Fall 2021 saw many luxury fashion brands, like Stella McCartney, Chitose Abe for Jean Paul Gaultier and Daniel Roseberry for Schiaparelli to name a few, take the catwalk by storm by showcasing pieces made from deadstock, repurposed and upcycled materials on the runway, but how sustainable is upcycling fashion really?
Photo: Stella McCartney Pre-Fall 2021
Upcycling, is taking textile or products that would otherwise be thrown away and reinvent them. It isn’t just limited to transforming items into their better versions but it can be repurposed to offer a different function entirely. The whole principle is to give an item a new look, a new life, rather than adding to waste in a landfill.
This practice is not new. As the fashion industry takes part in a sustainable and greener system, they also adapt upcycling to reduce wastes and promote circular fashion. This is done through rescuing and revaluing unsold garments, excess materials, and deadstock fabrics, and redesigning them to produce fresh and upscaled items, but will this really contribute to helping the environment? Be another trend to jump on? Or a way for brands, factories and mills to produce more? Will it really be the solution to the planet’s overwhelming problem of waste?
Stella McCartney’s fall 2021 collection saw the fashion designer use up the overstock of said fabrics she’s been saving for the last 20 years. As she put it: “Whatever we had left from previous seasons…that we hadn’t burned or buried, which is what all the other houses do.”
she used this collection to demonstrate how upcycling can work on a creative level and has also worked with with her parent group, LVMH on accessing the overstock of their other brands. Fantastic right? But it brings up the question “is there a loophole in this attempt to reduce the waste we created to begin with?
Photo: Gaultier Paris by Sacai
Deadstock materials are the surplus fabrics from factories and mills that are discarded for a number of reasons. Brands have over forecasted their order and have no use for the leftovers, post-production waste or some simply do not meet quality standards.
In order for these leftovers to be repurposed and not go straight to the trash or get burned, there are several distributors that collect these excess and sell them onwards to markets or stores. Everything has a price … even waste. Price of course depends on the quality of stock.
In comes the small ethical start up brands and designers who don't have the finance as bigger companies. It gives them access to fabric they otherwise wouldn't. This works great with smaller productions, one off pieces and YES it does help to minimize the industry’s environmental impact, but these are small solutions to the bigger problem …. The industry’s overproduction model.
Fabric machines are expensive to run and sometimes producing more is cost effective for the mills. Are factories and mills over producing on purpose to resell at a cheaper price?
"No one brand can combat fashion’s waste problem alone, and many designers worry buying deadstock only enables big fashion players to continue creating waste."
Transparency is key, some factories are not legally allowed to sell surplus fabric from well known brands, but sometimes this gets ignored. The brands over-producing want nothing to do with their own waste. Unfortunately for these small brands that are committed to diverting waste from landfills, they won't even know why their deadstock purchased got rejected in the first place, because most mills do not have a legal requirement to disclose this information. Small brands end up having to do their own quality checks and may find variations or holes, which in the end can still not be used and end up in the trash.
Photo: Teatum Jones CPHFW SS22 collection
Which brings us to question, is the use of "Deadstock" fabric a form of greenwashing? How sustainable is using deadstock? Let's break it down.
Most deadstock fabric are synthetic materials, like polyester, nylon, or acrylic, which sheds microplastics and take years to breakdown. Of Course we don't want these to end up in landfills, but we also don't want to encourage any over-production here by creating a market for surplus fabric.
The term deadstock has been too generalized in the past years. It's ok to use scrap material that would otherwise be thrown away, but it's another thing to use "surplus" fabric that could have intentionally been produced.
Brands that base their sustainability on the use of deadstock alone is not sustainable. There are many factors to consider within the supply chain for a brand to advertise themselves as being "sustainable". Workers rights and safety, Lower energy usage, the use of certified materials to avoid hazardous chemicals, reduction of waste and water in production process to name a few.
Not much information is disclosed on deadstock fabrics, some may have defects or are full of chemical dyes. Shoppers may be paying twice as much for a “zero waste” design that is made from fabric that is half the quality it should be when charging at premium. Will these end up in the trash in half the time?
We want to be environmentally friendly and do our bit to lessen our impact, but we must consider these factors when supporting or making purchases of zero-waste designs. Do the research to ensure you are supporting the right brands for the rights cause.
Photo: Marine Serre Spring 2022 Collection (Her most sustainable to date)
Supporting small ethical brands and start up designers genuinely wanting to address the waste problem in the industry is a good option, as long as meaningful waste-reduction and climate change strategies are also being implemented in their business model. Transparency is key.
In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be very much deadstock. Future business models should and need to leverage overproduction and excess inventory, so customers know their outfits are not adding to waste. Companies need to be made responsible for their own waste. For deadstock to be sustainable, there needs to be less incentive to create surplus.
The use of deadstock materials is a band-aid solution to the bigger problem. An estimated 10 million tons of textile waste ends up in the landfill each year. Putting the responsibility on small brands to clean up the fashion industry is unrealistic, ineffective and unfair.
"Less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing"