What happens to clothing that goes unsold?

This article, written by Christina Dean, was originally published in Fashion Revolution’s new fanzine ‘Loved Clothes Last’. Pre-order your copy here.

 Photography by William Farr. William Farr is an installation artist and image maker, working primarily with found materials. @william__farr

Photography by William Farr. William Farr is an installation artist and image maker, working primarily with found materials. @william__farr

No one knows the true scale of ‘deadstock’ clothing waste — in other words, clothes that are unable to be sold at full or discounted price and must be gotten rid of somehow.

We know that around 100 billion garments are manufactured annually. Let’s say the sell-through rate (both full and discounted) is a generous 90%, then potentially 10 million items of clothing become ‘deadstock’ every year. That’s a lot of clothes to miraculously make ‘disappear.’ So what do brands and retailers claim to do with the products they can’t get customers to buy?

“We sell through discounts and outlets"

Shockingly, 75% of apparel purchases are now made at discounted prices — fuelling a race to the bottom where increasingly lower price points gets consumers hooked on cheap, cheap, cheap! Some traditional retailers now have more discount outlets than full-priced stores. But when the thrill of discounted shopping fails to entice the consumer into making a purchase then brands and retailers must get rid of their ‘deadstock’. The truth is that offering discounted prices will never ensure all products are sold. Retail space, warehouse space and even prime website ad-space isn’t infinite, which means products that aren’t selling need to be gotten rid of. But where?

"We sell on through our partners"

This is fashion lingo for a process in which brands and retailers sell their unsold wares in bulk into other non-competing markets. In this process clothes are often de-labelled or re-labelled to be sold on again. For example, European brands look to Australia to sell this sort of ‘deadstock.' The secondary market for clothes and textiles is orchestrated by ‘jobbers.' Think of used car salesmen but instead of Porsches it’s polyesters.

"We organise friends and family sales"

Unless all their staff members have huge families and thousands of friends, this tactic will hardly make a dent in the huge volumes of apparel going unsold each season.

"We donate unsold clothes to charities"

Whilst this sounds good on paper, in reality donating and selling (aka dumping) unsold clothes to lower income countries can have negative consequences on their local economies and communities. More on this topic later in the zine.

"We destroy unsold clothes"

This is a reality very few brands are willing to admit. In fashion talk, especially by the tongues of luxury brands, this means that clothes are either shredded and recycled (think catwalk couture becoming carpets) or incinerated (think puffs of exquisitely luxurious smoke.)

Whilst those working in the industry know that incineration is sometimes, sadly, par for the course, the public can only rely on rumours about how unsold or damaged clothes goods are destroyed. It’s quite a well-kept secret.

But the lid is increasingly being lifted off about the incineration secret. This was recently - and rather dramatically - exposed by Operation X, the investigative report by Danish TV Channel, TV2. Reporters delivered a strong blow by providing their own evidence that supposedly systematically demonstrates incineration of clothes by several big high street brands. This programme is bringing awareness (and in some cases righteous anger) to the issue of waste incineration. However, a healthy dose of reality is required. The battle for brands to cope with unsold inventory isn't as straightforward as it seems. Large scale recycling is not yet up to scratch and brands and retailers strive to protect their highly-prized intellectual property and brand image.

Also, no one really wants to take the blame for the type of fashion waste that essentially arises from trying to sell clothes that customers don’t want — be this due to buyers’ irresponsible judgment calls, lack of understanding of their customers’ changing tastes or missing the boat in terms of the whippet-fast trends. Someone has got to take the blame for getting order numbers, production and retail wrong.

No more excuses

There are solutions that don’t involve destroying or sending perfectly good materials to landfill. 

In the short term, there is an urgent need for fashion buyers to curb their enthusiasm, rein in their purchase orders and place orders more responsibly up front to limit the amount of dead stock inventory at the end of a season. Plus, tech and logistic improvements will also do wonders at helping fashion brands get to grips with ordering more realistically and according to what customers ultimately want. In the longer term, all solutions point to keeping surplus and discarded materials in the fashion loop for longer.

To fuel this change further and faster, as consumers we must all be asking our favourite fashion brands:

“What do you do with your waste?


This article, written by Christina Dean, was originally published in Fashion Revolution’s new fanzine ‘Loved Clothes Last’. Pre-order your copy here for £15. Read the press release.