17 OCTOBER 2016
Have you swished? Do you shwop? Today there are more ways than ever to get rid of your unwanted clothes. But whatever option you choose, your cast-offs will generally end up in the hands of a specialist group or textile merchants – mainly small family-run businesses like my own, who have the expertise and specialist knowledge to find a home for anything.
Years ago the rag and bone man would have swapped your cast-offs for anything from a goldfish to money, today cash for clothes shops, eBay, the textile banks on virtually every recycling site across the country and the charity bags that arrive through your letter box take on this role.....
Then there are the charity shops. From the British Heart Foundation to the local hospice they, naturally, want to raise as much money as possible for their cause. But, as Mary Portas showed a few years back, to ensure the profits are not eaten up in running a shop, only the best donations are sold in store. The rest are sold on a multibillion-dollar worldwide market.
This market began in the early 1980s with Africa is at its centre. The continent has seen one of the highest population explosions over the past 30 years, and all these people need clothes. UK clothing was high quality, fashionable and made to last, so charity shops sold unwanted donated clothes to rag merchants, which meant more money for the charity's good cause. These rag merchants would then sort it to suit the needs of African customers. Once in Africa the bales of clothes (either 55kg or 45kg – approx 550 per container, totalling 25 tons) are sold on to market stall holders. They further sort the clothes – washing, ironing and packaging some items up to sell in shops, selling other items on stalls or re-selling it to travelling markets servicing small villages.
For some this industry appears exploitative, but I am incredibly proud of my business's work as textile recyclers. We are not oil companies doing deals with corrupt governments to buy a country's natural resources, nor are we selling old PCs to be dismantled by children breathing in toxic fume; this is a family business doing business with other family businesses to ensure that much-needed clothing can be bought by customers who want it. And we are helping to tackle the problem of what to do with the 900,000 tons of unwanted clothes, which in 2009 the Department of Forestry and Rural Affairs, said went into landfill each year.
Our company still deals with many of our customers from 30 years ago, and we know the profits they have made have allowed them to set up other businesses – such as banks, petrol stations and hotels for tourism. In Kenya alone research has found more than five million jobs and ancillary jobs were created in the second hand clothing industry. And this is hardly surprising when you consider the jobs created clearing the containers, unloading them, stall holders and tailors altering the clothes, rents paid to landlords, accountants and officials employed to collect taxes. One of our newest customers fled Rwanda as a 15-year-old. Now, after living in England, obtaining a degree and working for Microsoft, he has decided to return to Africa to make a difference, not just to his family but by passing on his skills and knowledge to the next generation.
Historically our industry has been kept behind the scenes, because the charity sector did not find it easy to explain to the public that the clothes they gave them were sold on to Africans. As for the claims second-hand clothes have a negative effect on the domestic clothing market in which they are sold, I would say there are not enough resources in the world to clothe everyone. And many countries in Africa do not have a historical clothing sector like India, nor the climate for water-thirsty cotton production which accounts for 40% of the world's clothing raw material.
We in the west must accept that we have to start to buy less. We need to follow the three Rs and reduce (buy less) reuse (extend the clothing lifespan) and recycle (polish your car with an old T–shirt). But at the moment the clothes we discard are of a high quality, and usually far better than the new clothing that people can afford in the developing world. It is not an ideal situation, but currently the best we can offer. No one should stop donating clothes – at the moment the very worst thing you can do with your old clothes is to put them in the bin.