Deadstock Fabrics: A Form of Greenwashing?

December 23, 2020

Deadstock fabrics have become quite the trend in the fashion industry. Companies claim that this excess fabric would’ve otherwise gone to waste, so this seems like a great eco-friendly measure.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Whenever “waste” is commodified, it’s not always clear if that “waste” is actually being rescued, or if it was purposefully overproduced (or if it could’ve gone to organizations that are more in need).

In this post, I’ll go over the pros and cons of deadstock fabrics, and how to tell if a company using deadstock is actually greenwashing.

What Are Deadstock Fabrics?

“Deadstock fabric” can refer to any of the following:

  • Unsold, surplus fabric from fabric mills
  • Unused fabric bought by brands (traditionally known as “overstock”)
  • Fabric scraps from clothing brands
  • Damaged or imperfect fabric

Deadstock is also used in other retail contexts to refer to unsold inventory.

One of the main issues with deadstock fabric is how unregulated the term is. There’s a huge difference between fabric scraps vs. fabric that didn’t pass chemical or quality testing. Deadstock originally referred to damaged fabric only, but the term has since been generalized to include all these different situations.

Are Deadstock Fabrics Sustainable?

Deadstock sounds like a nice concept—you’re saving fabric from landfills, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Here are the pros and cons of deadstock:

Pros of Deadstock Fabrics

1. No minimum order requirements

Many fabric suppliers have minimum order requirements (MOQs). This is often because the production equipment is very expensive to set up and run. Fabric mills also prefer to only take on clients that can make them the most profit. For these reasons, many suppliers have MOQs of 1000 yards (914.4 meters) or more.

MOQs can be prohibitive for smaller sustainable brands. Deadstock is a workaround—since the fabric already exists, there are usually no minimum order requirements.

2. Often lead to unique, exclusive styles

Deadstock is limited in quantity, and you’re unlikely to find the same fabric elsewhere. This can lead to more unique styles of clothing—this especially the case if you’re using fabric scraps. Zero Waste Daniel is one of the best-known designers who creates clothing from scraps, and every single one of his pieces is different.

Having this variety encourages designers to get more creative, and also allows them to constantly refresh styles once a certain type of fabric runs out. Of course, the flip side is that you may not be able to replicate the same exact style if it ends up being popular, so you won’t always be able to meet customer demand.

3. Can be kinder to the environment

If the deadstock is truly surplus or scrap fabric, using what already exists is more energy efficient than producing new fabric. It also keeps unwanted materials out of landfills.

4. Usually discounted

Deadstock is generally cheaper to buy, which is another plus for smaller brands starting out. The smaller financial investment allows them to experiment with styles, and take on less risk if their business ultimately fails.

Cons of Deadstock Fabric

1. Can incentivize overproduction

One of the biggest issues with deadstock is that it can encourage fabric mills to overproduce. If they know there’s a market for surplus fabric, they’ll continue churning out fabric at excessive rates (like I mentioned, the machinery is quite expensive to operate, and it’s often easier to overproduce and sell the extra at a cheaper price).

This is why the lack of regulation for this term is concerning. It’s one thing to use scrap fabric, as there will always be waste. It’s another thing to buy “surplus” fabric that may not actually be destined for the landfills—maybe it was the fabric mill’s intention to produce that much.

2. Fabrics themselves aren’t sustainable

A lot of deadstock fabric is made from synthetic materials, like polyester, nylon, or acrylic. These fabrics take up 200 years to break down, and they also shed microplastics, which leech into our water supply. While we definitely don’t want synthetic materials in the landfills, we also don’t want to encourage their production—by creating a market for the “surplus,” we may actually be increasing demand for these synthetic fabrics.

3. Using deadstock doesn’t make a brand sustainable

Fabrics are only one component of a brand’s sustainability. Some other components of an ethical and sustainable brand are:

  • Paying workers a fair wage
  • Having safe and regulated factories
  • Using organic and natural fabrics like cotton, linen, hemp, Tencel
  • Avoiding hazardous chemicals
  • Minimizing water and other waste from the production process
  • Being size-inclusive
  • Prioritizing real diversity (in full-time employees and models)

Unfortunately, some brands will use deadstock as their only “sustainable” initiative, and that’s simply not enough. Beyond that, brands often get deadstock at a big discount, and then hike up prices in the name of being “eco-friendly”—but without proving putting that extra money into ethical production. Using deadstock in itself doesn’t justify a massive price increase; that’s not sustainable at all—that’s just scamming well-meaning consumers.

If you want more info on evaluating fashion brands, see my post on how to spot greenwashing. Greenwashing is when brands claim to be eco-friendly for marketing purposes, but don’t have real initiatives to back up those claims.

4. Risky for brands to use

Creating clothes from deadstock fabric can be tricky, as you may not know all the quirks of the dyes or materials. Suppliers are also not always required to disclose any defects that ultimately led to the fabric being discarded. So, while deadstock fabrics are often cheaper, they may be more costly if brands are unable to use the material.

In fact, some deadstock vendors are extremely vague about the fabric you’ll potentially receive. On some sites, you can only select from potential colors (like “warm” or “cool”), and you won’t even know the material type. This is likely because deadstock varies wildly, so it’s impossible to inventory every single type and sell them individually.

The Bottom Line

Deadstock fabrics can be a relatively sustainable option, but in some cases, they may actually incentivize overproduction.

The most environmentally-friendly deadstock should be certified as surplus or discarded scraps. When possible, it should also be made with a high percentage of natural fibers to reduce microplastic pollution.

In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be very much deadstock. Suppliers wouldn’t have excess fabric because they’d only make exactly what’s ordered. If brands change their minds, they’d have to take responsibility for the fabric and use it for something else. Brands wouldn’t order extra fabric “just in case” so they could make more profit if a certain item sells out quickly. Scraps would be used for smaller projects like scrunchies, or it would be sewn together to make larger pieces. Fabric with defects would need to be donated (and the defective material would be safe for use because toxic chemicals would be banned in clothing production).

The problem with deadstock is that it’s a band-aid solution. We need less production in the first place so that there’s less surplus. We also need to move to more circular systems, where companies are responsible for their own waste.

I understand, however, that not all companies will take responsibility for scrap or unwanted fabric. Realistically, there will always need to be some sort of system that rescues deadstock.

But for deadstock to be sustainable, the term needs to be better regulated, and there needs to be less incentive to create surplus. We could take money out of the equation and force suppliers to donate any excess, but what’s stopping them from throwing the fabric away, if they’re not going to get any money anyways? (Laws and regulations could help, but some companies have no problem breaking laws).

This is why deadstock will always be a little complicated. As an individual, I always encourage you to shop used instead of new (if you can), as this will help you avoid greenwashing issues like this.

Where to Find True Deadstock Fabric

If you want to find true deadstock fabric that may have actually ended up in the trash, here are some resources.

Fabscrap is a non-profit that collects fabric scraps and surplus from NYC companies, and resells them at low prices. Companies actually must pay a service fee to “donate” their fabric, so we can be reassured that this fabric is actually surplus or scraps. Fabscrap frequently gives materials away to local artists and students, but you can also shop online or volunteer to receive free fabric.

Virtue + Vice sells deadstock that was abandoned in India during the pandemic. Fabrics are artisan-made, and profits go back to the local community. I trust this site since they had a very informative article on the pros and cons of deadstock.

Fabcycle is a Canadian organization that works with Vancouver businesses to collect unwanted fabric and scraps. You can actually pick up scraps for free (or just pay shipping fees online). You can also buy larger pieces of fabric at a low cost.


 

Let me know if you’ve encountered deadstock, and what your thoughts are on this complicated issue of waste.

If you liked this post and want to support me, please feel free to share the link or buy me a virtual coffee. I’d truly appreciate it!

You may also like these posts:

9 Common Misconceptions About Sustainable Fashion
Is Everlane *Actually* Ethical and Sustainable?
11 Ways to Get Rid of Clothes Responsibly

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2 Comments

  • Polly December 25, 2020 at 11:33 am

    Super interesting! I definitely need to dig more into references about overproduction occurring – I’d never considered that. Thanks for this, I’ve been toying with buying some non-organic deadstock fabric for a future project and was curious about this.

    • Lily December 27, 2020 at 2:30 pm

      Hi Polly! So glad the article could be helpful – it’s definitely a complicated topic. Best of luck with your project!

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    I'm Lily, and I run races and go places (& blog about it). I also try to advocate for the planet & its people.
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