Western apparel brands and retailers with an eye on sustainability are rolling out initiatives to recycle unwanted clothing instead of sending it to landfill. But while such actions from the likes of Marks & Spencer and Levi Strauss attract almost universal applause, there's a very different reaction in China where the practise carries a five-year prison sentence.

What's the likelihood we'll be seeing Sir Stuart Rose, executive chairman of Marks & Spencer, or John Anderson, the CEO of Levi Strauss, in jail next time they're visiting a Chinese supplier or checking the competition in Shanghai?

A lot higher than you imagine. Both run businesses that take great pride in being part of an industry that carries a five-year sentence in China: clothes recycling.

Levi Strauss attracted almost universal applause last month when it announced it was adding "Recycle this" to its garment care tags, alongside the washing, drying and ironing recommendations - and directing customers to their nearest branch of Goodwill, a US recycling charity.

And M&S was praised last year too when it teamed up with Oxfam, a UK-headquartered development charity, to encourage garment recycling: so much so, that M&S and Oxfam extended the promotion this July to recycling home textiles.

The Chinese think differently
As Levi's was announcing its Goodwill programme, Chinese police were raiding 500 shops and warehouses in Lufeng, a city by the sea in Guangdong province.

They arrested 11 people for breaching article 355 of the country's Criminal Code, which bans illegal imports of used waste.

In spite of the popularity of recycled clothing in China (100m imported used clothes were sold to Chinese customers last year, the country's government reckons), there have been at least ten similar raids in the Guangdong port of Jieshi over the past two years.

And a lot of those used clothes almost certainly came from Western charities: 61% of clothes given for recycling in the US ends up being sent to developing countries, the last published estimate claimed, and the position in the UK is pretty similar.

It can't be doubted that many of the clothes recycled under the Levi's and M&S programmes will end up being worn in China, other Asian countries or in Africa (where it's often called mitumba).

And that Messrs Rose and Anderson are party to a trade that's strictly illegal in China.

Undermining garment makers
To the Chinese government, used foreign clothes undermine the country's garment makers, insult the dignity of the Chinese people (or at any rate of the Chinese government, because it looks as if it can't clothe its people) and probably risk the nation's health.

"These clothes are full of insects, bacteria and worse," said one Chinese professor.

Though for all the daily scandals about death and disease from Chinese milk, water, air and plastic Mickey Mice, there's not been a single allegation of so much as a sneeze attributed to a dodgy imported Mickey Mouse T-shirt.  

Probably it's the "dignity" issue that upsets them most.

100m garments is almost exactly one day's production of the Chinese apparel industry, so these illegal imports really don't affect the market.

The health scares are just nonsense: the real scandal of imported cheap clothes is that they might look like a criticism of the government's competence.

To countries like Nigeria and Uganda, where imported used clothes really are destroying domestic clothing factories, the mitumba industry meets an important consumer need - and is a more formidable lobby than local fabric and garment makers.

To Chinese citizens buying the 100m used foreign garments - and their counterparts throughout Africa - the trade means affordable (and often surprisingly fashionable) clothes.

To the 10,000 families around Jieshi supposed to be involved in the trade, it means jobs - as it does to the uncounted thousands of mitumba sorters, hauliers, sellers (and sanitisers) throughout Africa who keep the business going.

To pressure group the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation (ITGLWF), used foreign clothes destroy garment-making jobs.

So the ITGLWF opposes recycling unless it's "distributed free of charge" - a policy which would destroy the basis on which most mitumba gets from overstuffed Western wardrobes onto the backs of the world's poorest.

To Western environmental activists, the trade stops billions of unwanted garments stuffing landfill sites, emitting methane.

To Western customers feeling slightly guilty at how many clothes they've bought and really don't need, the trade's a way of doing some good.

Who's right?
All of them of course.

China bans the trade because the Chinese government thinks it's bad for China, the Ugandans don't because the pro-mitumba lobby beats the antis and Westerners think the trade is good for the world.

Messrs Rose and Anderson aren't likely to find themselves in a Chinese jail, but they shouldn't expect much approval if they try to roll out their recycling initiatives to their Chinese stores and stockists.

But they're both too bright to do so without thinking very hard how such programmes will go down with the Chinese.

Mike Flanagan is chief executive of Clothesource Sourcing Intelligence, a UK-based consultancy that provides the western apparel buying community with objective information on apparel production, trade, price competitiveness, and apparel producers in over 100 countries. The new suite of Clothesource Guides help buyers find the best value - and give emerging-market lobbyists hard data on what their competitors offer.