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Can ‘deadstock’ fabric clean up fashion?

More brands are trying to turn waste into clothes. Is it helping?

fabric-bolts-on-shelf

Hey team, and welcome back to one5c! If you’re anything like me, sustainable fashion TikTok has got your number. Recently, my For You page has been serving up more and more touts for clothes made from “deadstock” fabric—so much so that it got me wondering if the trend of salvaging trash-bound textiles is a diamond in the greenwashing rough. So, we asked our newest contributor, Angely Mercado, to track down an answer. —Corinne

Addressing textile waste might start with the fabric itself. Erika Bisbocci/Shutterstock

The industry that fills our closets is notoriously wasteful. From fast fashion hauls to the resource-heavy creation of materials, the global fashion industry creates more than 90 million tons of textiles that go to waste every year. That’s countless dresses, sweaters, bags, and shoes decomposing in landfills or clogging up ecosystems. But loads of fabric never even become garments to begin with. There’s no good estimate for just how much of this so-called deadstock is out there, but more brands are starting to pick up the scraps. Is using this material all it’s cracked up to be?

What is deadstock fabric? 

The idea of using excess material has become more popular with designers over time—take recent collections from Christy Dawn and Reformation, for example. The term “deadstock” was coined in the early 2000s and applies to fabric that is not in production anymore and would likely otherwise be discarded. Fashion houses order a certain amount of yardage per season, and that trendy summer floral doesn’t always make it onto store floors. 

Jessica Schreiber, CEO of Fabscrap, a company that buys deadstock, says manufacturers create so much waste due to “purchasing minimums” at textile mills. Sometimes these minimums are huge, and if it all doesn’t get used, the rest often ends up far from fashion hubs like New York or Paris, instead polluting low-income communities or countries. “It seems like a really hidden and kind of niche problem…globally, it’s a huge amount of waste that touches so many different countries,” Schreiber says.

Fabscrap and businesses like it act as middlemen, making it easier for the smaller designers to source and use excess materials. “We receive not just deadstock fabrics, but all textile waste from their design process,” Schreiber says. “It’s a mix of usable fabrics—usable leathers, yarns, trims, but also fabric swatches from mills mock-up and mutilated garments from the design process.” 

Is it really sustainable? 

It depends. Huantian Cao, a professor at the University of Delaware and the school’s co-director of the Sustainable Apparel Initiative, says that using deadstock fabric is more sustainable than creating new textiles. After all, it keeps perfectly good materials out of landfills. “It means less garbage, so that part of it isn’t greenwashing,” he says. 

Using the extra fabric to make new items is great, but the trend also creates an opportunity for a new eco gimmick. There’s a risk that companies will overproduce textiles on purpose in order to have waste or deadstock fabric on hand. This is woefully counterproductive when the goal should be to produce less and use what we already have, not to create a demand for a new fad. Using castoff fabric should be part of a label’s sustainability picture—along with other measures like sourcing natural fibers and being transparent about their supply chain.

So, should you buy it?  

That also depends. For starters, it’s important to remember a couple things. First, sustainability is not something you can buy. Second, while there is a lot of tossed fabric around, you’re probably not going to see deadstock collections popping up in big chains. Major retailers like Macy’s or H&M often are the original purchasers, and their leftovers are only enough to meet the needs of smaller designers and costume makers, Cao says. “[It’s] not made in or sold into the mass production fashion companies because of the relatively small quantity of the fabric available,” he explains. 

Here’s how to responsibly incorporate deadstock into your fashion rotation:

  • Shop your closet. The most sustainable outfit is still the one hanging in your closet, with pre-loved items from the vintage or thrift shop coming in second. Think of these garments as deadstock-by-a-different name; they weren’t “dead,” exactly, just hibernating. 
  • Avoid big brands. Deadstock doesn’t scale, so seeing it trotted out in mass production should raise red flags that the brand might be overproducing its fabrics on purpose. Indie or boutique labels making limited runs are way more likely to be using genuine castoffs.
  • Check the labels. If the only “sustainable” thing a brand does is claim to reuse old fabric, you should probably pass. Also, if the material’s or garment’s construction is low quality or it’s made of plastic, being deadstock won’t magically make it green. Ethical fashion rating website Good on You offers up a few great options: the R Collective, Citizen Wolf, and Kalaurie to name a few. For fast-growing little ones, items from small labels like First Fittings can make for a unique, eco-friendly look.  
  • Take care of what you buy. Treating textiles as disposable has to stop as well, Cao adds. Even if your new skirt or sweater is made of rescued fabric, it still deserves to be worn and cared for as long as possible. “Extending the useful time while making the [item] last longer is also important,” he says. 

Angely Mercado is a climate and sustainability writer whose credits include Grist, The Nation, and The New York Times. Most recently, she was the Staff Writer for Earther at Gizmodo.

In the news this week

  • Phasing out fossil fuels continues to be the No. 1 agenda item at COP28, a move U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry said he “largely” supports. It’s a weaksauce qualifier surely meant to placate dino-burning interests here in the States. 
  • The United States and 20 other countries, including Japan and the U.K., pledged to triple nuclear-power capacity by 2050. The move heeds recommendations from the International Energy Agency about the best path to net-zero. 
  • The Marshall Islands, which comprises dozens of bits of land in the Pacific Ocean, has one of the most comprehensive plans to adapt to the impacts of the climate emergency than any other nation. Grist dug into the details of the $35 billion plan, and how it could keep residents from migrating elsewhere.  
  • The world’s biggest iceberg, which is about three times the size of New York City, is on the move. Though the ‘berg’s breakaway near Antarctica is a normal “carving” event, its movement is a reminder that dangerous changes in ice in the southern hemisphere is among one of the major tipping points if the world passes 1.5 degrees Celsius. 
  • Scientists in the E.U. have said that 2023 will be the hottest year on record, with the global average temperature for the first 11 months of the year hitting 1.46 degrees. At the same time, delegates at COP are working to address what more heat means for the global demand for power-hungry air conditioning