Although Syrian refugees appear to have a high demand for knitwear, satisfying this demand is fraught with complexity and is having an effect on local knitwear markets, as Paul Cochrane describes
Movements of refugees can involve millions of people – all of whom are potential consumers – but tapping their purchasing power can be difficult for knitwear companies, even though their products are clearly useful for displaced people in poor accommodation.
The conflict in Syria has forced 2.5 million refugees to flee to the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. While this might suggest a burgeoning sub-economy, such an influx of Syrian refugees has not, however, led to spikes in retail sales of clothes.
Rather the refugees and Syrian conflict itself has damaged the economies of the host countries because of the costs of supporting such visitors and the dislocation they can cause to local markets.
Indeed, losses have been estimated at $7.5bn in Lebanon, $2.5bn in Turkey and $2bn in Jordan, according to World Bank 2013 figures.
Also, the refugee crisis has led to a flurry of activity by amateur knitters around the world to donate hand-knitted items to refugees. And while this clearly weakens commercial markets, there are potential benefits for companies in terms of marketing and staff motivation: some clothing firms are involved in supporting knitwear production initiatives as well as donating knits and clothes.
While Syrian refugees are clearly buying essential items, including warm clothing in the winter months, gauging who is buying what is stymied by an estimated 85% of refugees living outside of camps in the three countries, according to Samer Abboud, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.
“What complicates things like sub-economies is that so many people are outside of camps, so it is hard to speak of a distinct sub economy.” This is particularly evident in Lebanon where
there are no camps - there are 21 in Turkey and two in Jordan, including the second largest in the world, Zaatari, with 150,000 refugees, making it the fourth largest city in the country.
“The refugees were buying jumpers and blankets in the winter, but usually the cheapest items as they don’t have much money,” says Ahmad Beydoun, a Beirut retailer that sells low priced clothing.
Indeed, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the average monthly salary of a Syrian refugee in Lebanon is $277.30. Indicative of low purchasing power among the one million refugees in Lebanon and a drop in local consumer confidence due to the impact of the Syrian conflict on the economy, there was a drop of 15.5% in the sales of footwear and 2.5% in the sales of clothing in the first quarter of 2014, compared to the same period last year, according to the Beirut Traders Association. In Jordan and Turkey, shops catering to refugees have sprung up over the past three years, but in knitwear it is primarily low-end imports.
Stepping in to fill the gap in services and provisions are the aid agencies. Smaller charities and organisations have also sprung up to provide winter knits, revolving around a common theme: knitting. Knitters from all over the world are knitting baby clothes, jumpers and hats that are sent for donation.
Jean Bradbury, founder and manager of Studio Syria, which brings creative educational opportunities to refugees in Jordan, is acting as a conduit for online knitting community website Ravelry to get knitwear to refugees. Last year some 4,000 woollen hats were donated at the Zaatari camp, and she has already received 1,000 hats for next winter.
Also in Jordan, Laurie Balbo, a volunteer at the Collateral Repair Project, has enabled donated knits to reach refugees. “People are looking for someone to knit for, and that’s why we got 4,000 hats from Ireland; knitters don’t want publicity, just quick giving. We will get another 1,000 hats in New York soon,” she says.
Such informal groups have faced major obstacles, however, primarily importing the knitwear as well as distribution issues in camps, if not working with a major donor agency. “It probably didn’t help that our project followed a (Jordanian) Cabinet decision to slap a 20% customs duty on imported clothes,” says Ms Balbo.
In Turkey, only 2kg parcels are allowed in customs-free, says Dianne Jones, founder of Lily – Love in the Language of Yarn. “At the moment we are just giving, but in the process of starting a knitting and crocheting group in Reyhanli (in eastern Turkey near the Syrian border) with widows and women living in the camp there to sell items to make a living,” she says.
With thousands of woollen items being donated, Ms Jones believes sales of yarn and wool must have spiked because of this charitable action, albeit across a wide geographical area. “There must have been an increase in wool sales as we have sent more than 10,000 blankets, with 64 squares in a blanket,” she says.
Some knitwear and clothing companies are involved in donating items, including wool producers in Turkey, according to Ms Jones. Outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia, for instance, recently donated 5,000 fleeces to refugees in Jordan, while Japanese clothing firm Uniqlo teamed up with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and Japanese non-governmental organisation (NGO) JEN to deliver 550,000 items of second-hand Uniqlo clothing to refugees at the Zaatari camp as part of the company’s decade-old All-Product Recycling Initiative.
“We donated mostly warm clothing such as ‘Fleece’ and ‘Ultra Light Down’ jackets. The winters there can get very cold and the need for warm clothing is critical,” says a Uniqlo spokesperson in Tokyo. “We do not consider donation of clothing to the Middle East as a branding or market expansion opportunity. It goes back to our mission to help people in need through our business.” Britain’s Xamax Clothing Company teamed up with SKT Welfare, which has a project called Stand4Syria, to donate £5,000 ($8,400) worth of excess children’s clothing, including hooded tops and branded T-shirts for distribution to some 100,000 Syrian children in Jordan and Turkey.
Premier Yarns in the US, on the other hand, opted for a more novel way to aid children in need around the world through a partnership with charity World Vision that aims to collect 100,000 handmade knitted items this year for distribution.
“We have yarn, so the idea was, how can we give back and where is the need? And there is always a need to help kids, for warmth. The partnership with World Vision gave us the ‘how to do it’ and we have the retail partners,” said Jenifer Strong, key account manager at Premier Yarns.
Photo courtesy of Uniqlo.