EU exports of used textiles have tripled over the past two decades

Nearly 1.7 million tons of used fabric was exported to other countries — mostly in Asia and Africa — in 2019, but whether it is destined for recycling, reuse or landfill is “highly uncertain,” according to a report published Monday by the European Union Environment.

The report, which analyzes UN Comtrade data between 2000 and 2019, found a growing shift towards integration and specialization on both sides of the used textile trade (just five countries accounted for 75% of EU textile waste exports and top 10 receiving countries imported 64 percent of total volumes), but evidence of how these textiles are sorted, reused, recycled or disposed of remains opaque and largely anecdotal. Clothing and textiles exported to Africa are generally understood to be reused and sold domestically, while Asia, which now receives 41 percent of exports, is known for its special sorting facilities where fabrics are often recycled for industrial rags or re-exported globally. In both regions, textiles deemed unsuitable for reuse are destined for landfill.

Old clothes and fabrics have also become less valuable. 1 kg of used textiles traded for 0.57 euros ($0.60) in 2019, up from 0.76 euros in 2000. Rising export volumes amid falling prices could indicate flat demand or a saturated market and reduced quality of the textile products themselves, the report notes. Incoming requirements for all EU countries to have dedicated textile waste collections by 2025 could increase volumes further.

This report follows the EU’s sustainable and circular strategy for textiles published in March last year, which also noted the limitations of the current classification and classifications of textile products and called for improved transparency in the global trade of used textiles.

The report also highlighted that, with used textiles facing such an uncertain fate, the supposed positive environmental and social impacts of clothing donation and recycling could be called into question.

“The avoided environmental impacts associated with reuse depend on whether that reuse actually replaces the new production of textiles or fibers,” it said. “In other words, if used textiles exported from the EU are of too low quality to be reused, are not reused for a long time, or do not replace new clothing purchases, they may not actually replace new production or benefit the environment.”

Learn more:

Should fashion pay for its ‘waste colonialism’?

Every year, millions of tons of old clothes are shipped around the world as part of the global second-hand clothing trade. Non-profit organization The Or Foundation and Vestiaire Collective are lobbying for regulation that benefits the countries where they end up.

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