Deadstock fabric and unsold inventory are weighing down the fashion industry, which is responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions. In this series, we’ll unpack and tackle fashion’s waste problem to better understand how it operates and what brands need to do to fix it. This is Fashion’s Waste Problem.
During a recent coffee catch-up with a friend, conversation veered towards the slippery nature of sustainable brand messaging. “I just think if you care about the planet in any capacity, you’d avoid working in fashion,” he said, rather bleakly.
And he has a point. The fashion industry, for all its self-expressionist glory, is responsible for a shocking 10% of the world’s carbon emissions, with over 500,000 tonnes of textiles discarded in local landfill each year. It’s certainly not a new problem, though it has found its way into a growing number of news headlines over the last decade due to the impending threat of the global climate crisis.
The Business of Fashion x McKinsley & Company 2021 The State of Fashion report highlights startling figures, such as predicted annual growth in garment production volumes of 2.7%, with less than 1% of products recycled into new garments.
In a bid to solve fashion’s toxic relationship with waste, the industry’s leading thinkers and makers are looking to close the loop. That is, to transition to a circular economy. UK-based charity, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is dedicated to the promotion of such an economy, defining circularity as, “Designing out waste, keeping resources and materials in use and regenerating natural systems”.
“We must transform all the elements of the take-make-waste system: how we manage resources, how we make and use products, and what we do with the materials afterwards. Only then can we create a thriving economy that can benefit everyone within the limits of our planet … By designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems we can reinvent everything.”
The State of Fashion report’s in-depth examination of circularity (A More Circular Fashion Industry Will Require a Collective Effort), authored by Libbi Lee and Karl-Hendrik Magnus, also predicts that “circularity may become the biggest disruptor to the fashion industry over the next decade”.
“Circularity is likely to be one of the key business trends of the next decade. However, it is not the kind of revolution that can be led by a few leaders, while others wait and see. Rather, a collective effort is required, in which fashion companies, customers and all participants in the value chain collaborate.”
Closer to home, local brands are also making a concerted shift towards business models that design out waste. New Zealand-based sustainable fashion pioneer, Maggie Marilyn, has placed transparency and the health of the planet front and centre of its design objectives since its 2016 inception.
At the tail end of 2019, the brand released a collection of traceable, evergreen essentials that can be recycled or composted at the end of their life.
“Our ‘Somewhere’ collection was designed to be circular. Made from organic cotton, NZ merino and regenerated nylon, all items have the ability to be either recycled or composted at the end of their life. Before the end of 2020, we will be launching our repairs programme as well as more information about our take back programme that we intend to launch in early 2021”, as quoted from the brand’s website.
For Richard Jarman, founder and creative director of Australian luxury swim and resort wear label, COMMAS, the natural world has long played an integral role in inspiring for the brand’s signature silk-cotton blend camp collar shirts, quick-drying printed swim shorts, linen lounge shorts and robes.
“Being from Australia and living such an outdoor life, sustainability is something we have always been conscious of,” he says.
Recycled fabrics have been incorporated into COMMAS’ swimwear collections since its inception (“it’s been a journey researching the right pathways for sourcing and design”), and this year they integrated deadstock fabric into their collections for the first time. The newly launched Warranty and Recycling program felt like a logical next step.
“Launching the [program] was a really important step in ensuring each of our swim products has the maximum lifespan,” Jarman explains. “Every garment is designed to withstand the elements, however, if something doesn’t perform as it should, we want to ensure the product can still live its very best life — which is what sparked the idea for the Warranty program.”
As outlined on the brand’s website, COMMAS offers a five-year repair warranty for all original swimwear pieces. If you have bought a pair of COMMAS swim shorts and they have not performed as promised, COMMAS will repair or replace them. The goal of this program is to eliminate landfill, support sustainability goals, and ensure the longevity of each piece to encourage re-use season after season.
Defects such as split material, unravelled stitching, broken zips or extreme colour loss are all eligible for replacement upon inspection and authorisation from the brand. The Recycling aspect of the program aims to combat the volume of waste from unwanted garments and incentivise customers to buy back into the brand. As outlined on the website:
‘If the swimwear is no longer in use after 5 years, customers can return the swimwear for research, development and recycling. Each piece returned eliminates the possibility of the swimwear ending up in landfill. Upon return, 20 AUD is credited towards your next COMMAS swimwear purchase.’
“The Recycling Program is beneficial two folds,” says Jarman. “Firstly, it eliminates the possibility of unnecessary landfill, and secondly, it provides a direct channel of feedback for us to consistently monitor our product to ensure we are always providing quality.”
And COMMAS isn’t the only brand to step into the buy-back recycling sphere. Global heavyweights such as Reformation, Levi’s, North Face and Madewell all offer incentives for the return of old or unwanted stock, in exchange for store credit or a percentage discount on new products.
US-based closed-loop brand, For Days, takes this one step further, specialising in organic basics that are 100 per cent recyclable. Built upon a SWAP program, each piece purchased from the site is eligible for return (no matter how recklessly worn) in exchange for discounts on new For Days items.
Everything sent back to the brand is then up-cycled into new products. As outlined on the brand’s website, “We work with post-consumer recycling partners to make sure all returned materials go into new fabrics down the road and then into new products.”
The prevalence of fashion rental channels has also soared in recent years, with Glam Corner, The Volte, Fashion Alta Moda and AirRobe taking out leading positions in the local sector.
Also on the rise? Digital marketplaces: Online platforms stocking old season pieces at reduced prices. Functioning as a middle ground space for labels to sell through out-of-date products, marketplaces help combat the potential for end-of-season waste without damaging the brand’s social value.
Candice Tang co-founded The Archive Place for this exact purpose in October 2020. “I worked as a buyer for several international brands and really saw first handed how big the inventory problems are in our industry,” she explains of the platforms genesis.
“Part of my job was to find ways to shift the unsold inventory and sadly there aren’t many options available. The brands can keep discounting through their own channels but risk cannibalising their full price offerings. Or, they can run a warehouse sale, which pushes customers into a very unpleasant experience of lining up and browsing racks and racks of clothes without visual merchandising. Or lastly, there are physical outlet centres which require a high level of investment that is so out of reach for independent brands.”
Thus, The Archive Place was born, offering “a better solution for the brands to continue to sell through their past season stock without damaging their brand value, while providing the best possible experience for the customers even when they are shopping off-price products.”
Operating as a managed marketplace, The Archive Place stocks local labels such as Matteau, A.Emery, White Story, Hansen & Gretel and Magali.
“The brands select the end-of-season products they want to sell with us, set the pricing and send the inventory to our warehouse. And we manage all the storage, shipping, returns and customer service for them. We also provide our partners with a back-end portal where they can manage the pricing, view orders & returns, and access sales analytics.”
Alongside their usual sale platform, the business has also launched a recycling project — Archive Recycling, to combat waste in our wardrobe. “Customers can send us their ready-to-retire clothes from any retailers, and we will Reuse, Repair or Recycle them based on the condition of the clothes.
“The ultimate objective is to use today’s technology to empower our brand partners to extend the life cycle of fashion and make sure every item of clothing is worn.”