailers where we can work as a waste management stream: take the hangers, shred them, reprocess the compound and reuse it in our virgin production, because that offers us a cost saving over using virgin material.”

Braiform has continued to develop its service offering, providing tailored solutions to retailers that best suit their needs. This is especially prevalent in Europe, where garment hangers are often viewed as an extension of the retailer’s brand. This results in high numbers of different hanger styles, colours and logos – a scenario that may require a part-reuse, part-recycling solution rather than full closed loop reuse. Braiform’s hanger and plaque system goes some way to negating such obstacles.

Collingham says: “The [clothing retail] market has to be aware of ethical and sustainable practices, which are now unavoidable, and therefore has to balance this against the best way to drive sales and returns for their shareholders. They are still developing strategies to best achieve this, but there has been a big shift in attitude: where retailers used to see hangers as a by-product of the process, they are now understanding that they are an asset.”

With Braiform’s continued support, its programmes are retaining around 80% of hangers within the supply chain – “that’s really good” – but Collingham is hoping to nudge the numbers up, which would mean greater resource efficiency and bottom line benefit for all involved.

Holding on to hangers

Shop staff are trained to retain hangers and put them into a box. Labels on the boxes are scanned, so that the number of hangers returned from each store can be monitored.

Using this data, along with the store’s sales data, the number of hangers ‘leaked’ from the shop can be calculated, so that those with high leakage can be targeted for training.

Full boxes of hangers are backhauled to the retailer’s central distribution centre, where Braiform has collection trailers. Once full, they are sent to Braiform’s reuse centres to be sorted, cleaned, checked for quality and repackaged.

On a daily basis, the company receives deliveries from eight to 10 retailers at its reuse centre in the UK. Any that do not meet the standard for reuse are recycled.

In the US

Braiform’s biggest reuse programme is with Target in the US, processing around 450 million items a year for the retailer. Target collects in the region of 80% of its hangers and reuses a high percentage of those. Braiform’s reuse centres in the US use automation that also wash the hangers because they are made of a more robust material than in the UK.

The future

Braiform is looking at using alternative materials for hangers, which may offer a more sustainable solution. Collingham says: “We have a highly sustainable waste prevention/waste minimisation solution within reuse. The next step is to really push that and look at whether we could replace PS, PVC and such materials with bioplastics, for example.”

As with any product, new materials will have to be fit for purpose. Hangers may have to travel considerable distances, sometimes on bumpy roads in fairly basic vehicles in the countries where the garments are manufactured, so hangers need to be able to withstand the transportation phase of the supply chain.

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