The 'bra wars' saga over Chinese-made clothing that has been raging for the last few weeks has put the industry's focus on textile recyclers.
A three-year agreement to limit the growth of Chinese imports was signed in June, stipulating quotas for goods received by EU nations. But problems arose when 80 million items were impounded at European ports for exceeding this year's quotas, as importers had placed orders before the agreement came into force in July.
Import quotas were implemented by both the EU and US in a bid to protect their own textile industries and limit the growth in Chinese textile imports. American and European manufacturers claim that cheap imports from China are threatening jobs. Since the global textile quotas were abolished at the start of the year, the US textile industry say almost 20 factories were forced to close after the market was flooded by cheaper imports. Of the EU nations, the southern European countries, including France, Italy and Spain have taken the most protectionist stance.
Textile Recycling Association (TRA) president Terry Ralph is with the southern European countries when it comes to quotas because his organisation worries about the trend for disposable clothing being imported from China and the Far East that is not ideal for recycling.
He said: "Our concern is the quality of clothing coming in not the quantity."
Ralph explained that the quality of cheap clothing from the Far East had repercussions for textile recyclers, who benefit from higher quality material. He added that textile recyclers were finding that the quality of textiles received from the Far East is inferior to European standards.
"If it's not a sustainable quality, when we pick goods up after they are discarded they are of no use for second hand clothing to be exported to third world countries," Ralph said.
Second hand clothing that goes to charity shops and collection banks gets graded and re-sorted depending on the quality of the item. Ralph explained that the problems for textile recyclers would crop up at the re-sorting stage, if they found that the goods couldn't be sold on as clothing. The worry is that these cheap imports have a shorter lifespan, and are not durable enough to survive to be re-used and sold on as second hand clothing.
Clothes collected in textile banks and excess clothing received at charity shops are sorted and graded by textile recyclers, packaged and sold abroad to third world countries such as Africa and Pakistan. The bales of clothing are bought by old-clothes traders by the container-load, and are then separated into bales and sold on to small traders, who in turn sell the clothing on to individuals. The effect of more and more cheap clothing in the market is therefore likely to have a knock-on effect throughout the second-hand clothing chain.
But the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) director general Sir Digby Jones has been at the forefront of calls for the European textile industry to 'modernise'.