What does 2017 hold for the textile recycling industry?

Written by: Geraldine Faulkner | Published:

The two big issues facing British clothes recyclers this year are Brexit and east Africa, explains Alan Wheeler, director of the Textile Recycling Association

For most if not all of us, 2016 will have felt a bit like a roller coaster of a year, but unfortunately if you think we have come to the end of the track and are about to disembark, I think you will be in for a surprise. The political shocks of 2016 have only just set us up for what lies ahead.

Internationally, Donald Trump has yet to become US president. That doesn’t happen until 20 January. The EU is reeling again from a referendum in Italy, the result of which was largely seen as an anti-EU vote. The political game of chess going on that is parading itself as the French presidential election has only just started, and again its outcome could have a huge impact on the politics of our continent.

For our sector, our future relationship with the EU is of vital importance. Continental Europe, and in particular EU countries in eastern Europe, is a vital export market for the UK used clothing/textile industry.

Our sector has benefited hugely from being part of the single market. Most of the items we export are not considered waste by the UK competent authorities and this in theory allows us to trade our products freely and without any tariffs. We also heavily rely on migrant workers, many of them from the EU.

As I have said in the past, they are not taking British workers’ jobs or suppressing wages. Workers are paid competitive salaries and do a very important job. We need to maintain access to the EU labour force with the minimal (ideally no) additional bureaucratic barriers put in place, otherwise there may simply not be the staff to carry out the collection and sorting operations here.

If we are sitting outside the single market, then we will need to consider how our products being exported from the UK into the EU will be treated. We will probably have to deal with trade tariffs, and dare I mention it, more waste regulations. While sorted reusable clothing with a market is not considered waste by any of the UK competent authorities, some of their counterparts on the continent take a less pragmatic view and are only too keen to have our products classified as waste. Inside the EU we can have some steer on these matters. Sitting outside the EU and the single market we will have no influence, and if a competent authority in any EU member state decides reuseable clothing is waste, it is waste and we will have to adhere to the requirements of the Waste Framework Directive even though we are exporting products.

Focus on east Africa

Further afield, east Africa looks as though it is going to be concentrating our minds in 2017. The member states of the East African Community (EAC) (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda) decided in March 2016 to instigate measures with a view to banning used clothing imports by 2019.

If this goes ahead, the impact on the global used clothing industry will be huge for everyone engaged in trying to improve the sustainability of the clothing supply chain and circular textiles economy.

While the efforts of designers, manufacturers and retailers in improving the switching to more sustainable, ethically produced textiles is laudable and vital, these efforts alone do not address circularity issues.

Without substantial markets for reuseable clothing and investment in developing new markets for recycled fibres from worn out textiles, we will not be able to achieve a circular economy. So when a group of countries that collectively import around 10-15% of all the used clothing being traded internationally is threatening to stop their trade, we need to sit up and talk to them, to see if we can forge agreements that are mutually beneficial.

It is the intention of the textiles division of the Bureau of International Recycling to send a trade delegation to east Africa in January following on from a promising ‘door opening’ visit in October. We hope to cut through the rhetoric and get down to the details.

The main reason cited by the EAC behind banning used clothing imports is that they want to support textile producers in their countries and create manufacturing jobs. We perfectly understand why they want to create new jobs and improve their prosperity, but we know that for African textile producers to prosper they need to be competitive on the global market and deal with the dominance of China. African textile producers were largely shielded from the emergence of China as a global player in the 1990s.

This was due to the World Trade Organization’s Multi-Fibre Agreement, which effectively restricted the amount of new clothing that China could export to Western countries. On 1 January 2005 this agreement was abolished and, during the first few months of that year, exports from China to the west doubled. The African producers were just not able to compete.

Different perspective

The reality is that the success of the used clothing industry in Africa has very little impact on textile producers. However, if you live in a country where more than 50% of the clothing bought is used clothing from another country, and for many the decision to purchase used clothing is borne out more of economic necessity than lifestyle choice, this is likely to affect your views on used clothing. Also, when you see the scale of the used clothing markets and the huge amount of perfectly good, useful clothing that has been passed on by their original owners mainly from Western countries, it makes you realise how wasteful society is.

But that doesn’t mean that academics, politicians and the media should be berating the used clothing industry. Creating smoke and mirrors by peddling misinformation does not help anyone.

The used clothing industry is the most sustainable part of the clothing supply chain and every effort should be made to encourage more people to buy/acquire used clothing wherever they are in the world. At the same time, efforts on improving the sustainability of the clothing supply chain need to be dealt with on the production side as well as at the reuse and recycling end.

In part this can mean making efforts to slow down fashion, by making better-performing items whose appeal is more enduring, keeping items for longer, applying design for recycling and disassembly principles and giving consideration as to how easily a textile product’s embodied constituent parts can be reintroduced into a circular economy, once it has reached the end of its useful life. This is where I feel that there are real opportunities to work with textile producers in Africa and why I think that real positive benefits will manifest if we can persuade African leaders to keep the used clothing markets open.

The fact is every business with an interest in the sustainability of the global clothing supply chain is relying on used clothing markets remaining open and we need to recognise that Africans should be treated as equal partners in this process. They need jobs, we need their markets. So if they agree to keep their used clothing markets open, let us help them create the manufacturing jobs in the textile recycling industry that they need.

Sharing sorting operations?

In the short term we can look at whether sorting operations, which currently largely take place in Europe, north America and to some extent in the Middle East, could be shared more equitably with sorting operations being established in Africa. This relatively simple measure (at least on paper) has the potential to create thousands of professional, skilled and semi-skilled jobs in Africa.

However, there needs to be the political will by African politicians to help drive this process and encourage investments from sorters. The current threat of a ban on used clothing imports will not encourage investment.

However, in the longer term I can see opportunities for Africa to play its part in delivering a circular economy for the global textile industry.

There are a number of R&D projects going on in various parts of the world on improving fibre to fibre technologies and techniques. Some are now close to coming to market but are facing their biggest barrier, the final bit of investment that will ultimately enable the establishment of new recycling plants.

Surely, with the global clothing industry being such a huge dominating financial success, there must be stakeholders who
have the money to back these important projects? When some of these technologies finally break onto the global market, let’s get recycling plants established where the jobs are needed, in places such as Africa, where the need to improve people’s standard of living is acute.

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