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Feature: Textiles tackle slowdown

Last year, trade restrictions in parts of Africa seriously threatened the viability of the global second-hand clothing market, and this year the UK industry has been trying to pick up the pieces.

Since January, sales of second-hand clothing have held up, although we are now at the start of the slow selling season, which runs from April to August. There are already signs that this slowdown is happening.

The prices paid for second-hand clothes in the traditional export markets are still at the same level as 10 years ago, although the cost that traders here in the UK have to pay to source the goods in the first place have continued to rise.

The recent tsunami appeal resulted in a large increase in clothing donations that was not required by charities, and the second-hand clothing industry was inundated as the goods found their way into the trade.

This initial surge of donations has been followed by a significant shortage in supplies since January.

The main threat to the textile reclamation trade in the UK is the ever-increasing amount of cheap new clothing that is being imported into the UK from the Far East for sale in the shops. These items tend to be of inferior quality and by the time they find their way into the reclamation trade, they are often not suitable for re-use but can only be broken up for recycling - or worse, sent for disposal. This is making the whole industry less financially viable and many are struggling to keep their heads above water.

The Textile Recycling Association (TRA) is aware of at least 30 businesses that have either ceased trading or that have stopped exporting second-hand clothing in the last few years. The demise of the World Trade Organisation's agreement on textiles and clothing on the January 1 this year - which restricted the imports of new clothing from developing nations to the lucrative markets in Europe and North America - is likely to make the situation worse for our industry during the next few years, as more of this new inferior quality clothing will find its way from China, India and elsewhere into our UK high street stores.

The TRA is taking this and other threats very seriously, and is taking steps to protect the interests of its members. Not only has the association now got the ear of the Waste and Resources Action Programme but it is also making representations at European level. It is representing the UK on Project Ouvertes, an EU-funded initiative bringing together textile reclamation federations across Europe.

The aim of Project Ouvertes is to develop a Europe- wide framework that formally and quantitatively identifies the issues that are critically affecting the industry and produce a practical action plan with solutions to overcome these problems.

Several solutions to the crisis within the European textile reclamation industry have already been suggested, including the imposition of an eco-tax, which could be levied on the sale of all new items of clothing, shoes and other textiles. The money raised from this tax could be used to finance the less profitable aspects of textile recycling. Comparisons have been made to the tax levied on all new electrical goods through the Waste Electrical Electronic Equipment Directive.

Another suggestion is the development of markets, either through exporting existing goods to new markets or by identifying new uses for recycled clothing and textiles.

A major conference will be held in the autumn, where the findings will be presented to industry leaders, senior politicians and key stakeholders in the industry at European level.

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