UPDATE OCT 2020: I wrote another blog post about whether Deadstock (overstock) is really dead. You can read that here.
This seems to be the year where home sewers are taking stock of what they have, slowing down their buying and thinking more consciously about their closet. Happily, #whomademyfabric (or fibre) got a bit of attention during Fashion Revolution week. I blogged previously about a sewing revolution – what we home sewers could do besides hold up a sign and take up a picture – but this is a difficult ask given lack of transparency in the textile supply chain. One sustainable solution often quoted is overstock. You might have heard the terms deadstock or surplus. In short, it is unwanted fabric from fashion brands, textile mills, movie sets. Sometimes you will see it in fabric shops advertised as “ex-designer”. You can read about overstock from the perspective of a fabric owner here.
After speaking to some fabric store owners and sustainable fashion friends, I thought I would write up some ideas to mull over when considering whether this is sustainable. Outside of my verbal chats, my main resource for this article is from a white paper by Reverse Resources. This is a company developing software to help garment factories to track their leftover fabrics and scraps and increase transparency.
Why does overstock exist?
In the entire lifecycle of a garment, waste is generated at every stage, from fabric production (defective fibres or fabrics, overproduction, unfinished garments, cutting waste), through to distribution and disposal by consumers. When considering the different stages, my assumption is that overstock would mostly come from post-production leftovers, as this it the most likely place where you would have excess rolls of fabric. Here are some possible reasons as to why it exists:
- Brands order more yardage than necessary (source: Reverse Resources). When brands order their garments to be made, they purchase additional yardage (3-10% more than necessary) to cover production losses from inefficiency and scraps. Factory output is measured in the number of garments whilst costing is measured in yardage.
- Lack of transparency within garment factories. Accurate tracking and management information of resource use is not robust. This generates opportunity for a secondary market in leftovers.
- Faulty fabric that cannot be used in production is either sold off at low prices or destroyed to meet brand protection rules. I have heard that this is especially the case for luxury brands that have a distinctive look or have a statement cloth made. Also, brands do not tend to use the same cloth for multiple seasons.
How much overstock is there?
The data I have found on post production waste is varied depending on the source and the criteria used. Here are a few statistics; however note that this includes all types of waste and is not limited to overstock. Warning: the numbers are not insignificant when you consider how many garments are created in the world each year!
- The Ellen Macarthur Foundation analysed the global material flows of clothing. They estimated that of total losses generated between fibre production and the final garment is around 12% (based on 2015 data).
- Reverse Resource estimates that at least 25% of fibre / fabric resource purchased from textile mills and garment factories is leftover. This is based on data from 7 garment factories in Bangladesh and China plus interviews with >100 people in the fashion production industry.
- A report cited by Reverse Resources involving research by the Centre of Industrial Sustainability at the University of Cambridge estimated post-production waste figure to be 15-20% in Sri Lanka (2015 data).
The sustainability case for overstock
Now that I have given the context for overstock, let me turn to the sustainability case. At the core, the case for using overstock is the nature of the fabric itself: unwanted. By buying somebody’s unwanted fabric, you are not fuelling the demand for new fabric. The owner of the fabric isn’t profiting, and it might even be better that a middleman is paying something for it, rather than having to get rid of it some other way.
There are fashion brands that use overstock as part of their eco marketing. Take Reformation for example – their website states that 15% of their fabric sourcing is from overstock (and out of interest; 2-5% is from vintage clothing). I’m not sure whether this is considered a low or high number but I imagine one of the reasons why its not bigger is because overstock isn’t repeatable. It would be very difficult to build a whole collection with the volume of garments required if there isn’t a huge amount of leftovers of one type of fabric.
UPDATE OCTOBER 2020: Reformation has gotten bigger. Their overstock use has gone done, and it’s now around 5% rather than 15% as stated above.
And the negatives?
As you would expect, there is a downside to overstock. Even if you want to label overstock as second hand or waste, it is still virgin material. Additionally, if it is on the roll it can still be sold off by middlemen to places like fabric shops or brands like Reformation. In which case it just ends up being a source of cheap fabric. I have it on good authority that the price paid by middlemen for fabric is virtually nothing compared to the prices for which they are resold to us the end consumer!
My experience with shopping for overstock
I have visited many fabric shops and warehouses in the last few years, including places with a lot of overstock. One problem I have encountered in those places though is that I have no idea what the fibre is (except by feel). Also many of these shops also sell cheap polyester and cotton, which makes me slightly suspicious. Many times they have tried to sell me something as ex designer “oh this is ex-Hobbs or ex-Jigsaw“ (high street brands) – as if this makes the fabric superior somehow. This is not to say that I have never found quality stuff there for low prices – I certainly have – but I do question how much these shops know or care about where their stuff comes from.
On the flip side, I know some fabric shops avoid overstock. One reason is the repeatability issue. If there is high demand for something that sells out too quickly, then there are complaints about lack of availability! (can’t please everybody). I obviously don’t own a fabric shop, but I have wondered why so many shops carry the same fabrics (recognisable by the prints and fibre content combination). If you have wondered the same, then do a google for wholesale fabric and click through the websites of wholesalers. You’ll probably see a lot of prints you recognize from the smaller shops. I can only assume this is milled (produced for the sewing market) rather than overstock.
So is overstock a yay or nay?
From a sustainability perspective, overstock is a yay for me when compared to milled fabrics (e.g Lady McElroy cotton lawn florals, Atelier Brunette fabrics). These are made specifically for sewing and are usually printed on conventionally produced fabrics (no organic or any sustainability angle for that matter). But overstock doesn’t always have the cool designs and prints on branded fabrics. So I think there is room for both to co-exist when it comes to home sewing. I would love to see more of these fabric brands incorporate green thinking into their production; maybe this is something to campaign for.
Let me finish by saying that I don’t believe the exclusive use of overstock by the home sewer is the sustainability solution. The root cause needs to be addressed and there is an onus on the fashion brands to change their ways. They can help to control overstock and production waste; and unless everyone starts making their clothes instead of buying them (or we go back to the days of make do and mend), there will always be more RTW clothes than homemade ones! To this end, I think it is really valuable to have companies like Reverse Resources who are coming up with different ideas to reduce and reuse factory waste.
What do you think about overstock as a sustainable solution? Do you think we will make any difference at all whether we choose to buy overstock or not?
UPDATE OCT 2020: this link will take you to my part 2 on deadstock (overstock) and whether is really dead.