‘It’s the industry’s dirty secret’: why fashion’s oversupply problem is an environmental disaster | Fashion industry

‘It’s the industry’s dirty secret’: why fashion’s oversupply problem is an environmental disaster | Fashion industry

No one knows exactly how many coats, jeans, T-shirts and trainers are produced every year, which means no one knows how many garments remain unsold in warehouses, destined for landfill or destruction. Without this information, trying to reduce the fashion industry’s carbon footprint is a bit like trying to solve a puzzle in the dark.

The available statistics suggest that between 80bn and 150bn garments are made every year and that between 10% and 40% of these are not sold. So it could be 8bn or 60bn excess garments a year – an alarming disparity.

“Production volumes represent a really important opportunity to bring honesty back into the conversation,” says Liz Ricketts, the co-founder and executive director of the Or Foundation, an environmental justice charity based in Ghana. “It’s a data point that everyone has accessible to them. It’s just about companies being willing to share it.”

Believing that transparency about production volumes is central to assessing and tackling the scope of fashion’s environmental problems, the Or Foundation launched the Speak Volumes campaign in November, which invites brands to disclose how many units they made in 2022.

So far, 32 small- and medium-sized businesses have participated. The largest disclosure came from the British brand Lucy & Yak, which produced 760,951 pieces; the smallest was from the Scottish brand Mlambo, at just 100 items. It’s a far cry from the billions of garments thought to be manufactured by fashion’s biggest players, none of which have participated.

A trader at Kantamanto market in Accra, Ghana
A trader at Kantamanto market in Accra, Ghana. Approximately 40% of every bale of textiles there is waste. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

“The reason they don’t really like to talk about how much product they have is because it’s the dirty secret of the industry,” says Francois Souchet, a circular economy and sustainability strategist. “There’s likely to be a huge public backlash when people understand how much product is not sold.”

At Kantamanto market in Accra, Ghana, where the Or Foundation works to support the community that trades in the global north’s unwanted clothes, approximately 40% of every bale of textiles ends up as waste. The figure has led Ricketts to ask brands to commit to a 40% reduction in the production of new clothes over five years, something that can be realised only with visibility of production volumes. “It just feels like bad business,” says Ricketts. “Why did you make so much extra stuff?”

There are several reasons brands produce more than they sell: manufacturers insisting on minimum order quantities; an increasingly fast retail cycle fuelled by frequent deliveries of new product; a failure to read the market. While there are some new technologies to counter these problem, including AI to predict consumer demand and made-to-order models, none show signs of being widely adopted.

Overproduction is also symptomatic of an archaic manufacturing system that incentivises volume: the more T-shirts ordered, the cheaper the price for each garment. This is because the biggest costs of producing fabric and assembling garments are in the setup; the longer the assembly line runs, the more efficient it is. “On top of all that, brands are afraid of missing out on a sale, so they always order too much, rather than not enough,” says Souchet.

The exorbitant waste in the industry is a result of how disposable clothes are considered in wealthy countries. It is symbolic, too, of how well supply chains are hidden from and misunderstood by consumers.

“There’s a lot of human toil that goes into our clothes, from the cotton picking, spinning and weaving to the garment workers and how often they don’t see their children because of the hours they work,” says Christina Dean, the founder of the anti-waste charity Redress. “To have those pieces trashed in such an uncaring way signifies how misaligned we are to our fellow people in this world.”

A recent survey by the Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) found that 78% of brands have targets to reduce overproduction. But according to Holly Syrett, GFA’s impact programmes and sustainability director, respondents cited a lack of clarity about what overproduction means as a barrier to tackling it.

“We define overproduction in quite a simple way,” she says. “When a company buys or produces more stock than it can sell, leaving stock that is then sold at a discount, resold to other parties or potentially destroyed. The feedback we received was that our definition isn’t specific enough.”

A textile factory in Guangzhou, southern China, that supplies western retailers
A textile factory in Guangzhou, southern China, that supplies western retailers. Photograph: Jade Gao/AFP/Getty Images

But excess stock is not the only problem, says Ricketts: “We try to use the language of ‘oversupply’ more than ‘overproduction’, because we’re talking about the marketing mechanisms used to push oversupply on to consumers. Brands are manufacturing demand in the same way they manufacture too many clothes.” This demand is created through relentless marketing across social media, targeted digital adverts, email campaigns and a seemingly never-ending cycle of discounts and promotions.

Of course, the other side of this coin is overconsumption. It’s difficult to say without knowing how much product goes unsold, but it’s clear that garments that are bought account for most of the industry’s carbon footprint. “If we say, conservatively, 60% to 70% of garments get sold, that’s where the bulk of the emissions are,” says Souchet.

This is the hard truth almost always avoided at industry summits and in corporate targets. According to the sustainability thinktank the Hot or Cool Institute, the fashion industry will have to at least halve its greenhouse gas emissions from 2018 levels by 2030 if it wants to meet the Paris agreement goal of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. While other business models such as rental, resale and repair are often cited, Hot or Cool says meeting 1.5C in the G20’s high-income countries – including the UK, the US, France and Australia – will require reducing consumption by 60%.

On its current trajectory, the industry’s emissions will double in the next 10 years. To curb rates of production and consumption, it’s clear that pending European legislation on extended producer responsibility schemes cannot come soon enough.

“Rapid and radical changes in production and legislation are critical,” says Lewis Akenji, the managing director of Hot or Cool. “Extending producer responsibility [EPR] for fashion brands into the post-use phase is a promising path … but it should not be a burden-shifting mechanism.”

Mooted EPR schemes propose a financial levy of as little as €0.06 an item, to be paid by the producer, and a responsibility to contribute to managing a product’s end of life through initiatives such as textile-to-textile recycling, upcycling, downcycling, rental, resale and repair.

Ricketts and Souchet believe any levy must be much higher to result in a meaningful reduction. Since overproduction makes sense from an economic perspective, says Souchet, the sum would need to be “significant” to change the industry. Ricketts says it is critical that EPR legislation ensures the funds raised reach communities like those in Ghana that are shouldering the burden of textile waste.

“How do we think we are going to transition to circularity by continuing to pump out this endless oversupply of product? It’s not possible,” she adds. “Policies have to take production volumes into account. No matter how much innovation or money brands pump into solutions [such as textile recycling], we won’t be successful if we don’t slow down.”

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