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SecondHand Clothing

January 27th, 2012

‘Everything Must Go’ – How do you Recycle? – EVENT report

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Written by: Jacqueline Shaw
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ThEverything Must Go – Exhibition at the OXO tower Bargehouse Private view 20th January 2012

Have you ever wonder about the truth behind recycling clothes? What happens to old clothes that charity shops can’t sell? The Everything Must Go exhibition at the OXO tower last weekend gave a visual and very  display of the global trade in second-hand clothing; art installations, videos, workshops and talks brought the issues to life for the visitors. Based on research that aimed to uncover the truth behind the ‘clean and green’ face often given to recycling, it showed a much grittier reality. For those who were unable to make it in person, here is a summary of what you missed.

Everything Must Go exhibition – image copyright – Africa Fashion Guide

As described by the exhibition curators, Lucy Norris and Clare Patey, ‘Everything Must Go’ contextualises anthropological research on textile recycling in India and the UK with collaborative projects including Meghna Gupta’s film Unravel and photographs by Tim Mitchell. The event hosts recycling workshops with Lizzie Harrison of Remade in Leeds and showcases a resurfaced textile created by Kate Goldsworthy. It marks the culmination of the Waste of The World research project, funded by the ESRC. This investigated global flows of waste, including local waste management, food waste, the second-hand clothing trade, steel and nuclear industries and ship-breaking.

The exhibition took the viewer through the processes and complex commodity chains that have developed around second hand clothing and showed that the journey of donated clothing was often very varied and where some clothes could end up being resold and used within the same community, others could be shipped as far as South East Asia, South Asia and Africa for reselling or for example the production of ‘shoddy’ – broken down mixed fabrics often used to make cheap blankets.

Everything Must Go exhibition – image copyright – Africa Fashion Guide

Other times clothes are used for their colour alone and are brought to great warehouses where they are sorted into colour groups. One particular highlight of the exhibition was the enchanting and heart warming film by Meghna Gupta, Unravel, that followed the flow of second hand clothing from the West to India and its transportation inland to one of many sorting factories. Many of the workers in the factories interviewed believe the West has a water shortage and that’s why they send their clothes to India in such large quantities, because they can only wear them a few times before they have to throw them away, why else would we possibly throw away perfectly good clothes in such high quantities?

Everything Must Go exhibition – image copyright – Africa Fashion Guide
Everything Must Go exhibition – image copyright – Africa Fashion Guide

Everything Must Go exhibition – image copyright – Africa Fashion Guide

One of the most surprising ‘truths’, so to speak, of the exhibition was that these clothes being exported to India are actually slashed in a Special Economic Zone (a free-trade area in Gujarat) before they cross custom borders. Women are paid to mutilate used clothing of all qualities as India forbids the import of second hand clothing. This is done in order to protect its domestic textile industry.

For example this little girls jacket was sorted as unsaleable by a sorting warehouse due to it missing one button, it was then sent to India where it was slashed 3 times to mark it as ‘mutilated hosiery’.

Everything Must Go exhibition – image copyright – Africa Fashion Guide

As the work shown was a culmination of a research project called the Waste of the World, funded by ERSC, and also featured a study into the dirty and dangerous work of breaking down and recycling container ships, this helps to demonstrate, amazingly by a time-lapse film, the deconstruction of one single ship over the coarse of around 18 months. And so Africa Fashion Guide was very grateful to have been invited to a great launch event of such an amazing exhibition.

Everything Must Go exhibition – image copyright – Africa Fashion Guide

The second day of the Everything Must Go exhibition at the OXO tower on Southbank, was on Saturday 21st January and was host to two very interesting panel discussions. From 11:15-13:00 the talk titled Alternative Prospects on the Used Clothing Trade was chaired by Professor Nicky Gregson of Durham University); from 14:00-16:00 the talk was concerning New Models: Recycling, Upcycling and Closing the Loop and was chaired by Lucy Siegle, Journalist and Broadcaster. This part of the exhibition was entitled ‘Talking Rubbish’ and aimed to bring together researchers, designers, filmmakers, business entrepreneurs and third sector leaders together to critically engage with the issues raised and their implications for the way in which we think about our old clothing.

It started with a great overview by Julie Botticelli with an interesting discussion breaking down the sorting factories which sorts and sends secondhand clothing.

Everything Must Go exhibition – image copyright – Africa Fashion Guide

The trade of second hand clothing has had a particularly big impact on Africa, especially since liberalisation of import embargoes that protected the African textile industry. In the mornings talk, Dr Andrew Brooks of Kings College gave a very interesting synopsis of his research into the second hand clothing markets in Mozambique. Highlighting a particular issue of the fact that many of the traders in these markets are trapped in poverty as bales of clothing are brought ‘blind’ – a trader will know the category of what they are buying but not the quality – and therefore some weeks are good and other are not, creating a very inconsistent and unreliable income, locally it is known as playing the lottery. He mentioned that it was positive in that it provides relief from poverty but it only sustains a low level of income and livelihood.

Dr Brooks talks highlighted also that Mozambique doesn’t have a clothing industry as much as before. That you can get quality clothing in African countries such as Lesotho and Kenya but that secondhand clothing is still a problem and that even Togo and Benin act as conduits for clothing to be re-exported into Nigeria where the clothing industry is protected. This quote he gives in regards to Malawi from World Trade Organisation, it sums up all this as it does impact other African countries

‘With the liberalization of the secondhand clothing market the already deteriorating textiles and clothing industry was severely affected. The garments produced in Malawi have been bound to be more expensive than secondhand clothing and as a result some of the major factories could not complete with the cheaper prices offered by the secondhand clothing industry and they were forced to close. Initially the influx of the secondhand clothing was seen as ‘the best thing that ever happened to Malawi’ but the consequences to the clothing industry were devasting’

WTO 2005

Dr Brooks also mentions the recent debatable ad campaign by Vivienne Westwood and the Ethical Fashion Africa bag project where she promotes Kenya production. His problem with it is that it does not give the best impression of those living in the rough slums in Kenya and so this could be seen as insulting in ways.

Everything Must Go exhibition – image copyright – Africa Fashion Guide 

An alternative view on the trade of used clothing was put forward by Oxfam’s Sarah Farquhar, who described the foundation and running of a pilot social enterprise scheme of Oxfam’s called Frip Ethique. Frip Ethique is a second hand clothing sorting warehouse in Dakar, Senegal where Oxfam send surplus wearable clothing from their charity shops in the UK to be sorted and resold to market traders. The 40 or so employees of Frip Ethique are paid fair, local living wages, have a union and job security, Oxfam aims to formalise the process rather than fight against it. However Farquhar confesses that it has been a matter of much discussion in the Oxfam offices due to the impact of second hand clothing on domestic production – and undoubtedly interesting discussions none the less.

Sarah highlighted the importance of clothing donations as a means of fund raising for Oxfam and interestingly a shortage of bra’s being donated – apparently a highly sort after garment in Africa – she encourages everyone to keep donating and definitely not throwing in the bin. Figures showing demand & prices paid per bale of clothes in Dakar were also revealed by Oxfam which proved interesting reading. Bras & sport shorts? Interesting but true. So was the fact that Oxfam turnover around £70million a year with £25million in profit, the equivalent cost of running their West Africa program.

Everything Must Go exhibition – image copyright – Africa Fashion Guide

So all this makes us ask Do we discard garments because we feel we have outgrown the person we were when we first wore the item in my wardrobe? and How long do you keep your garments for? The average life of a garment is just three years and according to DEFRA (2010) one million tons of textiles are destined for landfill every year. Oxfam actually want people to resell clothes locally but the average woman has average 8 items of clothes they don’t wear which means too many new clothes are bought and not used. Oxfam do try to be transparent, visionary and offer practical solutions to a real complex issue of secondhand and so their Frip Ethique project is presented as a social enterprise solution. Stay connected to read our future feature on them and our planned visit too.

Flow chart of what happens to clothes donated at Oxfam shops below breaks down the journey of clothing.

Everything Must Go exhibition – image copyright – Africa Fashion Guide

The second of the talks was focused around new models of using waste, upcycling and closing the loop and chaired by journalist and author Lucy Siegle (author of To Die For – read the AFG review here). Speakers included Lizzie Harrison of ReMade in Leeds, an upcycling social enterprise that aims to provide an accessible and affordable way for everyone to enjoy an ethical wardrobe through clothes swapping events, upcycling workshops and their own fashion label Antiform. The big Q with upcycling as Lizzie states is makin money and the barriers they face with working with the people they work with from local community. But they do incorporate factory waste with secondhand clothes and also work closely with retailer buyers and often invite them to their workshop.

Jade Whitson-Smith a PhD student at the University of Leeds who discussed ‘the potential of the fashion designer to reduce consumer’s textile waste’ – a very interesting and practical take on the age-old ethical fashion consumption vs abstaining debate; Ross Barry of LMB a London second hand clothing sorting company.

Another speaker is the renowned Kate Goldsworthy. Kate is a researcher and tutor of the MA Textile Futures course at Central Saint Martins. She discusses her research into closed loop polyester clothing model and the potentials of new technologies for new designs; End of life approach versus design for recycling are two key ideas mentioned by Kate who tells us that our tee shirt will outlive us. She outlines that shoddy is a mix of materials so this can’t be recycled chemically but that it can be brought into new life if it is kept in the clothing loop.

Ross Barry from textile recycling company LMB and store 123 Bethnal Green Road speaks on ‘refashioning’ and the customisation of end of line material to make new product as done by design companies such as Lu Flux, Goodone and Noki. In regards to secondhand clothing to Africa LMB they sell their bales as LMB branded clothing. This whole process of sorting is quite intensive as for LMB they have 100 people sorting their secondhand clothing to 130grades. One word…WOW!

The last speaker but not the least was Cyndi Rhodes CEO of Worn Again who discussed their work with corporations such as McDonalds and Eurostar in recycling their old uniforms into new ones or in the case of Eurostar into ticket conductor’s bags – now in use so next time you find yourself on the Eurostar don’t forget to check out the conductors bag.

Top tips from the exhibition and talks:

– look out for Eurostar train conductor’s bags – a great example of how corporations can be involved in upcycling in a big way.

– don’t stop donating your clothes, but make sure you give to a registered charity not a rogue fake charity – look closely at leaflets put through your door, some are fake.

– donate even your old or misfitting bras, surprising as it may be that they are highly sort after in Africa, and it is a much better use for them than going in to land fill.

– mend and make do – take a leaf out of Lizzie Harrison’s book and try to upcycle your unwanted clothing, you could even try out a workshop to get some inspiration, or alternatively try a clothes swapping event to revamp your wardrobe.

Author: Imogen Butler, Jacqueline Shaw



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  1. Quite a detailed write-up there! Good job. Whilethe Waste to Fashion project is appreciated for the Developed World, the implications for Developing and under-developed countries is another highlight of the growing poverty level and increased threat to the Apparel industries in such countries.
    Africa must arise in resistance to being the dumping ground for Second-Hand clothing/accessories if her Apparel Industry wants to grow and be economically viable.

  2. Fascinating article. I am so glad this whole subject of clothes recycling to developing countries is being investigated and that Oxfam are spearheading a program to get it working better for everyone. In West Africa where I live I see the benefits – everyone can afford clothes but it has meanwhile all but destroyed the local weaving industry.

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