A Ban on Used Textile Exports is Not the Answer

shutterstock_423576505In the last several weeks we have been contacted by more than one sustainability advocacy organization asking our advice on how we can stop exporting used Canadian clothing to Third World regions, East Africa being the top example.

For some reason shutting down this global industry seems to have become a political bumper sticker slogan (under- informed) solution to a complex, multi-faceted economic paradigm with global ramifications. We caution against oversimplifying a complex industry, and presenting uninformed simplistic guesses as fact based solutions when informing policymakers on waste management. Sometimes a solution that makes a good political soundbite is actually detrimental and counterproductive to the economy.

At one time, textile manufacturing as well as fashion manufacturing was a healthy industry in Canada that employed thousands of people. Tens of thousands, if you account for employment multiplication factors. A shift to a global economy decimated both sectors in Canada, resulting in a horrific economic downturn as the manufacturing of both textiles and fashion moved overseas favouring lax labour codes, inhumane employee compensation and absent safety regulations. There was no other sector available at the time to absorb those lost jobs resulting in record amounts of supporting companies going into receivership, and employees of the sector remaining unemployed or underemployed as they found their skills were not easily transferable.

The affordability of a new kind of fast fashion brought to us by big box retailers shifted the consumption patterns of Canadians. Although we were no longer making textile and clothes locally, the lack of those jobs forced Canadians to begin buying fast fashion because the loss of jobs locally meant less disposable income to buy more sustainable clothing. The sad irony is that the very companies that put Canadians out of work, were now the only companies these Canadians could afford to shop at. What makes it even worse is that some Canadians celebrated the new cheap clothing we were provided with!

This poor quality clothing does not last long resulting in higher consumption and therefore higher disposal rates….but who doesn’t love retail therapy!

As a result of the new big box retail driven consciousness, the average Canadian will now dispose of more textiles in the first six months of their life than the average person in the developing world will dispose of in their entire lifespan.

To give you a visual: In a single year, it is estimated that Canada produces enough textile waste—clothing and other goods like upholstery—to create a mountain three times the size of Toronto’s Rogers Centre stadium. Think about that!

Only 20% of what is diverted from landfill is still in reusable condition locally – what Canadians view as good enough to reuse is far more restricted than what people in other parts of the world consider good enough quality. The first thing we need to understand is the reason we export is because Canadians no longer want this stuff. It has already gone through households, been handed down in families, and made it through the thrift store or charity circuit and as far as Canadians are concerned, is no longer fit for use. That same item in another part of the world is still considered perfectly fine to use. Given Canada’s current lack of new green technologies around textile waste, our only other solution currently is landfill.

So if we were to impose an export ban as has been suggested by more than one well-meaning organization, not only would we lose several thousands of jobs in Ontario alone, hundreds of thousands of jobs around the world would be lost as well. All the collection receptacle manufacturers, truck haulers, clothing graders, exporters, and all the unrelated businesses that depend on this commodity trade would be instantly shut down. Some studies show that every job in the recycling sector supports 65 unrelated jobs. If the used textile export industry in Canada was eliminated, the loss of local employment would be staggering.

There are some communities around the world who survive on importing used clothing from North America as domestic clothing infrastructure in those places does not exist. There are many that say that the import of North American used clothing is the reason that infrastructure doesn’t exist, but the truth is the reason it doesn’t exist is because the local population is not in a position to purchase anything new made from a facility locally. People that only make $20 a month are not buying new jeans. It’s naïve to think that if we stop exporting to those countries, that a manufacturing industry will suddenly emerge when the local population is still living in Third World conditions where many don’t even have access to plumbing and electricity much less work in factories.

There are some places in the world that threaten to impose bans on the import of used North American clothing, and often that serves to drive up the commodity price for neighbouring border states – everyone can then profit on black market margins including sometimes the very leaders that imposed the bans.

There is also a naïve assumption that North America exports their textile waste in order to make it the burden of landfills overseas – and even that is the furthest thing from the truth. It is a ridiculous assumption that a company would pay an exorbitant amount to export something all the way to Africa when we could just as easily and far less expensively dump it locally. If it is being exported, it is because the item still has reuse value.

The resourcefulness and flexibility of people in the developing world astonishes us with all the creative ways they are able to find the reuse or repurpose value in items Canadians find completely worthless. In our opinion, that ingenuity is to be celebrated and supported. The export of Canadian clothing overseas supports a global commodity market through grading facilities locally that employ over 100 people each (there are several such facilities in Ontario alone) and employing many more around the world!

A more reasoned approach would be to employ best practises in relation to how Canada exports its textile waste. This includes being extra discerning of who we choose as trading partners overseas, ensuring that Canadian values are respected in our end markets. Textile Waste Diversion does this by working with organizations like CCI that work very closely with stakeholders overseas including Third World nations to ensure that every effort is taken to provide support that improves the quality of life for the communities we trade with. Whether it be supporting the building of water wells, orphanages or whatever else the community needs support with, Canadian companies should take care that they are part of a positive solution overseas. Partnering with Textile Waste Diversion gives our clients and partners peace of mind knowing that our end market partners are carefully vetted and monitored.

The best long-term strategy would be to invest in new green technology currently being used in Europe and other parts of the world to refine textile waste into a value-added commodity. Starting an entire new industry in Canada is cost prohibitive for the private sector to do on its own. There is still much we need to know around the used textile commodity, consumption and disposal patterns of Canadians, and what specific technology with what specific end product can be employed that is fiscally viable on the long term. What should we make with our used textiles? Who can buy it in a large enough quantity to absorb three stadiums worth of textiles annually? Everyone who has approached us has suggested the automotive sector could absorb all of it – again, an untested assumption. It is certainly possible, but not yet proven. There are many varying factors to be considered.

Closing the loop in textiles in Canada is possible, the creation of a new green sector in Canada is necessary, and re-energizing a lost local manufacturing industry ideal– but these are long-term plans that need a multi stakeholder network that includes private and government sector partnerships and possibly even a shift in legislation. We definitely need to shift priorities.

TWD is the leading consultant and most vocal advocate of all of these things in the sector currently. We are working hard to manifest our long-term vision of a Canadian closed loop in textiles and a resurgence of local manufacturing in Canada. In the meantime, the export of used textiles ensures their reuse which has the highest economic and environmental impact than any other solution available locally to date. For Canada currently, export is the only practical solution until new green technology is employed at the capacity required to manage the waste locally, which is still several years away at best.

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