Latvia: drowning in imported textiles
What happens when we donate our unwanted clothes? As Lucy Siegle writes in her book ‘To Die For’, “people appear to expect to be walking down the street the following Thursday and to see their skirt or jacket occupying pride of place on the central mannequin in the window of their local charity shop. This is highly unlikely: only around 10 percent of UK donations, the ‘cream’, will actually be retailed through the shops.”. The roots of this problem stem from the overproduction of clothing.
The rest will get sold to middlemen and a lot of it will be sent to poorer countries where the clothes will get resold. The secondhand clothing market in Africa is better documented but clothes get sent to Eastern Europe, too. In this article I will write about the problems it causes in the country of my birth, Latvia.
A bit of history
Until 1991, Latvia was part of the Soviet Union. Shortages were part of everyday life. People did not “buy” stuff; people planned how to “get” it. Most people could not simply walk into a store, pick a nice piece of clothing and go to the till. The Soviet planned economy was not designed with flexibility, practicality or the Soviet citizen in mind. This is where knowing a shop assistant or being one came in handy. Knowing how to sew was also good – provided you could get fabric. And then there were the sailors – if you had money and fancied, let’s say, a pair of American made denim, they could arrange it for you. For a small fee, of course. In those days, consumerism and conspicuous consumption was not an issue.
Fast forward to the independent Latvian state of the 1990s. People were dying to live like their Western counterparts and this is where the local consumer society started. Back in those days one could sell pretty much anything and people would buy just because it was foreign-made! Also, around that time foreign clothing donations and imports started to pour in.
“Humpalas” is short for “humānā palīdzība” which means “humanitarian aid” in Latvian but the term is actually used to describe used clothing shops. These days they all look pretty smart, with clothes on the racks and price tags but back in the early days most of them sold clothes by weight. The poshest shops charged about £5 per kilogram but the average was £2/kg. To put this in perspective, the average wages in mid-1990s Latvia were £40-50 per month.
As the incomes rose during the 2000s, so did the spending power and appetites. Less than fifteen years after the transition from socialism to capitalism, consumerism was rampant. The only thing that caused a temporary pause and change in habits was the financial crisis in 2008.
During my late teens and early twenties, Humana stores were a popular choice. These days you can even shop for used clothing online at e-kilomax.lv although they have physical stores, too. A quick browse on the latter revealed that a lot of stuff they sell is by brands such as H&M, Primark, Zara, Topshop, Dorothy Perkins, Asos, Boohoo, George, New Look, Missguided, F&F – all fast fashion and all hardly worn!
In the last ten years, the import of both used and new clothing has increased threefold and the average Latvian buys almost 15kg of clothing a year. The estimated textile import is about 27,000 tons a year – a huge number for a country that is about 3.8 times smaller than the UK and has a population of 1.9 million. The chairman of the Latvian Association of Light Manufacturing Companies, Guntis Strazds, says that if nothing changes in 10-15 years’ time Latvia will drown in textile waste.
Ironically, most of it has nothing to do with local manufacturing. It comes from imported textiles. Latvian apparel manufacturers export about 90% of their products which means that most of them never enter the secondhand clothing market or recycling in Latvia. Manufacturers who make fabric recycle leftovers themselves and therefore there is no waste. According to the Association, Latvian manufacturers produce about 1,500-2,000 tons of non-recyclable textile waste a year and most of it is incinerated.
Therefore, most of the textile waste comes from imported clothing. Around 16,000 of used clothing is imported into Latvia each year, of which about 8,000 tons comes from Great Britain. In total, since 2005, Latvia has received 90,000 tons of used clothing from the country. Mr Strazds believes that that Latvia has become “a British textile waste dumping ground.” As of 2018, the average Brit bought 26.7 kg of clothes a year – more than any other nation in Europe! Fast fashion is not designed to last and the problem is only exacerbated by increasing consumerism in Latvia – Latvians are becoming a throwaway society. So, what happens with all those clothes once Latvians do not want them anymore?
Red clothes banks
When I moved to the UK, one of the things that struck me was how easy it is to dispose of unwanted clothing here: there were plenty of clothes banks in my area, some charities would even collect clothes from my driveway or I could simply leave them in a charity shop doorway!
In Latvia people would traditionally try to sell unwanted clothes or swap them with friends and family, donate them to poorer relatives or other families in need in the countryside, bring them to the local Red Cross branch, try and use them as rags or, last resort, bin them. Personally, I brought them to a small charity called Mazturīgo atbalsta biedrība DACE – it did not have any shops then and I had to cross the town to deliver them to the chairwoman’s house. Recycling was only slowly emerging. Luckily, things are changing. The EU Waste Framework Directive states that all Member States need to set up separate collections for textiles by 1 January 2025. Latvia aims to achieve it by 2023.
However, there is still plenty of work to be done. In 2020 two companies – Latvijas Zaļais punkts and Eco Baltia Vide – presented 60 clothes banks for unwanted textiles. The collected items were sent to a sorting centre. A fraction got resold, some got transformed into rags or car seat stuffing but most of the donated stuff was sent to developing countries. This is not good as it only adds to the volume of textile imports those countries are already receiving. And, unfortunately, a whopping 40 % went to landfill. This is really bad for two reasons: one, Latvia is a small country so the number and location of landfills we can have is limited – we will eventually run out of space. Two, the production of clothing involves about 3,500 different chemicals, 440 of which pollute the environment, and fast fashion brands use a lot of synthetics, most notably polyester, that will take hundreds of years to break down.
Textile recycling is expensive and currently there is no industry for that in Latvia. Entrepreneurs and environmentalists emphasize the need for state subsidies to make the recycling of textiles a financially viable industry because at the moment selling fibres produced from recycled materials is a loss-making venture. Some are also calling for a model that would make the original manufacturer pay a pollution levy that could later be distributed among recyclers.
Everyone needs to do their bit. Latvians need to stop and evaluate their shopping habits. Western consumers need to shop less and reconnect with their clothes. The current throwaway attitude towards clothing is a colossal waste of finite resources on an already fragile planet and it comes with a huge environmental and human cost.
When it comes to disposing of our clothes, giving them a second life by swapping with friends, or selling garments on Depop, eBay or Vinted is a better way than giving them to charity shops, who may re-sell We need to buy less, buy the best we can afford, understand the fibres, how clothes are made and how much clothes production really costs, make sure we support companies that pay garment workers fairly, CARE about our clothes and wear them for years and years to come.