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Where does all the clothing go? – Insights from academic research, but without the jargon

Cast-off woollen clothing is sorted (again) into basic colour groups in one of many large warehouses in Panipat, India.

From Friday 20 to Sunday 22nd of January 2012 the Everything must go exhibition in the South Bank’s Oxo Wharf (London, UK) opened its doors to the public.

The event was in many ways special: Not only aimed at bringing interested non-academics and academics together, but its principle aim was to convey to the general public academic research results around recycling commodity chains (from the ‘Waste of the World’ and ‘Worn Clothing‘ project) acquired over the course of 5 full years. The mentioned two projects have 2 major focus areas: Clothing Recycling and the recycling (scavenging) of ships in dedicated shipyards. While the facts and stories about ship recycling impressed through the strength and rawness of their on-site report, it was the how ingeniously literally everything gets a new lease of life left in developing country that made a a lasting impression on me.

This all said, it was the results related to clothing recycling that were the most detailed, and made most accessible to the public through written information, artefacts, and over the course of a day of presentations and panel discussions with seasoned experts. The exhibition was well curated, and stroke overall a good balance between exhibition artefacts, hands on experiences (e.g. upcycling clothes), explanations of processes central to the clothing and rag recycling industry, and finally short documentaries that gave as a good a ‘first hand’ insight as can be expected from a film as opposed to actually being on-site.
(Note: Make sure to check out ‘Unravel’, a documentary about women working as cutters in Panipat.)

Everything Must Go exhibition

Impressions from the 'Everything Most Go' exhibition, January 20 - 22 2012, Oxo Wharf, London, UK.

The amount of insights offered was staggering, and it is difficult to summarise them in just a few lines. However, the points that were repeatedly made across the entire exhibitions as well as the presentations and discussions are the following:

  • Clothing recycling – or any recycling for that matter – has in first instance little to do with either environmental protection or charity. It is through and through a commercial business – even for the charities and clothing banks involved – that while complicated, can reap substantial benefits. Few consumers in the West are aware that there is a whole industry that not only depends, but indeed banks on their overconsumption.
  • The ‘fast fashion’ phenomenon has impacted substantially on the quality of clothing donated (which in any case amounts to only about 50% of all garments discarded, the remainder going to landfill as consumers do not separate from general waste), and hence of what can be created from it. In numbers:
    - In 2006, the average life span of a garment (in London, UK) was of 3 years. However, Primark Oxford street did not open until 2007 …
    - When in 2008 about 80% of all donated clothing could be reused in one way or another – either as second hand clothing through charity shops, or through sales to rag sorters -, in 2011 this percentage had fallen to an estimated 60 – 70%.
    - In the same period, the amount of clothing donated has decreased by about 20% (estimates say however, this is NOT the case for the total amount of clothing discarded).
  • There is no such thing as ‘waste’ in the sense of ‘it’s thrown out and will disappear’. Certainly in developing countries, everything has a use and will, if necessary, be transformed to serve a new purpose. There is therefore a direct correlation between the lack of resources and the degree of innovation and inventiveness.
  • Recycling work, not the least in textiles, is often dirty and potentially dangerous work, wherever this occurs in the world. And it should indeed be recognised as such.
  • Design, certainly in the ‘developed’ hemisphere of the world,has so far spent very little thought about what happens with a product – a garment in this case – once it has been retired from its initial use. While this has historically not always been the case – there is many an example how objects were created to serve varying purposes during their life span – the consumption economy has made ‘waste’ an acceptable by-product. But unless the different live stages of an object are considered right from the beginning in the design stage, its later-in-life usefulness remains a challenge.

Looking at the bigger picture, the talks, in combination with the exhibits, managed to draw a well understandable and memorable sketch of the mechanisms of the global clothing recycling industry. For instance:

  • Only 15% to 20% of the clothing donated is suitable for resale in a charity shop.
  • The remainder is sorted initially in the UK and then (in all but a few cases) shipped abroad for further processing. What happens in the UK is where the most money can be made of initially, among which is the sales of clothing bales to countries such as Mozambique or Senegal.
  • 20% of clothing is shipped to India for further processing, composed of 12% sweaters that are sold to the shoddy industry (for recycling & re-manufacturing), 5% jeans and 3% cloth.
  • Panipat in India is the world’s largest production centre (300 mills, importing some 100’000 tons of worn jumpers, coats and suits annually) for shoddy yarns, and through that equally one of the worlds largest suppliers of (cheap) emergency wool blankets for international cooperation agencies.
  • Panipat produced in 2007-8, the local industry produced 43 million kgs of shoddy yarn, 18 million blankets (wool as well as shoddy), and 33 million meters of shoddy fabric. The industry employs 30’000 men in spinning unit (no women, as it is fairly dangerous and physical work), 20’000 weavers (again, men only), 6-7’000 men in raising and finishing units, plus thousands of women cutters (i.e. rag sorters, slashers) and workers in secondary industries.
  • The first port of call for all clothing shipments to India is usually a special economic zone in Gujarat, where clothes are sorted once again according to their subsequent use. Garments that are in wearable state will be slashed (as India prohibits imports of second hand clothing good enough to be worn), baled, and then trucked to the next processing units.
  • Second-hand clothing is widely available and worn in countries where the local industry either does not produce clothes at a price point affordable to the average person, or where their is no local apparel/fabrics industry … or where at some point of time either the locally produced stuff was not of good quality, or else design-wise out dated.

The exhibition proved overall that no matter of how we look at it, we know very little of what is really happening to clothing (and other products) once they’ve expired from their first life. The value chains from that point onwards are however not negligible at all, and are a source of income – sometimes even fortune – of a large number of people. But, as it happens with most industries that rely on making a profit from low product margins, the majority of recycling industries have moved further East where salaries are cheaper, workers desperate to have work, and legal regulations not quite as stringent as in Europe or the US. The industry would in fact not be able to survive otherwise. Which leads to the conclusion that much of our European recycling streams, and hence waste management concepts, entirely depend on overseas processing units. If it were not for these, we’d be swallowed already by the amounts of waste we produce ourselves.

Global Recycling Facts

Fact sheets: The benefit of clothing recycling, currently valid prices, and some details about 'shoddy' production (click to enlarge).

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