On Thursday night, when there were many a fancy shindig going on – cocktail parties, dinners, Christmas light events – I chose to go to… the LM Barry recycling centre at Britannia Mill in Canning Town. It’s where the contents of most of London’s clothes banks end up. – receiving an average of between 170-200 tonnes of textiles, clothing and shoes every week. It’s hard to visualise that amount of clothing until you’re there – and we only glimpsed at a teensy tiny part of the recycling centre as there seemed to be endless rows of bundled up bales of clothing.
I was there because of a campaign called Love Your Clothes, set up by the non-profit organisation WRAP, backed by government funding. Love Your Clothes aims to raise awareness of the value of clothes to help make the most of the clothes we already have. It’s a message that is oft repeated and re-iterated as we’re told that we should swap, alter or upcycle our clothes. But are they methods that are being employed enough? Clearly not as we looked around this vast recycling mill. Just to reel off some stats according to Love Your Clothes… £140 million worth of used clothing ends up in landfill each year. That’s 30% of the total clothing we get rid of which means that we’re throwing away clothes in our normal bins without even thinking of taking it to charity shops, selling them on or yes, just simply tipping them into a nearby clothes recycling bank. I get guilt pangs just taking my less interesting stash of unwanted clothes to charity shops and recycling banks (as most of you know I sell most of my nicer things at yard sales – I hope to have another one next summer). What possesses people to chuck clothes into their real bins?!
The LM Barry recycling centre does a great job of finding a use for the bulk of the clothing that passes through the hands of their sorters. 80% is exported for reuse, mostly to third world countries. 10% that isn’t fit for reuse is cut into wiping cloths and 5% is sent to me made into flocking, felting and insulation materials, leaving 5% of waste.
That said, as we were invited to rummage through the bins and style up outfits out of other people’s trash, it still begs the question why it is that relatively new clothing is chucked away at all, even if it is going to a trusted recycling centre (and as I said, there are plenty of clothes that DON’T end up in a place like LM Barry). Love Your Clothes was using this opportunity to encourage all of us to think about extending the life of our clothes. Another stat – by wearing something nine months more than we do (average life of a piece of clothing is about 2 years and 3 months), we could reduce the carbon, water and waste footprint by around 20-30% each. We can do this by washing our clothes at lower temperatures, using alterations and of course buying quality in the first place so that we’re less inclined to let it go so easily.
As we looked through the vast array of clothing received by the site in just one day, it comes as no surprise that the clothing label that popped up most frequently was Primark, followed closely by H&M (or its Divided range), but I was also surprised to see items like a brand new puffer jacket from Uniqlo and a good quality jumpers by Ralph Lauren pop up, as well as beautiful old textiles that someone could charge at a premium in a vintage shop. Our task for the evening was to come up with creative outfits judged by upcyling stylist Emma Slade of Back of the Wardrobe, who incidentally was assisted by knitwear whiz Katie Jones. Barley Massey of upcycling studio Fabrications was on hand to alter things.
For people like Emma and Katie, who are natural treasure hunters, LM Barry’s bins were a joy to rifle through. For others, you could sense the trepidation. However, other than the odd underwear nasty, most of the clothing was perfectly clean. So we all got stuck in, almost climbing into the bins to see what we could find. Some people bee-lined for the vintage furs and chunky aran knits. Some people were looking for specific categories like kente cloth and old saris. I was looking for oddities and making semblance of outfits.
The final outfits were akin to any you’d see on a mannequin in a vintage store, aided by the personal style that people bought to the task. One person approached like an art project and covered themselves in layers and layers of contrasting fabrics. Another looked at current trends and worked them in, as seen in the skater-esque skeleton t-shirt under a 90s polka dot dress. I particularly loved the way one girl took something as random as a pair of checked chef’s trousers and managed to style them up.
I gathered up a big pile of clothing and began to assemble some outfits ranging from baggy classics to multi-ethnic mixed prints.
When in doubt take many unremarkable layers and pile them all together and hope that it all works out in the end… excepting the pink knicker bockers of course. They came home with me as everyone was allowed to take something away.
Photography by James McCauley
If a small gang of us can create more-than-decent outfits out of other people’s old toot in one evening, then there’s definitely a second life in the bulk of the clothes that we deem discardable.