The European Conference on the future of the Textile and Clothing Reclamation Industry – Brussels – 13th October 2005

Textile Recycling Businesses: Are they an endangered species?

This alert was raised by William Wauters (Terre Group in Belgium) at the close of the “Textile Recycling: How can we save an industry in crisis?” conference held in Brussels on October 13, 2005. The first conference ever to be organized jointly by private textile reclamation companies, charities, and social enterprises from seven European countries (France, the United Kingdom, Poland, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany), it also welcomed representatives from the European Commission and various national governments.

Alarmed by the current plight of the textile reuse and recycling industry in Europe, these players have joined together to issue a unanimous cry for help to public policymakers: the industry is in imminent danger of extinction. The massive importation and consumption of clothing of Asian origin, of low quality and hard to recycle, are intimately linked to the rash of shutdowns in the second-hand textile industry.

Yet, as pointed out by Francis Veys, Director General of BIR (Bureau of International Recycling), industry players generate true economic, social and environmental benefits. By reprocessing textiles, clothes and shoes the industry is prolonging the useful life of these commodities, they help preserve the environment. By employing over 250,000 persons in Europe, of which a large number are from disadvantaged populations, they help fight social exclusion and create jobs. By exporting second-hand textiles to the South, they promote the development of local industries.

If we let the textile recycling industry die, we are depriving our society of major economic players who work to promote more sustainable and socially equitable development.

During the conference, the state of the industry was diagnosed and potential solutions at the local, national and European levels were put forward. These proposals aim to restore adequate profitability to the industry to ensure its long-term survival. Possible solutions included, in particular, an “environmental contribution” funded either by governments or economic operators in the textile industry, which would partially offset the collection and sorting costs. This is a system that has already been adopted by other recycling industries (tyres, packaging).
Will the hopes raised among industry players by the stimulating debate be fulfilled by public policymakers and, more specifically, the European institutions? The preservation of our environment and thousands of jobs, in both the North and South, depend on it.

The Textile Recycling Association represented the United Kingdom at this conference. Alan Wheeler (the association’s National Liaison Manger), made a presentation at the round table session on the possible solutions for saving the sector. Mr Wheeler said afterwards “the difficulties facing our industry must not be understated. The rag and bone man in various guises was a common site for hundreds of years and the modern day textile reclamation merchant, which fulfils important social, economic and environmental objectives, is under threat. In the UK the trade employs around 15,000-20,000 people and presents great economic opportunities for people elsewhere, particularly in Sub Saharan Africa. Unless steps are taken soon to fund the textile recycling activities that are not financially viable, we could see the closure of many businesses and charitable enterprises in this sector”.

Alan Wheeler
Textile Recycling Association, PO Box 965
Maidstone ME17 3WD – UK
Tel: 0845 6008276
E-mail – – Web:


For further information on the Textile Recycling Association visit

This conference was organised in connection with the OUVERTES project (Organiser L’Union pour Valoriser L’Economie du Recyclage Textile, de L’Emploi et de la Solidarité), by the Union Régionale des Sociétés Coopératives de Production, with the support of the EU General Directorate for Employment and Social Affairs, under the coordination of 3 international enterprise networks.

In Kenya, approximately 5 million people are employed directly or indirectly by the second hand clothing trade (Dr Simone Field, 13th October 2005, Brussels). Kenya has an unemployment rate of about 40% and has a total population of about 30 million.

In 2003, second hand clothing accounted for over a quarter of all clothing imports in Sub Saharan Africa (by value). By volume second hand clothing accounts for much more (Oxfam 2005).