MADRID / NAIROBI (Reuters) – Clothing recycling is fast fashion’s pressure relief valve, breaking under the COVID-19 curbs.
The multi-billion dollar trade in second-hand clothing is helping the global fashion industry’s growing mountain of garbage not landfill while the wardrobes for next season’s designs remain free. But it is facing a crisis.
It is just as difficult for exporters as for dealers and customers in often poorer countries from Africa to Eastern Europe to Latin America, who depend on a constant supply of used clothing.
The signs are everywhere.
From London to Los Angeles, many thrift stores and clothing banks outside of stores and on the streets were inundated with more clothes than could be sold, causing mountains of clothes to pile up in sorting stores.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began earlier this year, textile recyclers and exporters have had to cut prices to move inventory as lockdown measures restrict movement and slow business in end markets overseas. For many it is no longer commercially viable and they cannot afford to move goods.
“We’re reaching the point where our warehouses are completely full,” wrote Antonio de Carvalho, head of a textile recycling company in Stourbridge, Central England, to a customer in June, calling for the price of the clothes he collected to be reduced.
De Carvalho pays the cities for the clothes he has collected in his containers and then sells them for profit to traders overseas.
Since May, he said the price he could charge overseas buyers had dropped from £ 570 ($ 726) per tonne to £ 400, making it difficult for his company, Green World Recycling, to keep track of the cost of the Cover collection and storage of items.
Buyers also asked to extend the credit periods from 15 days to 45-60 days before paying, which exacerbated cash flow problems, de Carvalho wrote.
“We’re losing … a huge amount of money, which is a huge loss for the operation.”
De Carvalho’s experience is mirrored across the industry, suggesting that even after the pandemic has ended, it could take a long time for troubled trade to recover.
According to Reuters interviews with 16 market participants in the UK, US, Germany and the Netherlands, recyclers are removing clothes benches from streets, reducing the number of empties per week and considering laying off workers to save cash.
At the same time, in a grim irony for such companies, donations have increased as people stuck at home clear their closets – a blessing in normal times.
“This is unlike any other recession in a century,” said Jackie King, executive director of the US trading organization Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART). “I assume that companies will give up.”
The recycler withdrawal has far-reaching consequences for an industry that has exported more than $ 4 billion in used clothing worldwide on average in the five years to 2019, according to UN trade data.
Exports have shrunk this year.
In the UK, the weight of used clothing exported from March to July was around half what it was in the same period last year, official trade data shows. Exports improved in July – the last month since records began – as traders rushed to shift inventory as countries reopened but still declined around 30%.
In the United States, the value of exports fell 45% from March to July compared to the same period last year, government data shows.
Up to a third of the clothing donated in the United States – the world’s largest exporter of used clothing – is sold in markets in developing countries.
The consequences of the decline can be seen in countries like Kenya, which imported 176,000 tons of second-hand clothing in 2018, the equivalent of over 335 million jeans.
Business is sluggish at the open-air Gikomba market in Nairobi, one of the largest second-hand clothing markets in East Africa. Vendors stand idle while vendors call shoppers and ask them to try on their clothes
Merchants have been hit twice by the shrinking supply, compounded by the government’s March ban on imports of used textiles over fears they might carry the novel coronavirus and a drop in customer footfall due to people dropping stay at home.
“Before the coronavirus hit, I was able to sell at least 50 (pairs) of pants a day,” said trader Nicholas Mutisya, who sells jeans and hats. “But now with the coronavirus it has become difficult to even sell one a day.”
“We can’t buy bales (of clothes) directly, so we buy our inventory from those who have already bought them.”
The import ban on used textiles was lifted in August after dealers in Kenya and industry associations in Europe and the United States denied that used clothing was safe as the virus could not survive the trip to Africa.
But the battle for dealers like Mutisya and Anthony Kang’ethe, who works as a driver for a shop that sells bales of second-hand clothing from Great Britain, continues. He said the business had been hit hard by the supply crisis.
“We used to have five workers in our company,” said Kang’ethe. “We have two left.”
DARK SIDE OF FASHION
The large-scale commercial trade in second-hand clothing from Europe and the USA to emerging countries took off in the 1990s due to the growing African and Eastern European demand for Western fashion.
That demand has created much-needed release value for a booming fashion market where apparel production has roughly doubled in the past 15 years, according to sustainability charity Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
The fashion industry is the second largest consumer of water and is responsible for up to 10% of global CO2 emissions – more than all international flights and shipping combined, according to the United Nations Environment Program in March 2019.
Now clothes make up a huge and growing pile of garbage that ends up in landfills.
In the UK, shoppers buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe, about five times more than in the 1980s, according to a 2019 UK parliamentary report by the Environmental Audit Committee.
About 300,000 tons of clothing go to landfill or incineration every year, the report said.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the USA produces almost 17 million US tonnes (15.4 tonnes) of textile waste per year – this corresponds to around 29 billion jeans. Two thirds of it end up in landfills.
Many fashion retailers, including Zara owners Inditex and H&M, encourage shoppers to bring unwanted textiles to their stores for collection and, in the case of H&M, even offer discounts on new purchases.
Only a small fraction of the clothing Inditex collects is sold in international markets, a company spokesman said. H&M said the clothes collected in its stores were processed by I: CO, a unit of the German textile recycling company Soex.
“The whole problem is just getting bigger,” says Anna Smith, a PhD student at King’s College London who is working on a so-called circular economy system that aims to avoid waste.
“People are consuming more and more.”
Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles and Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm; Editing by Pravin Char