Losing your rag at Fashion Week

One warehouse in Canning Town is home to a surprising beneficiary of Britain’s high-fashion credentials.

You wouldn’t expect an industrial park in the East End of London to have much to do with London Fashion Week, but one warehouse in Canning Town is home to a surprising beneficiary of Britain’s high-fashion credentials. Lawrence M Barry & Co (LMB) is one of just two London companies that still hand-sorts second-hand clothes – mostly from council recycling bins or the rejects from charity shops – for resale in Africa and eastern Europe.

In the five years to 2012, the price of one tonne of second-hand clothes almost tripled, from £220 to roughly £650, according to the trade publication, and each year the UK sells about 378,000 tonnes of used clothes abroad. At market stalls in Mombasa or in shops in Warsaw, customers are willing to pay a premium of as much as 30 per cent for British garments.

While the fashion press studies the catwalks in central London to divine next season’s trends, LMB has its own in-house fashion rules and seasonal fads. The most valued trousers across Africa have a pleat down the middle and turned-up bottoms, which is a problem, because “no one wears turn-ups these days”, says LMB’s business development manager, Ross Barry.

Zambians love corduroy trousers, which are also hard to find. In the past few years, Barry has started exporting ladies’ high heels, “because Africa’s changing – before, women just worried about their heels getting stuck in the mud”. And there has been an unlikely increase in demand for ski jackets, after some countries made it illegal to drive a motorbike without a jacket. Barry walks me around LMB’s factory floor, where “sorters” in high-visibility jackets rifle through piles of clothing, throwing some items down yellow chutes and others into big metal cages labelled “Children’s Winter” or “Silk Blouses”. The highest-quality 5 per cent of clothes will go to eastern Europe, 45 per cent will go to Africa and the lowest-grade 50 per cent will be recycled or turned into industrial rags.

A kilo of clothes destined for eastern Europe can be sold for £2 to £3, while a kilo of clothes heading for Africa will sell for half as much. The sorters are paid the minimum wage, plus a bonus depending on their performance, and the fastest sorters can sort through two tonnes of clothes – about a lorry-full – in one shift.

In some ways, LMB is just the kind of old-fashioned British firm that policymakers romanticise and that is slowly being undercut by nimbler multinationals. It is a family business, as are most other companies in the rag trade. “My dad always says it’s because no one grows up thinking, ‘I want to be a rag man,’” jokes Barry, who has a law degree and worked in the oil industry before joining his father in the business. Sorting clothes may be tough, menial work, but staff turnover is low. The average employee has worked here for nine years and LMB runs a project to employ ex-prisoners.

A lot has changed since Barry’s father, Lawrence, moved into the clothes trade in the mid-1980s, initially handing out flyers at Heathrow Airport to find potential buyers and shippers. The market has expanded, but that has made it tougher, too. Councils are charging more for second-hand clothes and rising labour costs have forced many to outsource their sorting to eastern Europe. Barry says six UK rag firms went out of business last year and eight have folded this year.


Piles of denim clothing. Image: Getty

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

Photo: Getty Images
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David Cameron’s starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the government dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up to £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it, while reducing the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.