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Textiles - 11 May 2013

I was thinking how simple things use to be when it came to recycling. The industry went pretty much out of vogue after the War and by the time I came into this world and was growing up as a child in the 1970s nobody really recycled much at all. 

It was not until really until the 1980s that the public began to get an appreciation that recycling was “good for the environment” and in small numbers people started almost unquestioning to recycle. We were quite happy to accept that if we were to drive down to new recycling point in the Supermarket 6 miles away with our 10 glass bottles that we were saving energy and reducing pollution (we did not worry about our petrol consumption) and we were also prepared to accept that recycling our handful of newspapers was helping to “save the rainforest”. By the end of the 80s all sorts of products were claiming to be “environmentally friendly”, without any science of substance to prove the claims.

I am very thankful that the science of recycling and resource management has improved. However, with this improved knowledge come the occasional conflicts, especially when some people or groups  only have partial knowledge or, as I often find, they choose to ignore the facts that don’t sit comfortably with their pre-disposed view of a subject. 

Take our sector. What is controversial about it? We divert high value commodities from disposal with resulting high carbon benefits. Most of the items are collected through our collection partners (e.g. charity shops, charities without shops, local authorities etc.). Therefore, we help to raise hundreds of millions of pounds annually for good charitable deeds and vital services provided by local authorities. The sector also employs up to 10,000 people directly in the UK, often in areas of high unemployment or social deprivation, thereby ticking both the “public service” and “social value” box. We also provide good quality affordable clothing to people throughout the developing world, and employment and income generation opportunities for millions of people globally.

Yet despite these really positive aspects, I often have to deal with conflicts of interest amongst the various players in the sector. When you consider that we have lost over 10% of our membership through bankruptcy and insolvency in the last six months, and that during the same period the global value of clothing has fallen by around 10%, the tension that these conflicts cause is intensified and it’s important to resolve them.

Recently we have seen conflicts rise between local authorities and charities, but often the conflicts arise between different charities and their chosen form of fundraising. Collections through textile banks, charity shops and door to door all have their different positive attributes, but they also have their costs and where a fundraising organisation chooses to go it alone, they have to meet all the financial risks themselves.  In the end, the net profits are broadly comparable. It is not the case clothing that goes through a charity shop raises 50 times as much money as a door to door collection, as one website tries to claim. It is nowhere near that.

Before people start getting hot under the collar about the introduction of a new council scheme, it is worth remembering that around 430,000 tonnes of good quality re-useable clothing being disposed in landfill sites and incinerators annually, and that when Suffolk Waste Partnership introduced its’ countywide kerbside collection scheme of clothing, charity shops actually reported increases in donations as people became more conscious about the clothing they were throwing away.

Another conflict we also address is a perception held by some that the industry has a negative impact on textile production on developing countries. Ideally, we should be aiming to reduce the waste produced and reuse/recycle as much of it as possible in the UK, but we are not going to achieve this goal overnight, so it makes sense to export the used clothing to countries where there is a demand.  It is important to address concerns about perceived impacts abroad but what you actually find when you look into research is that the situation is much more complex than the sensationalist grabbing headlines would have you believe.  Unfortunately, headlines are repeated on the internet until they becomes accepted as a false truth. 

The real truth is that other factors such as the economic liberalisation laws in Africa, reduction in African’s purchasing powers, increased competition from the Asian clothing market, removal of some cotton subsidies and demand for African cotton for western clothing production have all had a significant part to play. Even before the advent of used clothing imports African manufacturers were struggling to compete and it can be argued that the used clothing trade merely managed to fill a gap in the market which incumbent textile producers couldn’t. It is certainly not a fait accompli that the ending of used clothing imports to Africa would result in the textile production re-establishing itself. If we are to obtain the goal of successful sustainable economic development throughout Africa one should think carefully about restricting the import and sale used clothing which is one of the most successful economic sectors on the continent. Instead, efforts should be concentrated on developing jobs in a range of sectors, improving economic wealth and social justice and tackling corruption.

Looking back to the 1980s, we never knew about these things, we just wanted to do what was right. I still think that many of us are at least partly driven by this desire (so long as it pays). In trying to achieve our overall objective of reducing the environmental and social impact of the UK and clothing and textile industry, we are making significant progress. Despite the recent awful tragedy in Bangladesh, some UK clothing retailers have made significant strides to improve the transparency of their supply chains. Perhaps this sector will now need to look at the structural integrity of the buildings in which their suppliers operate in more detail. 

Actually the very positive work that has been done through the Sustainable Clothing Roadmap was recognised earlier this year when it was awarded The 2013 Global Leadership Award in Sustainable Apparel by the Swedish Fashion Industry. Through undertaking detailed research and challenging long held pre-conceived ideas about the best ways to conduct business, through WRAP the members of SCAP are gradually working towards a society where clothing and textiles are consumed more sustainably, with greater UK re-use and recycling. No doubt there will be more conflicts along the way in what continues to be a very uncertain market, but I am sure we will find a way.

Alan Wheeler, Director, Textile Recycling Association

When the Suffolk Waste Partnership of councils introduced its textile scheme, St Nicholas Hospice Care was among charities worried that donations would drop. Instead the publicity around the scheme saw textile donations to the hospice rise by 20%. The charity told the Bury Free Press that reselling wearable items and recycling the worn out ones raised £500,000 in 2012.

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