I’ll cut to the chase: the fashion industry has a huge waste problem. It mass produces poorly made, temporarily trendy clothes. 300,000 tonnes of which are discarded every year in the UK alone.
A vast amount of waste is generated in the design and manufacturing stages. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, around 12% of textile losses are generated between fibre production and the final garment, through factory offcuts and overstock liquidation.
As the legend goes, this deadstock is destined for landfill. Sustainably marketed brands then swoop in and ‘save’ this fabric from trash, transforming it into conscious fashion. Reformation proudly boasts that up to 5% of their products are made out of it – but is deadstock as sustainable as brands make it out to be?
What is deadstock?
In its original conception, deadstock referred to damaged or defective fabric, but its usage has since broadened. Nowadays, the term is used interchangeably with overstock and surplus to mean post-production leftovers. In other words, deadstock is unwanted milled fabric that a factory has been unable to sell to the original buyer who commissioned it. This happens frequently and it is estimated that at least 25% of fabric purchased from textile mills and garment factories is leftover.
The reasons for this vary. Brands often commission more yardage than necessary to cover any production losses from inefficient pattern cutting and fabric scraps. It is common for fashion buyers to over-forecast the demand for a particular fabric. Brands may also reject an order if the fabric doesn’t perform as expected, it no longer fits their vision, or there were printing and dyeing errors.
What happens to deadstock?
It’s a good question. And not one that can always be answered with certainty.
A common misconception is that deadstock will inevitably end up in a landfill if it is not rescued by sustainable brands. In any case, it would seem more logical to assume that deadstock would instead be incinerated, given that 80% of UK textile waste is incinerated, not landfilled.
And sometimes, that’s true. Luxury fashion houses are known to burn excess stock to retain its exclusivity and value. If luxury deadstock is not sold off, it’s likely destroyed to meet brand protection rules and prevent any textiles from ending up in a competitor’s hands. In 2018, Burberry came under fire for burning £28.6 million unsold stock and has since pledged to end this wasteful practice.
Independently verifying what would happen to unsold deadstock, then, becomes rather tricky. The fashion industry lacks transparency and it would be a PR disaster for mills to admit that leftover textiles are either burned or trashed.
But there’s a more obvious reason why they would deny such wastefulness: factories can profit from deadstock.
Deadstock is usually marketed as some form of miscalculation or error, but it might be better referred to as available stock. The difference is that a garment factory deliberately overproduces textiles with the intention of later selling this as ‘deadstock’. Factories and mills will keep certain stock fabrics in rotation which they know there will always be a market for.
Deadstock, then, is often created by design.
Overproduction is relatively risk-free and makes financial sense. It is far cheaper for a mill to produce extra fabric they can later sell at a discount than to turn off the machines once an order is completed. Garment production margins are typically low, so deadstock sales provide an important source of revenue for factories which is accounted for in their books. Mills will plan to cell x percent of textiles at full price and y percent at a discounted ‘deadstock price’. The exact percentages will vary from mill to mill, though it’s likely that they all minimise the amount of fabric that is sold at a discounted price. What mills don’t calculate, therefore, is the percentage of fabric that will go to landfill, the equivalent of throwing money away. Any unsold fabric is instead passed onto a jobber who resells it for a premium.
Now that we’ve debunked several myths, the question remains:
Is deadstock sustainable?
When factories and mills are in the business of producing overstock, deadstock cannot be considered part of the secondhand economy. The material is still virgin and, by purchasing it, sustainably marketed brands are buying into the vicious overproduction cycle.
Buying deadstock can fuel the demand for virgin textiles, the production of which has devastating planetary and socio-economic impacts. While manufacturers know they can sell the surplus fabric they produce, fast fashion brands can continue to overbuy guilt-free. There is no incentive to keep excess fabric to a minimum, allowing fast fashion brands to evade accountability. This has become painfully apparent during the cancelled orders crisis. Citing a global pandemic as an effective force majeure clause, fashion brands have cancelled billions of dollars worth of already processed or completed apparel orders. Garment factories and workers are now facing economic ruin.
That being said, deadstock fabric is not necessarily unsustainable in and of itself, but the system it is created in is inherently so. Overstock is a deliberate output of a design culture that champions overconsumption and disposable fashion. The vast amount of available surplus fabric speaks to the scale of such wasteful practices, though it can equally foster conscious design. As more intricate or decorative deadstock is limited in quantity, purchasing brands are encouraged to design thoughtful capsule collections.
Deadstock, however, is often bought without any labels attached. It can be difficult to identify what the fabric is, in what conditions it was produced and whether it was sustainably derived. With little knowledge of how these materials will perform, more fabric could be wasted in the process. In this sense, deadstock really could end up in the bin.
Is deadstock just greenwashing?
When deadstock is not as obviously sustainable as first thought, fashion brands often exaggerate its sustainability credentials. Much of what is marketed as deadstock is purposely overproduced available stock. This has created a loophole for supposedly sustainable brands to use non-sustainable fabrics in its designs. While they might claim to be saving synthetic fabrics from landfill, the likelihood is it was never actually going to be wasted in the first place – this is textbook greenwashing.