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We need to talk about unsold clothing

  • Published at 06:29 pm February 16th, 2020
We can’t afford to produce more than the demand RAJIB DHAR

The five ways we can deal with excess production

The world is drowning in clothing.

As a manufacturer of apparel, this is a difficult statement to make but I am also mindful of the facts. And the facts are that the logistics of matching clothing production precisely with clothing demand are hugely challenging and not an exact science. 

The consequence of this is that many retailers are left with an excess of unsold stock which they cannot sell, even with heavy discounting.

There was a recent German study which highlighted the extent of this problem. It found that 10-20% of clothing items remain unsold in Germany despite the best efforts of retailers. The unsold garments -- of which researchers estimated there are 230 million pieces in Germany alone -- end up in recycling and waste incineration plants or being sold onto the second-hand market in countries outside the EU.

Another study found that in North-West Europe (NWE), 4,700 kilo-tons of post-consumer textile waste (PCT) are generated annually. The same report said that, of that, less than 1% of textiles collected are currently recycled into new ones, and around half of them are being down-cycled, incinerated, or landfilled.

We need a conversation, I believe, about what we do with this excess of clothing. What is the best course of action? What is best for the environment and what is most sustainable?

In the waste hierarchy, which offers guidance on the issue of waste across all sectors, the five options are given as follows (from best to worst option): Reduce, reuse, recycle, recovery, landfill.

In the context of the above, the best course of action is to produce less -- of course it is. But at the moment, we produce according to perceived demand. While brands and retailers are working to improve their logistics to cut down on excess inventory, there will always be some element of over-production in the industry (unless laws are introduced in this area).

The next best option in the waste hierarchy is reuse. The good news here is that, at present, the largest amount of clothing of the excess clothing produced is sold into the second-hand market. Often this clothing ends up in poor nations in the West of Africa.

Is this a bad thing? Some people claim that flooding Africa with second-hand clothing has prevented local textile industries from taking off. While there may be some truth in this, from an environmental standpoint, resale into the second-hand market is surely the best thing.

It is the best thing for the planet. The only worry is that we do not know what happens to this second-hand clothing when it is no longer fit for purpose. We need more information on this.

It is also very promising to see the second-hand clothing market booming in the Western world, in countries such as the US, Germany, and the UK.

Recycling is number three in terms of the waste hierarchy. There are two types of recycling -- upcycling and downcycling. Upcycling would be taking old clothing, using a chemical process to break down the clothing into its original fibre types, and using these to make new garments. There is a lot of development in this area at the moment in terms of recycling technologies. 

What is not clear is how these technologies will be scaled and how such technologies will fit into existing apparel supply chains. At present, way less than 1% of used clothing is completely recycled. Talk of “closing the loop” is hugely misleading for consumers as progress by the industry here is very limited. 

Again, this is another area where we need an open and transparent conversation within the industry.

The other type of recycling is downcycling. This sees old clothing shredded and used in other industries such as, for instance, insulation in buildings. Downcycling often gets bad press, which I find strange as, from an environmental standpoint, is it really such a bad option?

Insulation in buildings often lasts for many decades. 

There is actually an argument here for policy-makers insisting that insulation in buildings should have at least a minimum percentage of recycled fibres from clothing. This would mean not only that the new recycled product probably would last for several decades -- or even centuries -- but the very purpose of that product (insulation) would be to help reduce energy consumption and therefore greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts.

The problem here, I believe, is that downcycling does not sound as exciting as upcycling, and certainly does not have the PR “sell” of closing the loop. But have the environmental gains of apparel downcycling every been truly evaluated? I suspect not.

At the bottom of the waste hierarchy are incineration. In the apparel industry, incineration is the second to last resort and is often used when clothing has mould or has too high a chemical content. It is usually incineration for the production of heat and power, so there is some merit in this.

That said, it would be good to know more about precisely how much clothing each apparel brand incinerates annually; perhaps brands and retailers could publish this information in their annual sustainability reports.

The final option for the disposal of unsold clothing is landfill. How much unsold clothing ends up in landfill each year? I suspect this is a tiny amount as the options explored above are much more beneficial and are relatively easy to implement.

That said, there is a lack of good quality information on the whole issue of excess clothing production. We need a proper conversation, out in the open, on this issue. It is far too important to sweep under the carpet.

Mostafiz Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Denim Expo and Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE). He can be reached at [email protected].