September has proved to be busy for the used clothing industry.
The Catwalk fashion models stole the show again at RWM. This year’s event also saw a flurry of publications from WRAP, including the results of its research into textiles flows, the impact of feedstock on value, the washing and drying report and the publication of the Textile Collections Guide for local authorities. And the Textile Recycling Association (TRA) launched its Code of Practice, which is compulsory for members.
All of these demonstrate how the industry is being professionalised and how a wider evidence base is being gathered. Additionally, more local authorities are realising the revenue they can gain from textiles waste and treating it as a resource.
Despite the hive of activity, this does not detract from the difficulties faced by textile reclamation merchants.
The TRA received confirm-ation that administrators had been called in to wind up another of its members. This year has seen the highest number of members ceasing collections since I started working for the TRA in 2003. There are rumours that others are currently trading at a deficit.
Merchants are not able to pass on their ever-increasing costs, such as the escalating value of used clothing that they pay to their beneficiaries. This is because their ultimate customers are the public in eastern Europe and Africa and, like us, they have suffered from the global economic crisis and seen their disposable incomes squeezed.
In a rational world, where such a situation occurs, the value of the particular commodity would decrease. But the used clothing industry is not rational. Regrettably, there are some organisations in the industry that, rather than being in for the long haul, want only to make a quick buck.
If these businesses are making legitimate profits, then that is more acceptable. But, despite a number of initiatives, including work the TRA has undertaken with the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau and the Trading Standards Institute, theft of clothing remains a problem.
There are a number of parallels with the problems surrounding metal thefts; if the Scrap Metals Bill is passed, it will be interesting to whether our sector can take on board any lessons.
At the same time, news from the charity shops sector is mixed. Sue Ryder Care has just reported an increase in net income from its network of shops, from £33.4m in 2010 to £36.6m in 2011. This generated a net profit of £7.6m. But the Alzheimer’s Society recently announced the closure of all its shops, citing that they were not financially viable.
While charity shops as a whole are seeing an increase in clothing donations - currently 360,000 tonnes a year - more competition, particularly from increased numbers of charity shops and cash for clothing stores, means that some charities are getting fewer donations and are able to sell less on to textile reclamation merchants. Some are trying to increase revenue through their shops by expanding into items such as electrical goods.
Interestingly, following the launch of a new kerbside clothing collection by Suffolk Waste Partnership, one charity, St Nicolas Hospice Care, reported a 20% increase in donations to its shops as the public have been emptying their wardrobes because of the county-wide collection scheme.
So the council-run initiative is having a positive impact on this charity’s shops, at least in the short run.
By Alan Wheeler, national liaison manager at the Textile Recycling Association