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.