Deadstock fabric: How sustainable is it really?

If you’ve researched ethical brands, you may have come across designers producing with deadstock fabric. But what is it and is it really a sustainable fashion solution? 

The fast fashion sector has long set the pace and trends of the retail industry. Instead of supply following demand, fast fashion brands generate mass demand through their enormous output. By offering an extensive variety of options and big marketing budgets, they convince us that we need to wear the latest trends to look and feel good. As it stands, big clothing conglomerates like H&M and Inditex (who own Zara, Pull&Bear, Bershka and more) produce millions of garments a year. 

This fact begs the question: do these companies manage to sell all of the clothes they create? The answer is—unsurprisingly—not. So, what happens to them? The ones with defects at the bottom of the sale bin or the back of the warehouse? The ones in perfect condition yet overproduced and not in demand? Or how about the material or buttons that never fulfilled their ‘destiny’ as new clothes, shoes or bags? A lot of it becomes something the industry calls deadstock fabric

What is deadstock fabric? 

Deadstock fabric, also known as overstock or surplus fabric, refers to leftover material that hasn’t been used or sold. This can happen due to:

  1. Small, unnoticeable discrepancies or damage during fabric manufacturing. The manpower and pure nature of manufacturing at high volumes inevitably leads to minor yet unavoidable shrinkage, shade variation, weaving, dyeing, and printing defects. Often, these small differences don’t mean much to us as end customers. However, companies who buy big batches of fabric to mass produce the same item want to ensure there are no variations, no matter how slight. 
  2. Brands and fabric manufacturers may overestimate the amount of fabric they need. It’s estimated that at least 25% of fabric purchased from textile mills and garment factories end up as deadstock!
  3. Buying and producing less actually costs more. Bulk purchases are more cost effective, so brands often buy more than what they need because it’s cheaper and can speed up the production time for new batches of stock.

Where does deadstock come from?

The issue of excess fabric stems largely from fast fashion’s business model: producing cheap clothes on a mass scale. With brands launching new collections weekly, everyone has to stay one step ahead to keep up. Ultimately, excess fabric becomes an expected by-product in this game of economies of scale. From a business perspective, it’s more profitable to overestimate the amount of fabric needed than to underestimate. 

So, what happens to deadstock?

Most of the time, the solution to deadstockwhether it’s a pair of pristine leather shoes, or a selection of old joggers a brand needs to clearis to throw them away; out of inventory, out of mind. Whether it’s high-end luxury houses looking to maintain exclusivity or smaller brands forced to clear space or cut down on lost inventory costs, discarding clothes is ‘easier’ than adopting a circular business model.

Brands get rid of excess stock in many ways. Sometimes, they end up in landfill. Other times, companies take a more extreme approach—burning. Remember the scandal of Burberry burning their unsold stock which they justified as protecting brand exclusivity? In countries like India, it’s even become commonplace to burn fabric as fuel for fire during winters. This isn’t ideal, given the fact that polyester (found in about 60% of garments today) is made of plastic, the burning of which releases cancer-causing fumes. 

“Most of the time, the solution to deadstock—whether it’s a pair of pristine leather shoes, or a selection of old joggers a brand needs to clear—is to throw them away; out of inventory, out of mind.”

Bottomline? Deadstock is really wasteful, given that fashion production is already resource-intensive, and especially given that more than half of the energy required to make our clothes is used in the pre-treatment process. For any fabric to then be wasted and unused would mean that the bulk of energy and resources then become redundant. 

tonle slow fashion zero waste
Ethical fashion label tonlé produces a lot of its collections from deadstock, surplus fabric to reduce fashion waste

Deadstock: A silver lining

There has been change brewing and brands have found creative ways to use deadstock so that there’s less going to waste. Today, a number of fashion labels choose to incorporate deadstock fabric into their collections, or make their designs from it entirely. They purchase the fabric from fabric mills, and use them for smaller collections that deviate from the conventional larger collections. Brands using deadstock include Dorsu, who specialise in basics; Aanya, who uses silk and polyester deadstock; Tove and Libra, Christy Dawn, tonlé, Reformation and more. 

This method can be beneficial for small brands starting out as there usually isn’t any minimum order quantity. It’s also generally cheaper to purchase, meaning a smaller risk and financial investment. What’s more, the beauty of deadstock is in the unique and limited styles available, which would be hard to find elsewhere. 

The problems with deadstock fabric

Using deadstock fabric is a logical step in the fight to resolve fashion’s waste issue. However, it also comes with it’s own set of problems.

Its traceability can be limited

Unlike new fabric, when it comes to deadstock, brands and consumers often lack accurate fabric information. For example, the exact content, how the fabric may behave or if it will shrink or fade. Brands who source deadstock often have to go the extra mile to test the quality of the fabrics and search for discrepancies. This all takes time, expertise and often, money.

It can come from unknown sources

Just like material composition, brands may not know much about where deadstock fabric is coming from, especially if they’re not bought directly from the manufacturer. This means not knowing the producers: the farmers, the weavers, who dyed the clothes and with what kind of dyes. In the case of leathers and skins, deadstock is particularly suspect as producers often mislabel them. Thus, what might seem to be cow leather might be from a different animal entirely.

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It’s often plastic fantastic!

A lot of deadstock does tend to contain synthetic material like polyester, nylon, or acrylic. Synthetic fibres can take up to 200 years to break down, and they also shed microplastics, which leech into our water supply and make up 35% of all the microplastics in the ocean. 

It can incentivise overproduction

As more brands start to adopt the use of deadstock fabric, factories then have no issues overproducing instead of consciously capping their processes. This is because they know that as the demand for deadstock grows, their excess fabric will eventually sell. At the end of the day, it’s hard to decipher if what brands market as a more eco-friendly option was really just available, purposely over-produced stock. 

It could lead to false marketing

If a brand’s only ‘sustainable’ effort is using deadstock, they may be greenwashing. They would still need to ensure environmentally friendly and ethically produced products, inclusive of worker safety and fair pay.

Alternative manufacturing processes

No matter how you approach manufacturing, there seems to be an issue with waste. Researchers and brands have started to explore alternative processes that negate the need for waste all together. Here’s some interesting ones:

  • 3D knitting technology: Think 3D printing, but instead, the machine uses yarn to knit! This way, the only fabric that needs to be manufactured is yarn. This yarn then does not go to waste as it forms the garment perfectly. This technology can even create made-to-order clothes that conform perfectly onto each individual’s measurements. Brands that have started to use this method include UNIQLO and Adidas.
  • Zero waste design: Zero-waste design encapsulates many different methods. At the heart of it, it simply refers to designs that do not discard any waste. This can be done through creative usage of fabric rolls that use 100% of fabric, or by reusing all the waste in another stage of product-making. tonlé is one such brand that combines many different ways to ensure that no waste is created in any designing process. 
zero waste cutting of fabric rolls
An illustration of a zero-waste method of cutting fabric rolls
  • On-demand manufacturing: This refers to using a made-to-order model in order to address the problem of overproduction. Brands that provide this include Lily & Lou, and Fame and Partners. This method has many benefits, and brands can even provide customisation and design garments to fit an individual’s exact measurements. However, it also comes with some downsides. For many, making a single piece at a time is too time-consuming and not cost-effective. This also does not eliminate the need to have a consistent stock of fabric.   

Deadstock fabric: Our final thoughts!

Working with deadstock fabric does help to reduce and reconsider the potential of waste. However, it can still pose issues of limited traceability and potential greenwashing. The last thing we need is another loophole for producers and brands to make even more, and then slap on false ‘green’ credentials. In order to truly fix the fashion industry’s issue with excess, we need more than just a band aid solution.

Sooner rather than later, the industry needs to adopt circular solutions that don’t just focus on what to do with waste, but how to eliminate it entirely. If you think about it, in an ideal world deadstock wouldn’t really exist! Suppliers would make no more than their order. Brands would be more conscious about how much to buy and produce. There would be better aftercare and take back initiatives to keep textiles in cycle. Upcycling wouldn’t be a waste management system, but just another way to produce with what we have and extend fabric lifespan. While brands undeniably don’t set out to create a deadstock fabric issue, they could get more creative or collaborate with innovative minds to turn their trash into tomorrow’s treasure.

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