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Why using leftover fabric is good for the fashion industry

Leftover fabric, deadstock materials, surplus stock…these are words that a decade ago were not part of the fashion vocabulary. If you had included them in a fashion conversation, you would have raised eyebrows. Yet today, they are as much part of the vernacular as any other fashion term.

It is no wonder that fashion is embracing change. With the concern about the climate change stepped up and fashion’s dirty secret out in the open, the fashion industry as a whole has had no choice but to accept its part in the problem and do something about it (or at least be seen to). While the big players talk more and do less, the younger generation of fashion brands, fashion entrepreneurs and activists are the ones who are actively making waves and creating change.

The word “sustainability” has become an inextricable part of every fashion brand’s vision and mission. To stand out from the crowd and really show commitment to the environmental cause, a new wave of fashion brands are going deeper and spending time and effort to uncover unused materials and put them back into circulation.

It is no secret that the fashion industry makes too much and we as consumers have become accustomed to buying too much. But maybe there is a way for us all not to waste too much. 

When we talk about waste within the fashion industry there are two main categories: pre-consumer and post-production.

Post-production concerns leftover fabric garments in stores and manufacturing units. How brands deal and dispose of these depends largely on the brand. Some discount heavily, hoping to clear the stock through sales, and some luxury brands have been found to destroy such stock.

Pre-consumer, however, is an interesting category. This category combines waste of materials that naturally occur as part of the manufacturing process and all the leftover fabric, other materials and trims that are the result of over-production or over-ordering on part of designer brands, makers and hobbyists.

It has been estimated that “waste from production falls between 10 to 30% from intake materials, and that leftover percentage can rarely be pushed below 10%. Unless the product is designed for zero-waste production you can’t avoid cutting scraps and defects.” According to past industry reports, by 2015, the global apparel industry is expected to produce more than 400 billion square meters of fabric per year” Today this figure must be much higher and even 10% leftover fabric materials is a staggering amount to think about.

These leftover fabric and materials are often also referred to as “deadstock fashion” and “surplus”. They hide in designer studios, dressmaker cupboards, bin bags and mostly in supplier and manufacturers warehouses. Shelves and shelves of it.

Leftover, unused materials linger in warehouses and manufacturers gathering dust, while costing money for storage and upkeep.

The problem with putting it back into circulation is that until recently there has been no clear “route to market” opportunities.

The most common way of dealing with scarps and leftover fabric materials traditionally was available to manufacturers only.

Scarps resulting from the cutting and manufacturing process often would be sold to smaller subcontractors or makers that manufacture small items that can be made from these scraps. In the leather industry, these may be key fobs and card cases and similar small items. These manufacturers often supply restaurants and hotels and prices for these products often need to be kept as low as possible.

In Asia, where many of the clothing manufacturers are located, fabric scraps are collected, split into white and colours and then sold to mattress and cushion makers to use as fillers.

Larger quantities of leftover fabric, leather and other materials have a different route. As and when the unused stock accumulates to levels that prevent a factory to operate efficiently, factory owners would sell it for a fraction of the original cost to “jobbers” or “merchants” who specialise in buying bulk materials cheaply.

You can read more about sourcing fabrics here.

They will, in turn, re-sell the materials to industry insiders (such as hobbyists, students, small designers…etc) looking for smaller quantities and cheaper prices. The problem of such leftover fabric and materials is more prevalent with larger, fully factored factories who buy raw materials on behalf of their clients and are left to store and manage any surplus stock and wastage. One manufacturer, we spoke to admitted to having over one million euros worth of leftover materials in his warehouse and was eager to explore new opportunities to deal with the “problem”.

Best way to release leftover materials into fashion circulation

But while this method is still a great way to deal with accumulating unused stock, it is not a viable route for smaller designer brands and designer-makers to take. Their small quantities are of no interest to the merchants and yet create the same problems as larger manufactures have – they take space. Not to mention that they also have value, albeit small, that is locked into the material and hard to release.

What can these smaller makers do to dispose of these unwanted and no longer needed materials?

They can dispose of them by donating to charities (those that might agree to take them in), donating to fashion colleges (this sounds easier than the actual reality. Anyone who has tried it will attest to how hard something so simple actually is, to the point that many give up and simply don’t bother again). And there is always the possibility to just throw them away and have them rot in a landfill eventually.

Some more enterprising designer-makers might take some of these fabrics to fairs and markets or list them on online marketplaces such as Etsy.

But overall, there are not many opportunities for smaller individuals to sell off their unused materials.

Importance of reusing leftover materials 

Putting these unwanted materials back into circulation is important for two reasons.

First, it will reduce the overall waste ending up in landfills. Secondly, it will reduce the struggles younger brands experience when they first start, in terms of sourcing good quality, inexpensive materials at low or no manufacturing minimums. This has long been an issue for start-ups and growing brands worldwide and resulted as one of the reasons why so many materials end up as leftover fabrics.

Image courtesy of Mary Benson London

As our collective concerns about the environment have increased in recent years and through the power of improved communication and travel opportunities, a growing number of designers have looked outside of the traditional material sourcing routes. Helped somewhat by the changing consumer habits and desire for constant newness, many have discovered that turning deadstock, vintage and other found fabrics can result in big business.

A great example of such a success story is Reformation, which started out sourcing leftover materials from near and around the Los Angeles area factories and warehouses. Today the brand is worth over $100 million and still continues to have a percentage (albeit a small one) of their collections made up from deadstock fabrics.

Image courtesy of Reformation

The fashion establishment has had to, not only accept this new trend but also be seen to embrace it. Designers using repurposed materials are not shying away from entering high profile competitions and in turn, they are praised and recognised. One such example is emerging brand Bode, who was a finalist in the 2019 edition of the coveted LVMH Prize competition.

As always, the two sides of fashion – designers and suppliers have to co-exist and co-create in order for fashion harmony to exist.

As designer brands are shining a light on the existence of leftover fabrics and deadstock, the suppliers are opening up and becoming more forthcoming in exploring ways to release their hoards back into the system.

New opportunities to source leftover fabric and materials

Enterprising entrepreneurs are spotting this gap in the market and quickly setting up businesses to address the problem. The emergence of such new businesses, whose prime focus is to get this deadstock into the market makes it easier than ever for small and large designer brands, independent creatives and hobbyists alike to access these materials from the comfort of their homes and studios. The cost of time and travel is no longer a barrier to those willing and able to shop online. A leader in this space is the US online deadstock retailer Queen of Raw and Zillingo over in Asia. Both a mostly cantered around fabrics, reflecting the largest segment of the fashion industry – apparel.

But aside from fabrics, there are many other materials that are accumulated also as deadstock and can do with being released back into circulation.

Leather for example is also in short supply when it comes to lower price and minimum purchase requirement. The traditional role of the merchants, selling end of the line and surplus materials, is slightly challenged these days which has, in turn, prompted many of them to embrace the internet and find a way to move their businesses online.

Another interesting newcomer focused on improving the industry and contributing to the climate change challenge is the new online platform Myfactori which is due to launch shortly.

“The aim of our business is two-fold: help independent brands to run their supply-chains better, easier and with less risk; and also, help reduce fashion waste. We have big plans for the future, but our initial focus is to help fashion brands source materials easily and overcome the barrier of MOQs imposed by mainstream suppliers. We have a network of partner suppliers who have large amounts of leftover materials that they are more than happy to sell with no MOQs at lower prices. We thought, great! Let’s connect them to creatives who can’t meet the mainstream minimums and create a win/win for both suppliers and designers. In this way we get to improve the circularity of leftover fabric raw materials, otherwise hidden somewhere in warehouses, and reuse them for creating new beautiful products.” Says the founder Julija Bainiaksina.

Unlike other businesses who buy the stock from suppliers and then sell on, this new business aims to create a marketplace founded on an open network of suppliers selling leftover materials online, directly to the target market and improve the circulation thought the help of AI. Their simple yet innovative ideas and approaches have already resulted in some big industry players signing up as suppliers as well as eagerly awaiting the launch so they participate as buyers too. A win/win as she said.

The challenges & benefits of working with leftover fabric 

Of course, choosing to work with leftover fabric and materials is not without its challenges.

To begin with, while sourcing is becoming easier, repeat orders of popular fabrics and materials is not possible. Occasionally the provenance of these raw materials is hard to prove as well as the exact composition. Both of these criteria can be a barrier to scaling a fashion brand business. Which explains why many brands like Reformation in order to scale have had to go back to using mainstream materials.

But for smaller brands able to sell directly to the consumer, and who have agile manufacturing set up – using leftover fabrics and materials has turned out to be a real bonus.

Due to the limited availability of the materials, the collections they create are truly limited. This is a great selling point and adds a sense of urgency to the end consumer, resulting in faster-moving stock and alleviating the need to go into sales.

The resulting collections produced are also more interesting and clearly differentiate from the mainstream almost identical and mass-produced fashion that dominates most high streets shops and retail malls.

So, can fashion clean up its act?

While it will not be a quick job, it certainly looks that the new wave of creative entrepreneurs has many great ideas and a fresh approach to solving the problem. What used to be hidden and not spoken about, is out in the open now. Not only that – but it is now also appreciated, celebrated and seen as a new revenue model in the ever-changing and challenged fashion landscape.

Mixing purpose and profit is no longer a dirty business combination and it seems that the fashion industry has plenty of opportunities for such endeavours. Perhaps fashion as we know it is dead and the new era of fashion emerging post-2020 will be kinder, more considerate and inclusive across every aspect and encompassing both suppliers, creatives and consumers.