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Is ‘Ethical Fashion’ Made with Deadstock Fabric Just Greenwashing?

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By Lora O’Brien

In the world of fashion, time rarely stands still. As soon as one trend hits the shops, there’s already another biting hungrily at its heels. Behind every trend comes planning, and fashion buyers have to predict what will sell, what patterns and designs are the next big thing, and then source the exact fabric to make the clothing. And with fast fashion having such an extensive turnover, a trend can sometimes be a total miss, and there’s suddenly a huge surplus of excess fabric left over from cancelled orders.

The term for unused fabric is deadstock, and besides cancelled orders, there can be different reasons as to why it hasn’t sold: there may be some kind of damage to the fabric, or it may be down to the simple fact that a company ordered more than they can use.

So, what the heck happens to all that fabric?

Many consumers are under the illusion that because this fabric is ‘extra’, it will just end up in a landfill somewhere, or worse, unless an ‘ethical fashion brand’ comes to its rescue. And sometimes, that’s true: some luxury fashion houses actually burn excess fabric rather than risk having a competitor – or god forbid, a more downscale brand – use their textiles. But the reality is, most deadstock is still pretty usable – and the manufacturers know it.

So, are brands that use deadstock eco-friendly?

The processes of dying, knitting, weaving and printing all require huge, complex machines which take up vast amount of space, and require multiple people to operates. It takes a great deal of energy and manpower to turn off the machines, clean them, and set them up for the next fabric. Therefore, it works out cheaper for the mill to produce extra fabric that they intend to sell at a discounted price than it would cost them to shut off the machines once the initial order is fulfilled. This is possible whenever an order is non-exclusive; some high-end fashion brands, for example, ask the mill to make a fabric exclusively for them.

Fabric tends to come on rolls, for example 20m, 50m or 100m, depending on the mill. Thus, some clothing manufacturers may need to buy more fabric than needed, and if the buyer can’t be persuaded to take the extra units of cloth, it either becomes deadstock, or the Β factory will reserve it for the buyer, so they know if they recieve more orders, the fabric will be there, ready to use.

Factored into their basic costing, a mill will plan out beforehand which percentage of fabric they intend to sell at full price, and which will be sold at a discounted deadstock price. The takeaway here is that the mills would never dream of just dumping the textiles they’ve spent time and money creating, ever. But recently, some clothing brands have created some greenwashing magic by claiming they’re ‘ethical’ because they’re saving deadstock fabric from going into landfill. But is it, though? Or are they just buying textiles like any brand would – but at a discount?

A fashion buyer speaks

I spoke to fashion buyer Candice Dodd about this issue, and she shared a story about how she’d sourced fabric for a buyer who then proceeded to order 1000m from the mill. The fabric was then dyed and approved, and was ready to be delivered but the buyer changed her mind about what the material would be used for, and in the time it took for her to agree to a re-style, she’d moved departments, and the fabric was passed on to the new buyer. The new buyer didn’t like the fabric and refused to take it. The resulted in the mill being left with 1000m of fabric that couldn’t be shipped, and was no longer wanted.

Due to a high turnover in the fashion buying industry, this isn’t an unusal circumstance, meaning many mills are left with vast amounts of unused fabric. So, what to do?

Meet the jobbers

When situations like this arise and if the mills can’t then sell the fabric, they pass it on to a jobber. A jobber will take the fabric, mark it up for a premium and then sell this on to small designers and home sewers. Many would consider this to be an eco friendly use of the deadstock, and in some ways it is: if a brand wanted to design, say, a bunch of dresses and put an order in for a unique textile, that would require setting up the machines as mentioned above, and would inevitably produce some waste fabric – basically, it would create more deadstock.

But in reality, according to fashion expert Melanie DiSalvo, ‘deadstock’ can be just another way of saying ‘non-custom ordered fabric’, and jobbers are just another cog in the huge fashion supply chain. Fashion is, and always will be, an industy that makes money, and nobody wants to lose money on deadstock textiles.

So while it’s probably better than placing a new order for a bunch of matieral, it’s not particularly ethical if a fashion brand is marketing itself as being eco-friendly for buying those textiles – remember that both cheap fast-fashion companies and so-called ‘ethical brands’ may well both be buying the exact same fabric . Deadstock fabric is sold for a heavy discount by the mills themselves, but it’s the ‘sustainable’ brands that are more likely to inflate their prices, claiming their collections are ‘eco’ or ‘vintage’.

Sure, there are some exceptions to this rule – for example, Charlotte Bialas scours the planet searching for rare, vintage fabrics from the 70s and 80s. Another exception is Sakina M’Sa, who was given permission by the Kering group (the parent brand behind Alexander McQueen, YSL, Gucci and other haute brands) to use excess fabric by those top designers and fashion it into new collections. But generally, if you see any brand claiming to be ‘ethical’ because it’s using deadstock – just remember this: they got that fabric at a huge discount. Is that being reflected in the price?

Images: 2. Charlotte Bialas 3. Sakina M’Sa 4. Charlotte Bialas



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8 Comments

  • Reply
    Rachel Faller
    Feb 28, 2018 at 6:23 pm

    This is a really interesting article and there are several important points made. I do think this is a complex issue and there are several shades of grey when discussing waste. For example I run a zero-waste company where we use dead-stock, but also offcuts and items that failed quality control – all leftover from factories in Cambodia. We do buy it from middle men, and there is a market for such items in Cambodia. But using tiny pieces of fabric (sometimes ranging from 5 inches wide up to 20 inches wide) is significantly more time consuming than purchasing new fabric on rolls, not to mention the time we spend washing and sorting it, and hand cutting it, and this is where the price increase is justifiable. We also use every single scrap of our own waste, which is difficult (and expensive) to say the least. The question of whether this is really waste if people are buying it is important – but for the time being until we change the larger issues and patterns in the industry, there is a huge amount being discarded at all steps of the chain (dead-stock is just one part of this). If a brand is taking steps to up-cycle this waste, but also trying to change the process further up stream and reduce waste in their own supply chain, I still personally believe this is the most “sustainable” option.

    • Reply
      Chere
      Feb 28, 2018 at 6:30 pm

      Thanks for taking the time to leave these very thoughtful comments. Rachel! Well said.

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