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From Catwalk to…Trash Can? What Happens To Unsold Clothes May Surprise You!

By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi

For many of us, fashion buying sounds like a dream job. I mean, what could be more fun than shopping to fill up a whole department store, using someone else’s money? The reality is that fashion buying is tough, though.

First off, you need to make a seriously good guess about which trends, colours, fabrics and styles will fly out of the shop fastest. And even if your eye for fashion is impeccable, who can predict how the economy, social and political events and even the weather will affect retail foot traffic?

No matter how good fashion buyers may be at purchasing stock for their employers, and no matter how popular a clothing trend may be, the reality is – there’s always going to be some unsold merchandise at the end of every season. The million dollar question is: what happens to unsold clothes?

what happens to unsold clothes

Different Models for Dead Stock

The answer is: that depends. There are various options for getting rid of dead stock, depending on the retailer. For example:

  • Many shops sell it to discount stores like TK Maxx, or online discounters like the Outnet.
  • Others launch periodic online sales  of what needs to go, or have their own outlet stores that sell last season’s merchandise at a discount.
  • In other cases, clothes are donated to foundations, like Oxfam or The Salvation Army – bigger brands are likely to cut out the tags, to protect their brand image, and often offer employees heavily discounted clothing before donating it.
  • A few companies, like Nudie Jeans and Levi’s, are proactively encouraging customers to recycle their clothing. The former will accept your old jeans at their stores and present you with a discount coupon, and the latter include a tag on the garment to help people find the nearest location to donate.
  • If stock is something classic like say, cable knit sweaters, some retailers will hold onto that stock until the next appropriate season rolls around, then they’ll just put them out for sale again. Others will take old stock and ‘upcycle’ it with say, a new frill or added sequins, to sell it again as something ‘new’.
  • The Kering group decided that instead of burning old fabrics from their top labels like Alexander McQueen or Saint Laurent, they would instead donate those textiles to up and coming designers like Sakina M’Sa to use in their creations.
  • Textile waste is also sold to companies like Trans-America, which picks up damaged clothes from charitable organisations and sells them on to developing countries or turns them into rags.

A Burning Issue

But the worst case scenario is when garments are shamelessly dumped or destroyed. Some large luxury brands like Chanel, Hermes and Louis Vuitton will go to extremes, destroying items that have even the tiniest flaws and burning textiles to ensure no one else uses them or copies them. They never even have sales for fear of making the brand look ‘cheap’.

It’s not only the high-end brands who are extremely wasteful. A few years ago Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, became highly unpopular when he was asked to donate unsold clothes to the poor and he declared that he would have rather burnt the clothes than to encourage the perception that “just anybody” could wear the label. Shortly after, A&F received some seriously bad PR when writer-filmmaker Greg Karber launched a campaign to distribute the store’s garments to the homeless.

Abercrombie wasn’t alone in their bad waste management policies: back in 2010, The New York Times reported that that H&M was dumping rubbish bags full of clothing outside their shops, and Wal-Mart was also guilty of tossing out huge amounts of discarded garments in Manhattan’s Herald Square. 

what happens to unsold clothes

An Expensive Problem Solved By Technology?

The truth is, dead inventory is a hefty encumbrance on the retailer. Getting rid of it or storing it costs US retailers alone around $50 billion a year – imagine the cost of this globally!

Luckily, technology is helping retailers manage what happens to unsold clothes better by reducing dead stock in various ways. For example, it can be employed to help understand shoppers’ behaviour, thus allowing stores to better understand consumers’ needs and buy for their stores accordingly.

Along these lines, improvements to e-commerce websites and services have led to virtual shopping experiences that can allow consumers to order items in advance, reducing production waste and giving retailers a better idea of how much they need to stock. RotaryView, for instance, offers a 360-degree viewer: sellers can upload and spin super-hi-resolution zoom images of the products they intend to offer, and consumers can pre-order them. Nextail is a kind of virtual assistant that helps retailers optimise stock levels by improving the daily allocation and replenishment decisions of retailers, to ensure they hold the correct amount of stock at all times. Another start-up, Inturn, enables brands to efficiently sell excess inventory to retailers in private, online showrooms, reducing waste and improving a flow in cash returns. 

As always, it’s great that technology is helping us reduce fashion waste, but for us, it’s not only the retailer, but also the consumer who need to be conscious of how to reduce it – after all, the end user has a responsibility to dispose of garments after their use, too. Whilst it’s important to monitor how shops deal with dead stock, we also need to think about this issue ourselves. Swapping, swishing and donating to charity are three easy (and fun!) ways to get rid of old clothes, but ultimately the old adage holds true for businesses and individuals alike: the less you buy, the less you waste.

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