Used clothing

Nobody gains from cheap clothing

Western consumers buy – and discard – more and more clothes. Most of the clothing they throw away ends up in a used-clothes container, and much of that is sold secondhand to Africa and Latin America. Textile-recycling expert Thomas Fischer explains why.
Used-clothes container in Germany. picture alliance / ZB / Z6944 Sascha Steinach Used-clothes container in Germany.

You are an association of around 100 mostly commercial companies making money by selling old clothes. You set up used-clothes containers and rely on people donating garments for free. What is the basic business model?
The companies’ revenues result entirely from the sale of top-quality used clothes – so-called cream clothing. To be economically viable, they must be able to sell about 60 % of the clothing they collect and sort. Everything else costs our members money, because every step of the sorting process is manual and time-consuming. Old clothes that cannot be sold need to be properly disposed of, which also costs money. The same is true of non-garment textiles, which often end up in containers too. Only pure cotton can be recycled currently. It can be sued to make cleaning rags. Everything else ends up in garbage incinerators as a secondary fuel. Most of the residual non-recyclables are cheap synthetic fibres and blended fabrics.

How much clothing is disposed of in Germany annually?
In 2013, it was around a million tons; in 2018 1.3 million. The trend is rising. But since the Covid-19 pandemic began, we have had no reliable data. Our statistics are based on the sales of retail shops. In the past two years, nothing was normal.

Most of the secondhand clothes are sold to developing countries. The exports to Africa draw criticism. It is argued that the used clothing from the west is destroying local textile industries. How do you respond to that claim?
Well, charities like the Red Cross or Caritas sell used clothing for exports to developing countries too. In Germany, the volume of secondhand clothes is larger than the demand of needy people who live here. We sell most of our goods to wholesalers in Poland and the Netherlands, from where they are shipped to the target markets in Africa and Latin America. As for the argument that used-clothing exports are destroying local textile industries, let me say two things. There is no such industry in many countries and, if there is, its traditional products are not what many consumers want. They are keen on affordable and fashionable clothing from Europe.

A number of years ago, countries like Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania tried to ban the import of used clothing. Except in Rwanda, that attempt failed. Why?
One reason is that the secondhand markets in Africa were established decades ago and many livelihoods there depend on the trade. Moreover, people want the clothing. The real problem is not second-hand garments from Europe, but the cheap synthetic clothes from Asia, which are flooding African markets. Garments made in China have become increasingly important, and that is a big problem. Fashion is now so fast that manufacturers launch 12 to 16 collections a year. The clothing is very poor quality. After being washed a couple of times, the items either lose shape or are simply ruined. Typically, it is impossible to resell or recycle them. That said, current demand for clothing could no longer be met with cotton alone.

What would you like to see happen in that respect?
There is an increasing awareness of the downsides of fast fashion. It is my hope that more consumers will buy fewer clothes, but of better quality, so manufacturers will respond by returning to manufacturing longer-lasting goods. It may seem ironic, but less consumption would not harm our business. Cheap garments are no good to us. If more high-quality clothing were bought, more of it would be dumped into our containers. Only high-quality used clothes can be sold on the secondhand market – and the sales ensure that people can use our containers to make their used clothing available to others.

Thomas Fischer is consultant for recycling management at the Textile Recycling Association of the German National Association for Secondary Raw Materials and Waste Disposal (bvse).

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The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.