Recent market trends highlight the need for more sustainable end markets

Recent market trends highlight the need for more sustainable end markets

The market for recovered textiles in the UK is cooling off, new research suggests, which could lead to more clothing going to landfill, highlighting the need for more sustainable end markets, including market development for recycling grades, including closed loop fibre-to-fibre recycling. 

In its 'Textiles Market Situation' report, which is part of a series of reports that examine current economic conditions in the markets for recovered materials, WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) looks at key market developments, including trends in supply, demand, and prices. It notes that around 1.7m tonnes of UK textiles are consumed every year, 1.1m tonnes of which is clothing. 

Importantly, the textiles and clothing industry is the fifth largest contributor to the UK's carbon footprint, according to WRAP. Extending the life of clothes by an extra nine months of active use, it says, would reduce the carbon, water and waste impacts by around 20-30%. 

In addition, providing 1 tonne of clothing for direct re-use by donating it to a charity shop or selling it through online market places such as eBay can result in a net greenhouse gas saving of 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

The amount of textiles collected for re-use and recycling increased between 2010 and 2014, reaching a peak at an estimated 650,000 tonnes in 2014, up from 619,000 tonnes four years prior. This was primarily due to substantial growth in exports, as well as large price rises and reports of an influx of new entrants into the market. 

Changing market conditions

However, market conditions have changed. Preliminary data shows textiles collected in 2015 fell by around 4%, partly due to a decline in the price that operators can get for used textiles in the various end-markets.

The main destination for used textiles collected in the UK for re-use and recycling is overseas markets. But WRAP says demand for UK used textiles has started to decline, and prices have been falling since 2013.

Indeed, lower prices and reduced demand is reducing the incentive to collect used textiles, which could lead to more going to landfill, wasting environmental and economic benefit opportunities. The lack of robust end markets for recycling, as compared to re-use, is also a contributing factor. 

But despite the widespread fall in prices, WRAP claims the value of exports per tonne remains relatively high by historical standards. Specifically, trade of used textiles globally amounted to 4.2m tonnes in 2014, with a value of $4.4bn. And in the same year, the UK alone exported nearly 352,000 tonnes of used textiles, worth GBP342m (US$485.9m), making it the third largest exporter of used textiles in the world after the US and Germany.

Growth in the UK alone can be attributed to trade with Poland and Hungary and an increase in exports to sub-Saharan Africa, in particular exports to the Ivory Coast, Togo, Ghana and Benin.

There is, however, ongoing uncertainty over the prospects of a ban of imports of used clothing into the East African Community (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi).

Sustainable end markets

Navigating these changing market conditions will be a challenge going forward, the report suggests. WRAP believes they highlight the need for a wide range of sustainable end markets, including re-use markets at home and overseas as well as developing recycling grades markets for textiles which are not suitable for the re-use markets, including fibre-to-fibre. 

"The used clothing industry is going through an extremely difficult period both here in the UK and globally," says Alan Wheeler, director at Textile Recyclers Association. 

Political and economic pressures are being put on existing markets, he explained, resulting in fewer UK collections in 2015. And with prices much lower than they used to be, continuing downward pressure on prices for used clothing "is inevitable for some time to come". 

He added: "The UK needs to take a longer more strategic view on how to develop new markets which need to be less reliant on used clothing exports and consideration of how to finance these developments needs to be given a high priority."

Click here to view the full report