In the sustainable fashion world, it is common to hear that the most sustainable garment is one that you already have, so it’s unsurprising we tend to apply this to fabrics as well. More than $120 billion in unused fabric sits in warehouses around the world. This number includes fabric that has been misprinted or has some other flaw, was ordered in the wrong volume (often due to high yardage minimums for fabric orders), or didn’t satisfy the brand or designer once it arrived. This fabric, the kind that was made, but didn’t get sewn into the clothes it was intended for, is called deadstock fabric.
A common misconception about deadstock fabric is that it is defective or damaged in some way. By its original definition, this was true, but use of the term has since broadened. Now, there is not necessarily anything ‘wrong’ with fabric sold as deadstock. Frequently it is just not what the brand or designer expected, or is leftover from manufacturing.
Deadstock is not unique to fabric. There are also deadstock garments. These are pieces that were manufactured but never made it to a store because of over-ordering, a flaw, or another kind of rejection. Some designers use the flaws of deadstock garments to their advantage, others rebrand clothing that has no flaw but was just never sold.
There is an effectively unlimited supply of deadstock fabric in the world, most of which can be purchased at a reduced price. This makes it an ideal material for designers, especially small ones. The lowered prices can allow designers to use a higher quality material than they would otherwise be able to afford. Though there are thousands of yards of deadstock in general, there are limited quantities of each kind, making pieces sewn from deadstock a few of a kind. This exclusivity can make pieces more precious and sell quickly because customers know this may be their only chance.
The making of all fabric takes energy, water, and labor (come back soon for our environmental assessment of all the different fibers), and creates waste, so if a clothing brand wants to reduce its resource consumption, choosing deadstock makes a lot of sense. Deadstock has already used those resources, and there is no way to reclaim them. For example, cotton is one of the most popular materials because of its versatility and comfort, but it is also one of the thirstiest crops. Around 20,000 liters (~5,000 gallons) of water are used to make only 1 kilogram (~2 pounds) of cotton. Thus, if a brand decides to source from deadstock rather than ‘new’ cotton, they save incredible amounts of water, not to mention all the other resources it takes to make cotton.
The variable qualities and quantities of deadstock can be a great thing, but can also be the opposite. It is hard to know the quality of fabric without seeing and feeling it in person and a popular way to buy deadstock is online. The limited quantities of each style can be frustrating for customers and designers because when a fabric is gone, it’s gone.
The main thing that makes deadstock fabric less sustainable than it sounds is that using it contributes to the market and demand for it. Many manufacturers know that they can sell excess fabric they produce, so there is no incentive to keep their fabric surplus to a minimum. It is more cost-effective for them to overproduce in case they can sell it, rather than turn off their machines. They don’t lose much, if any, money by throwing away surplus fabric if it doesn’t get sold.
The growing culture of fast fashion has made it so brands and designers don’t have time to consider their waste. New designs are constantly in development and with each design comes a sample (the sewn example of a design used to decide if the garment will go into production). Ordering fabric often involves purchasing minimum yardage that exceeds what is necessary for sampling. Designers are also often encouraged to buy more in order to get price breaks on fabric. Though this may be more cost-effective, it may also be greater than what is actually needed for a production run.
But, It’s Complicated...
While brands that source fabric from deadstock are often well-meaning, they can unknowingly participate in greenwashing (when customers are led to believe a product or company is more sustainable than they actually are, often charging a customers surcharge for the appearance of sustainability) if that is the only environmental measure they take. Deadstock fabric can be anything from fairtrade cotton to sweatshop polyester. As conscious consumers, we have to do our research and look at a variety of factors when evaluating how sustainable a product is.
Using deadstock fabric is not sustainable or unsustainable in and of itself, but the practices and culture that lead to its existence are unsustainable. Ultimately, we must address the archaic systems that create deadstock fabric in the first place. Establishing more flexible infrastructures, such as allowing lower fabric minimums and designer collectives that purchase in bulk, will be necessary improvements.
While we as consumers cannot be the sole instigators for industry-wide change, what we can do is confront the culture of fast fashion. By buying less and choosing what we buy carefully, and encouraging others to do so, we help diminish the demand for fast fashion.
Using what we have is a great way to save energy and resources, as well as divert waste from landfills, but ideally, deadstock will soon be a thing of the past. We should make use of it while it’s here, but also make sure we understand why it’s here, and work to eliminate it.