Leftover fabric or “deadstock” is often claimed as a sustainable alternative to virgin materials in the fashion industry and beyond, but it may not be the quick fix to the bigger waste problem we believe it to be.
An industry rife with overproduction and waste
Fabric waste is a massive problem in the fashion industry, with mountains of clothes being sent to landfills or burned every year. And shockingly, it’s been reported that less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing. Something going on alongside the overproduction of apparel—we’re talking up to 100 billion new garments produced each year, as some research suggests—is the surplus of leftover or “deadstock” fabric at production mills, which some brands are now buying and incorporating into their designs in a bid to be more eco-friendly. But here’s where it gets murky on the sustainability front—while using up fabric that might otherwise be treated as waste is certainly a good thing, the very existence of deadstock fabric can be attributed to the damaging fast fashion business model, where overproduction is par for the course. And despite claims to the contrary, fabric is often overproduced on purpose because factories know it will be sold. This means it was never really going to end up in the trash and isn’t so “dead” after all. So, let’s take a closer look at the sustainability of using leftover or deadstock fabric and meet some brands who are doing it the right way.
What is deadstock fabric?
Deadstock is known by a few names, with “overstock”, “surplus fabric”, and “remnant” being the most common. Basically, it’s any leftover fabric that can’t be used for its original purpose or order fulfilment anymore, so the sustainability of the fabric itself comes down to what it is, from viscose to cotton and beyond. It might come from brands who ordered too much fabric, from mills producing incorrect colours or damaged or flawed fabric, or from cancelled orders. But if it’s just going to be thrown away, using it up is the best option, right? Let’s take a closer look.
Is using deadstock fabric a sustainable option?
When independent designers use deadstock, their intentions are to generally address the waste problem in fashion. That’s noble and worthy of our support. Deadstock can often be a more sustainable option than virgin materials, but the answer to the question of whether it’s sustainable across the board isn’t a simple yes or no. In fact, the very existence of deadstock is a symptom of a much deeper-rooted problem in fashion.
While this “waste” fabric is undoubtedly better off in the hands of a small designer who is starting out and needs to access cheaper material, there are growing concerns that mills are intentionally overproducing since they know the excess will be purchased anyway. This purposeful creation of “waste” perpetuates the cycle of overproduction and overconsumption and is something to be wary of when making purchases. Transparency is key here, but currently, in most places there is no legal requirement for mills to disclose why they rejected the fabric in the first place—which leaves both brands and shoppers in the dark. In some cases, this might mean shoppers are paying twice as much for a “zero waste” design that is made from fabric that is half the quality it should be when charging a premium, meaning it might end up in landfill sooner than later.
But that’s not to say deadstock is always a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In our current system and until the issue is addressed at an industry level, supporting otherwise ethical brands that use quality leftover fabric in their designs is a good option. That is, as long as they implement other meaningful waste-reduction and climate change-fighting strategies into their business, and don’t attribute the use of deadstock as their leading sustainability initiative. If they do, chances are there’s a bit of greenwashing going on—intentionally or not.
How Good On You rates deadstock
When we chatted to our Head of Ratings, Kristian Hardiman, about recycled fabric in our Ultimate Guide to Recycled Clothing Materials, he mentioned that while we currently reward brands for using deadstock fabric in our ratings system, “in an ideal, more circular world, there would not be any deadstock material, and waste would be minimised, with more value placed on the material.” By the same token, we now award brands that provide circularity training to designers, which includes minimising or avoiding waste fabric, or “designing out the waste”. The reality is too much virgin material is produced when there is already more than enough in the world, but until our production and recycling systems improve, your best bet as ever is to:
- Use what you have
- Go for second hand
- Purchase high-quality products from ethical brands using eco-friendly materials (recycled or not)
- Take care of your garments and use them for as long as possible
- Dispose of them thoughtfully
So, while deadstock fabric will hopefully become obsolete in future as we move towards a more circular fashion industry, right now, using it up is our best option. Below are some “Good” and “Great” rated brands using deadstock or leftover fabric in their designs that are worth your support.