The Rag Pickers of Yesterday. The Circular Economy of tomorrow.

Just in the process of planning my course on the Circular Economy and Circular Packaging, I have just started reading and researching the subject more, and in this book this image really grabbed my attention.

The Rag Pickers of Paris 1899-1901

At that time the Industrial Revolution was gathering speed and new processes gave leftover waste a certain value, Ragpickers appeared in cities in large numbers, they worked for middlemen who were transforming these rags into new products. Today, we call this upcycling or circular design, then, it was called the development of the cottage industries.

“The ragpicker fascinated his epoch. the eyes of the first investigators of pauperism were fixed on him with the mute question as to where the limit of human misery lay. In his book ‘Des classes dangereuses de la population’… FROM WALTER BENJAMIN’S ‘THE PARIS OF THE SECOND EMPIRE IN BAUDELAIRE’

According to the Musée Historique Environnement Urban (MHEU) ‘Piqueurs’ would have to save up in order to buy their place or beat The picqueur was at the bottom of the hierarchy of ragpickers: he would walk about day or night, armed with his hook, a lantern and a sack.

The ‘placier’s’ job was a more enviable one. He had purchased his beat, and in exchange for carrying out small odd jobs, he collected his booty directly from concierges or householders. Smart districts were highly prized.

“…first there are those who were born into the ragpicking trade, the children of ragpickers who have never known anything else. Then there are many who, like me, in the winter of 1860-61, finding myself without work, became a ragpicker in the evenings to begin with, for I feared running into people who knew me. “

Extract from Notes d’un chiffonnier by Desmarquest, in Le Travail en France. Monographies professionnelles by J. Barberet

Master Rag Pickers eventually became rich themselves: they bought items collected by the piqueurs and the placiers, employed people to sort them, and sold them by the truckload to the textile industry; bones and metals too. It is estimated that there were 15,000 Rag Pickers in Paris and at least 100,000 in France in the middle of the 19th century. Ring any bells?

It did for me, we have a fashion industry in desperate need to reinvent itself and show its consumers that it is really taking environmental issues seriously. I recently attended an online course during lockdown from The Ellen McCarthur Foundation on this exact subject which was really interesting, you can find out about it here.

So, I started to investigate the Rag Picker and its development over time. In India, for example, the modern-day Rag Pickers have become indirect ‘shareholders’ in local waste management.

“Rag picking is probably one of the most dangerous and
dehumanizing activities in India. Child rag pickers are working in
filthy environments, surrounded by crows or dogs and have to search through hazardous waste without gloves or shoes.

They often eat the filthy food remnants they find in the garbage bins or in the dumping ground. Children run the risk of finding needles, syringes, used condoms, saline bottles, soiled gloves and other hospital wastes as well as ample of plastic and iron items. They suffer from many diseases, such as respiratory problems, worms, anaemia, fever and other problems
which include cuts, rashes and dog bites.”

Ragpickers who are “informal” stakeholders in the waste management system are a vulnerable group in India. This unpaid and unrecognised group form an integral part of the waste management eco-system. The number of ragpickers in India is estimated to range between 1.5 million to 4 million. Ragpickers in India are dealing with dry waste such as plastic, hardware, electronic waste, paper, glass and metals.

If you want to see more

Organisations like Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP) and Solid Waste Collection and Handling (SWaCH) are helping the rag pickers or ‘waste pickers’ lead a dignified life by helping them fight for their rights

In Mexico, Rag Pickers work on average for 6 hours a day collecting waste. Their houses are often in very poor condition. They bring garbage back to the house to separate it, and there are often piles of non-recyclable waste dumped nearby.

Image courtesy of Carlos Eduardo Siqueira.

RAGPICKERS, a London-based collective of students and recent graduates focus on the issues around labour and exploitation in the art world. Like a recent post on its FB page where it highlighted that students in China are working overnight to produce Amazon Alexa devices.

“We are the ‘drop-outs’ and ‘outcasts’ of the art world who are constantly asked to practice unpaid and ungrateful jobs during our free time, and find money to sustain our living somewhere else. We are an anonymous group and we are open to new participants who sympathize with our ideas”

One of its recent events was to highlight the ICA Gallery as being an organisation “using overqualified invigilators and traces of unpaid immaterial labour.”


Credit Ragpickers.


We make too much and buy too much. But maybe there is a way not to waste too much. The ragpicker of Brooklyn has an idea.

Daniel Silverstein of Zero Waste Daniel.
Credit. Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Silverstein makes clothes for Rag & Bone and Donna Karan’s Urban Zen line. He works with pre-consumer, post-production waste, which is another way of saying he works with the fabrics that other designers and costume departments and factories would normally throw out. He makes mostly street wear: sweatshirts and pants and T-shirts,

So, as the fashion industry comes to grips with its own culpability in the climate crisis, the concept of upcycling or circular design is becoming more and more important, whether remaking old clothes or re-engineering used fabric or just by using what would otherwise be tossed into landfill, these strategies have begun in force and will trickle down to many layers of the fashion world. So watch this space for the next era of Rag Pickers.

Featured Image credit. Slade School.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.