Sulaymaniyah, Iraq - The global trade that carries second-hand clothes from collection bins in suburban supermarket car parks in the West to markets in the developing world is obscure and profitable. Donors are often unaware that by the time their castoffs are sold in markets like Sulaymaniyah's, they have been transformed into a commodity worth in excess of $1bn a year.
Sulaymaniyah is a medium-sized city in the relatively safe Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Alongside other cities in Iraq and across the developing world, it has a large second-hand market inside its bazaar - a sprawling, covered maze of units selling clothes, furniture, kitchenware and electronics. Locals, tourists seeking respite from the violence of Baghdad and a few ex-pats wander around stalls that would put most European thrift shops to shame.
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In Iraqi Kurdistan, the second-hand clothes markets provide a popular alternative to the cheap but poorly made Chinese and Turkish imports that fill the malls. Shoppers can find anything from ragged T-shirts to high quality branded shoes and jackets. Prices vary according to quality and the trader, but typically a T-shirt costs around $3 and a jacket, $10-$20.
"I buy the clothes by the kilo," trader Anwar Hamameen Raheem told Al Jazeera. "There's two kinds of bale; one weighs a couple of hundred kilos and has a bit of everything in it and the other is a sorted bale of one kind of item and weighs 45 kilos." Typically, an unsorted bale of clothes costs the trader $1.50 per kilo, while a bale of sorted items can cost $5 per kilo.
Mohammad Bakrajoi, a wholesale trader who buys most of his stock from Germany before selling it to the individual market traders, confirmed that his stock originates in door-to-door collections: "The first companies deliver bags to the house and then collect them later. They either sort them or send them to countries that sort them."
Despite the generous profits that are generated for middlemen companies along the way, traders in Sulaymaniyah report that their business has become harder as a result of the economic downturn in Europe. As disposable income diminishes in donor countries, the market traders' stock becomes more expensive and the quality items scarcer.
It's harder to get shoes because people are keeping and wearing them for longer.
This is especially true of longer-lasting items, which are also the best sellers in the market. "It's harder to get shoes because people are keeping and wearing them for longer," Bakrajoi told Al Jazeera.
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The trade in used garments is not unique to Iraq. All over the developing world, second-hand markets are full of clothes, the overwhelming majority of which are bought, worn and then donated in the West. Many people in North America and Europe have stuffed unwanted clothes into a doorstep donation bag or a charity collection bin without really knowing what happens to the clothes after that.
Usually the clothes are collected in a way that either states or implies they will go to those in need via a charity. While this is in most cases true, the benefit to the charity is often surprisingly small. Andrew Brooks, a lecturer in development geography at King's College, London, has noted the "hidden professionalism of the charitable used clothing trade".
Some charities will collect the clothes themselves, keeping the best-quality items for direct sale and selling the vast bulk to a professional, for-profit recycling company. More often they will merely lend their name and credibility to the recycling company in return for a small fee.
Shelly Naylor of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, which worked with the commercial recycling company, Precycle, until early this year, told Al Jazeera: "The relationship was neither a licensing agreement nor involved the Trust collecting clothes itself. It was based on Precycle paying the Trust an amount based on the amount of clothes collected." The Cystic Fibrosis Trust declined to give exact figures of the amount paid by Precycle, but Brooks said that when charities and companies work in partnership, there is often little benefit for the charities. "Only 5 percent of the value of the clothing may go to charities," he said.
Sometimes collections are entirely for profit, although they still claim the ethical credit of recycling clothes that might otherwise go to landfill. "These include collections organised by [some retail] clothing shops… as well as commercial collection bins which are licensed by local authorities. The companies are not operating these schemes in an illegal or 'false' manner, yet the casual donor is probably easily unaware that these collections are not aiding a charity," Brooks told Al Jazeera.
Once the recycling company has the clothes, they are exported, sometimes via sorting plants in Eastern Europe where the labour required to sort the clothes is cheaper. From there, containers are shipped to sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and South America, and arrive in Iraq overland via Turkey. The United States alone exports over 500,000 tonnes of used clothing each year - a significant contribution towards keeping the industry afloat.