Anna Zhuravleva

Non-profit organizations and emerging ecosystem for textile reuse and recycling in the Nordics

Largest collector of used textiles

Have you ever donated your clothes to the organizations like UFF, Fida or Kontti (Red Cross) in Finland? Maybe you visited their stores and even shopped for second-hand items? Not many think of non-profit organizations (NPOs) as the largest collectors of used textiles worldwide. The primary purpose which these organizations pursue in their reuse activities is fund generation for sustainable development work such as accessibility of education, agriculture and energy security, and mitigating gender inequality. These organizations operate the supply chain for reuse of unwanted used textiles; in practice, it means that the NPOs collect textiles as donations, sort them, and prepare for reuse.

And what happens to sorted used textiles, you may ask. The primary goal of the NPOs collection is to resell textiles through own network of the charity stores – maybe you visited one of them. However, the textile donors bring items of different conditions, not always as NPOs desire them to be. Thus, NPOs sort out good-quality, wearable clothing and other usable textiles from worn-out or dirty ones with missing parts of decoration or functional elements. With the objective of maximising reuse, the NPOs wholesale textiles that do not meet quality demands of the charity stores in the country of collection. The NPOs work with buyers across different countries, often including those from developing countries. Due to this fact, the NPOs have faced public criticism when the environmental and social impact of their reuse activities has been seriously questioned.

The change: 2023

Recently, the EU-member states have taken a step forward towards circularity of textiles by introducing obligatory separate collection of textile waste by the year 2025. Finland is a true forerunner in this area; with an ongoing project for launching a refinement plant for recycling end-of-life textiles, the change will come to Finland even earlier, by the year 2023. The change also brings together various actors to the same table. For example, the Telaketju project has given a start to the partnership between waste management companies, private and non-profit collectors of used clothing, also businesses and research groups working with reuse and recycling of textiles. Together, these organizations can be viewed as an emerging ecosystem for textile reuse and recycling in Finland.

In the case of the Nordic NPOs, the “blame game” around textile wholesale can be rooted in domestic waste management. With increasing consumption and short lifetime of textile products, a lack of national textile waste management practices may have caused NPOs seeking the channels for distributing low-quality used textiles to developing countries. The trend is equally seen across the Nordic countries; in past three years, the Nordic countries have grown their export of post-use textiles by 25 %. But what if the partnership with waste management and recycling companies in the country of collection could help NPOs avoid wholesale?

This question has given a start to the research project about NPOs and emerging ecosystem for textile reuse and recycling at Hanken School of Economics, led by a Doctoral researcher Anna Zhuravleva. In support of the ongoing change, the research project at Hanken captures the experience of NPOs in joining the emerging ecosystem for textile reuse and recycling. First, the research investigated the NPOs’ systems for collection and sorting of the donations. The research found out how pre-defined NPOs objectives influence on the supply chain process design for fund generation and humanitarian clothing aid. Then, the research looked at the emerging partnership between NPOs and companies for domestic reuse and recycling of used textiles. And lastly, now the research is expanding to the ecosystem level in order to position the actors of the emerging ecosystem.

Partnership of NPOs and companies for textile reuse and recycling

In light of the upcoming changes, stating the NPOs role and the way of their inclusion through partnership to the emerging ecosystem could never be as important. In the discussions about Circular Economy, we often shift our attention to recycling and waste, while the waste hierarchy wants us to prioritize reuse and waste prevention. The unique focus of NPOs as the collector of reusable textiles must be protected and smoothly integrated into the emerging ecosystem to be sure that reusable as such textiles do not bypass the collection system of NPOs and do not end up in waste. On the other hand, NPOs carry a socially important mission; their reuse activities help raising funds for a charitable cause and provide clothing aid to the societies in need. True sustainability can only be achieved if we integrate social, environmental, and economic aspects into the account. For this reason, the ecosystem needs and should welcome actors which are capable of sustaining social performance along with their environmental and business targets.

To achieve the integration, NPOs and companies in the ecosystem, the research findings suggest at first the alignment of interests and goals between NPOs and waste management companies. For this purpose, the organizations and companies should trust and participate in the joint development projects which enable such alignment; similarly, what Telaketju has done by bringing the actors to the table together. The research findings emphasize operational transparency; nowadays, consumers and donors of used textiles want to know what exactly happen to the items they donate and what reuse means in practice. Between the actors of the ecosystem, the research findings emphasize minimizing the misinterpretations and clarifying terminology used for defining different fractions of used textiles (reusable, recyclable, and waste).

Continuing the discussion

Recently, Hanken and UFF have done a blog post and recorded a podcast episode where we discuss the upcoming change and UFF’s vision towards the future of textile reuse under the influence of new regulation for separate textile collection. To dive into our discussion and learn more about the NPOs perspective, read the blog post here, on the Hanken page.

To listen to the podcast episode, please, follow the link and find episode 4 “The future of textile reuse in Finland and beyond” by Anna Zhuravleva from Hanken and Maija Makkonen from UFF.