Castoff clothing a $770mn business in Eastern Europe

Castoff clothing a $770mn business in Eastern Europe
A secondhand clothing store in Tirana, Albania.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest and Tirana December 20, 2018

Countries across Central, Southeast and Eastern Europe imported a massive 593mn kilograms of used textiles, mainly clothing, valued at $771mn in 2017. This means the region absorbed around a quarter of the just under $3bn worth of used textiles imported globally in 2017, with other major destinations being South Asia and West Africa. 

Within the former eastern bloc countries, the biggest importers in 2017 were Ukraine and Russia, both of which imported around $150mn of used textiles, with substantial flows also entering Bulgaria, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland and Romania, data from the UN’s Comtrade database shows, though some countries now act more as sorting hubs than final destinations. 

Incomes in the region are low compared to developed countries, but steadily rising, and growing consumption by the expanding middle classes is an important driver of growth. Consumers want to emulate the lifestyles they see in western countries, which creates a voracious appetite for consumer goods from cars to fashionable clothes, but in many cases their incomes aren’t yet high enough to buy new high quality items. Instead, they rely on imports of used goods from Western Europe, the US and other developed economies. 

The trend is highly visible in the Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) region, where the economic boom of the last few years has accelerated income growth, though in most countries salaries still lag behind those in Western Europe. New clothing is available from an ever growing range of international retailers, but even the fast fashion chains seen as cheap by western shoppers are relatively high priced for their counterparts in the east. 

This has sustained the market for secondhand clothing that started to thrive in the years immediately after the collapse of communism and experienced a dramatic growth spurt amid the boom of the mid 2000s. And unlike the markets for higher priced new consumer goods, demand for used clothing continued going strong through the international economic crisis and — despite a dip in 2013 — has persisted in the last few years too. 

Romanian style blogger Ioana Moldovanu of Ioana spune (Ioana says) is one secondhand shopping enthusiast who estimated that around 75% of her clothes are pre-loved, and she also buys a significant share of used shoes, accessories and gadgets. Explaining the reasons for her buying choices, she tells bne IntelliNews by email: “First of all the price. I like to have many clothes to rotate and find real treasures at incredibly low prices … My style is somewhat classic so I’m not looking for unusual pieces but rather for quality stuff.” 

Quality is an important issue for many secondhand shoppers, who seek out well constructed clothes from high quality fabrics. “First of all, you find articles from famous companies (which means very good quality) at comparable or even lower prices than new clothes sold on the market stalls. People with open minds and no prejudices prefer to buy an Adidas outfit from natural fibres (even if worn several times) at a lower price than a new but no name polyester blouse,” Moldovanu explains. 

This is helping to lift the stigma long associated with secondhand clothing which was, and to an extent still is, seen as cheap, dirty and fit only for the poorest of the poor — though, Moldovanu claims, “those with the biggest mouths do their shopping secondhand but in secret”. 

Secondhand stigma

If Maria Stoican was trying to dispel this negative image of secondhand shopping, she would be doing a good job. The Romanian businesswoman and mother of one looks fresh and immaculate in a denim skirt and pale pink t-shirt with an appliquéd fish skeleton on the front when we meet in a cafe opposite Bucharest’s Cismigiu park to talk about her company. 

Confined to her home during the last few months of a difficult pregnancy, Stoican needed work she could do without leaving the house, and so MyDressing was born, shortly before her son came along. The business run by Stoican and her husband remained small during the first couple of years of parenthood but has expanded strongly since then. It remains a family concern, operating out of the Stoicans' home in the Bucharest suburb of Mogosoaia, where the couple make plans for the day and answer messages while preparing breakfast, and in the evenings their son does his homework next to his mother as she works on her computer. Her husband is responsible for photographing the thousands of garments that come into their home, two-thirds of which is now dedicated to storage of around 10,000 garments at any one time, and they have taken on two full-time and two part-time members of staff to help with responding to customer orders and dispatching clothes to buyers. 

It’s labour intensive work. “The specifics of selling secondhand clothes is that each article is unique. Whether it costs 3 lei or 300 lei [€0.65 or €65] we need to iron it, shoot it, describe it, and put it in the warehouse and hope someone will buy it,” explains Stoican. When someone does place an order, the MyDressing team contact them to arrange delivery and check the size: “This is a big problem for online businesses. If a client receives something that is too big or too small, he will get nervous and avoid the online shop afterwards.”

Stoican says MyDressing, like other secondhand outlets in Romania, has struggled with negative perceptions of used clothes but that customers come to the site in search of quality clothing and western brands. Most of the clothes it sells are from Nordic counties where “the people are rich and they have good quality clothes”. Romanians are increasingly seeking quality materials — “they will buy merino wool at any price,” says Stoican — and as more people spend time abroad they become familiar with international brands. A number of her customers are diaspora Romanians in Scandinavia buying clothes for their relatives back home. 

It’s a very different business from some of the secondhand outlets in Bucharest, among them the local branches of Bulgarian chain Monda, sell clothes and accessories by the kilo, and there’s a frenzied free for all when new deliveries arrive. The secondhand trade in some cities in Romania and the region is now moving upmarket, selling quality or even vintage clothes and accessories either in bricks and mortar shops or online. 

A similar phenomenon was observed in Russia, where Olga Gurova, senior fellow at the University of Helsinki and author of Fashion and the Consumer Revolution in Contemporary Russia, talks of a growing interest in vintage among young people within Russia’s urban hipster culture starting back in 2008-09. It’s no coincidence that this was also the time fast fashion chains were actively expanding in the region; “As malls and fast fashion stores started to proliferate, people decided they wanted to be more individualised,” she says. 

This also led to the creation of new micro-businesses based on social media. “Students would find nice pieces of vintage clothing at the Odelny flea market in St Petersburg and other markets, then sell them on social media,” Gurova explains, describing the process as a “curation of choice”. 

Even more recently, consciousness of the huge environmental impact of the fashion industry is causing some consumers — first in the west but to some extent also in the east — to embrace the “slow fashion” movement, buying less and shopping secondhand or from sustainable designers. This issue was raised by Moldoveanu too, who says that as well as buying used items she now sells whatever she no longer wears “to reduce waste”. 

“The best creamy layer”

Across the Balkan peninsular in Albania, the tall white apartment blocks of Porcelana grow steeply out of the foothills of Mount Dajti at the end of a long bus route from downtown Tirana. The suburb that was the location of paranoid communist era dictator Enver Hoxha’s personal nuclear bunker (recently converted into an underground museum and modern art gallery) is now home to young families, whose children play in the rocky ground between the buildings and dodge under the racks of jackets and fur coats outside the dozens of secondhand clothing shops that have opened in this out of the way district. 

Most of them are nameless, and the clothes have no price labels, the vendors selling by category — in one, any type of women’s dress, for example, is priced at ALL400 (€3.33). The majority of garments crammed onto metal racks or piled in heaps on tables bear Italian labels, not surprising given the strong commercial links between Albania and its neighbour across the Adriatic. Comtrade data shows that Italy was the source of over $8mn worth of used textiles (mainly clothes) imported by Albania in 2017, four-fifths of the total, while Germany accounted for just over one-tenth ($1.1mn).

Most of the secondhand clothes that end up in Eastern Europe and other parts of the developing world were originally worn in Western countries then, when their owners tired or grew out of them, given to charities. Like the exports from Italy to Albania, other countries in the region also import directly from western countries they share close trading links with; for example, much of the clothing imported by the Baltic states was donated in Scandinavia. However, there is also a massive intra-regional trade. 

Imports of used clothing within Central and Eastern Europe over $1mn in 2017. Data source: Comtrade

Many of the clothes MyDressing sells were originally worn in the Nordic countries, but Stoican buys them from the wholesalers that have sprung up across Central and Eastern Europe. “Secondhand clothes are collected from different countries and arrive in a factory [in Eastern Europe] where they are split into categories according to quality. Those factories must be good: in Romania they are terrible,” she claims. “We tried with Romanian suppliers at first, but something the Hungarians and Bulgarians say is rubbish, here they call bun [good], so we buy our clothes from wholesalers in Bulgaria and Hungary.”

The explosion in clothing consumption in recent years — in 2014 the number of clothes the number of clothes purchased globally passed the 100bn mark — has led to a correspondingly huge increase in the volume of clothing donated or thrown away. Some of this is sold in local charity shops, but this is estimated at only around 10% of the total, and a thriving industry has grown up to sort donations and determine whether they will go for local sale, export, industrial rags or landfill. 

Clothing wholesalers and sorters have sprung up across Eastern Europe, and western recyclers have also been motivated to move some sorting operations to the region to take advantage of the lower costs and knowledge of the local markets. This has resulted in a multi-million dollar trade within the region, with the largest intra-regional flows being from Poland to Ukraine ($49mn in 2017 according to Comtrade’s figures on Ukrainian imports), Lithuania to Belarus and Latvia to Ukraine. 

Writer and historian Lucy Norris describes how when clothes are sorted for export, the “best creamy layer” of clothing that is either unworn or “really good styles” is skimmed off for the East European market. Then there is the next layer of regions like West Africa which “also have very discerning buyers”, and finally the lower tier of “people who have less ability to choose and have to buy poorer quality clothing”. 

Similarly, a 2014 report from the Nordic Council of Ministers likens the reuse and recycling of textiles as “a cascade in quality and value that spreads from rich countries out to poorer ones”. “The top 10% quality of discarded textiles in the Nordic countries can be sold for reuse domestically, but the remainder must find markets where the populations are less wealthy. The better quality textiles remain in Europe, primarily in the east including Russia. Tropical mix and lower quality textiles are exported to Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia,” says the report, based on interviews with collectors in the Nordic countries. 

Exporting used clothes has become a safety valve for the ever-expanding clothing industries in western countries, where charities report being overwhelmed by the volumes of clothing they handle as consumption soars. “As long as there is vast over-production and over-consumption, and no system set up for circularity or proper take back and collection schemes on a global scale, we are going to have a problem [with clothing waste],” says Norris. “We do have an unequal world and there are developing markets that depend on processing our waste.” 

There is a curious situation where used clothing is at the same time a charitable donation, a waste product — and a valuable resource. Which of these it is depends on the quality of the clothing, and the fluctuating price of used textiles, though climate appropriateness and sizing are also critical. “One of the big problems is that the generators of secondhand clothing tend to be in the global north, and buyers tend to be in the global south,” Norris says in a phone interview with bne IntelliNews. While used clothing is in high demand among recyclers, a lot of winter clothing that is “not in tip top condition for the East European market” still gets sent to industrial users or landfill. There’s also a mismatch in body type. “An industry has grown up around remaking clothing for much thinner people and adapting it to cultural sensibilities, but it’s a huge amount of work to make one fit the other, and if not worth it in terms of quality, it may be easier to burn or bury [the clothes].” 

Skewed by fast fashion 

In a recent trend, the explosion in fast fashion retailers selling cheap, quickly produced and — observers say — lower quality goods, has “really skewed” the market for used clothing, according to Norris. The clothes now sold by many mass market retailers aren’t meant to last for the long term, as the business model is built on customers constantly coming back to the shops to buy more. “The quality of a lot of fast fashion is so low it can be very difficult to shift it, and so there’s that borderline of are you exporting waste or are you exporting a marketable good?” she says. 

UK exports of used textiles, for example, soared through the 2000s, partly helped by the opening of CEE markets like Poland and Hungary after the two countries’ accession to the EU. However, 2016 report from UK charity Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) says that: “Demand for UK used textiles has started to decrease in export markets and prices have been falling since 2013.” Despite this, the UK is the world’s second largest exporter of used clothing, sending over $500mn worth abroad in 2017. 

And as the economies of Eastern Europe develop, customers are becoming more discerning in terms of the type of clothes they are willing to buy secondhand, seeking out well known brands and top quality fabrics. “The end destinations are under constant development as economies progress. Lower grade textiles that ten years ago could have been sold for reuse in Poland are no longer in demand. New markets have been found further afield in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa,” says the Nordic Cabinet of Ministers report. 

That said, there is no sign of governments in the region seeking to curb imports of used clothes in the way that several African countries attempted recently. East African Community (EAC) states, which make up one of the world’s biggest markets for used clothing, said they planned to phase out all imports of secondhand clothing by 2019. While politicians talked of hygiene and dignity, the move appeared mainly motivated by the need to give local textiles industries room to develop. Economists have pointed to the stifling effect large inflows of cheap secondhand clothes have on local producers.  

This, however, raised the ire of the US, the world’s biggest exporter of used textiles accounting for $632mn in 2017 alone. Under pressure from the Office of the US Trade Representative, which in turn was lobbied heavily by US clothing recyclers, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda backed down, but Rwanda persisted with plans to phase out used clothing imports, and earlier in 2018 was suspended from selling clothing to the US duty free under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa). 

Eastern Europe is in a rather different situation from Africa, as many countries in the region had strong local textiles and apparel manufacturing industries built up in the communist era. While many of these struggled or even closed down during the upheavals of the early transition period, others continued to go strong, and the region has also become an important manufacturing location for west European brands including fast fashion retailers due to its combination of relatively low costs and proximity to western markets. 

Wages in the clothing and textiles industries of the region are low, however, and ironically workers at such factories — along with millions of other low income citizens of the region — find the garments they produce are priced far beyond their means new, and only affordable once they have been sold and worn in the west, cast off and transported back to the east for resale. Albania, for example, is an important location for the lower value add parts of the Italian fashion manufacturing chain, with many garments, shoes and other accessories bearing “Made in Italy” labels (such as those in the thrift shops of Porcelana) being partly made in Albania. Meanwhile a quick search of the racks in a Bucharest secondhand shop reveals “Made in Romania” labels, alongside labels from Lithuania, Turkey and other countries from the wider region. The burgeoning international trade in clothing, new and used, means these garments have travelled first from east to west, and finally come full circle.