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 letsrecycle.com, 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?

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David Cameron seeks a "clear majority" for air strikes in Syria as Jeremy Corbyn signals his opposition

The Labour leader warns military action will increase the threat to the UK. The PM argues it will reduce it. 

There is a Commons majority for air strikes against Isis in Syria - but Jeremy Corbyn will not be part of it. That was clear from David Cameron's statement on the need for military action and Corbyn's response. Cameron's most significant argument for intervention was that the threat to the UK from terrorism would only increase if it failed to act. The intelligence services, he said, had warned that Britain was already in the "top tier" of countries targeted by Isis. It was inaction, rather than action, that was the greatest risk.

Corbyn's response, consisting of seven questions, signalled that he does not share this view. Citing Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, he quoted Barack Obama on the danger of "unintended consequences". His question on the risk of terrorist attacks in the UK and of civilian deaths in Syria showed that he believes both will be increased by UK air strikes. Yet a significant number of Labour MPs and shadow cabinet members share Cameron's view. Corbyn must now resolve by Monday whether to offer his party a free vote on the issue or whether to whip it against intervention (at the likely cost of frontbench resignations). The third option: Corbyn voting for air strikes seems unthinkable. 

Cameron, who was responding to the recent foreign affairs select commitee report opposing action, had made a multipronged case for intervention. He argued that the UK could make a unique military contribution through its Brimstone precision missiles (more accurate than those of any country), that there was a moral and strategic imperative for Britain to support its allies, the US and France; that a political process was underway (but action was needed before it concluded); that the threat from Isis would grow in the absence of intervention; that the UN resolution passed last week provided legal authorisation (along with the right to self-defence); that 70,000 Syrian opposition forces and Kurdish troops could fight Isis on the ground; that the government would contribute at least £1bn to post-conflict resolution; and that the west would not dismantle the Syrian state or its institutions (learning from the error of de-Ba'athification).

In response to Corbyn, Cameron later ruled out the use of UK ground troops. He maintained that "Assad must go" but argued for what he called an "Isil first" strategy. "We have to hit these terrorists in their heartlands now," he concluded.

The political test set by Cameron was to achieve a "clear majority" for military action. He warned that anything less would be a "publicity coup" for Isis. There are increasing signs that Cameron is close to meeting his aim. In response to his statement, Conservative MPs, including Crispin Blunt, the chair of the foreign affairs select committee (who previously opposed air strikes), Ken Clarke and Sarah Wollaston, announced that they would be voting for intervention. But, as Cameron all but conceded, Corbyn will not be. The question facing the Labour leader is how he handles those in his party who intend to do so. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.