Can textile waste become a fashion resource?
by Geoffrey Jones and Shelly Xu
COVID-19 has broken the fashion supply chain. As a result, an already wasteful industry has become more wasteful.
Even before the pandemic, the global clothing industry produced around 92 million tonnes of textile waste per year. That’s about the equivalent of a garbage truck of tissue waste going to landfill or burnt every second, according to a 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
COVID-19 has made matters worse. The industry is known for its long lead times, high volumes and low cost sourcing. According to John Thorbeck, president of Chainge Capital and former CEO of GH Bass & Co (part of PVH) and Rockport (a subsidiary of Adidas), “a full design and delivery cycle is easily 12 months,” and factory orders are usually placed. five months in advance.
When the pandemic hit, brands had already placed their overpriced fabric orders. While brands like Adidas and Zara have decided to pay these commitments in full despite financial losses, others, including American Eagle Outfitters, have refused to pay. This potentially cost textile workers around $ 1.6 billion in three-month wages in 2020, according to the Consortium for workers’ rights and the Center for Global Workers’ Rights (pdf) at Pennsylvania State University.
This lack of accountability leads not only to waste, but also to serious inequalities between buyers and suppliers. While brands are often headquartered in Europe or the United States, suppliers, including textile workers, often reside in developing countries, such as Brazil and Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, up to 80 percent of garment workers are women in low-paid and low-paid positions. The disruption of the fashion supply chain means these women are losing their wages in the midst of a pandemic, with purchased textiles losing their value.
Tissue waste is rampant throughout the supply chain. Cheap, low-quality clothing fueled by the demand for “fast fashion” has made what we wear disposable. Luxury brands must maintain an image of scarcity and exclusivity while engaging in wholesale fabric orders, resulting in a build-up of unused material.
Most of the time, we think of fabric waste as clothes thrown away by consumers or fabric scraps. However, unused rolls of fabric in perfect condition constitute a significant portion of the waste.
According to FabScrap, the non-profit tissue up-cycler, “for every pound [of clothing fabric] that we’re throwing away as a consumer, a business throws away 40 pounds. About 60% of the fabrics discarded include rolls that companies could easily reuse to make clothing. In fact, while textile waste can be shredded into insulation or padding material, unused rolls of fabric go unused, contributing to the cost of inventory, lost opportunity and waste.
What to do? Encourage consumers
One of the most radical ideas is to simply call on consumers to buy less.
On Black Friday 2011, Patagonia boldly posted a full page ad in the New York Times which said “Don’t buy this jacket”, encouraging conscious consumption and less waste. There were few followers. Although the number of conscious brands has skyrocketed over the past decade, greenwashing has blurred the message. A recent survey of the Foundation of Evolving Markets (pdf) found that 81 percent of European Union citizens are wary of clothing products’ claims that they are environmentally friendly.
More than just marketing statements, making clothes with the right incentives in mind might be more effective. A Patagonia jacket has a timeless aesthetic, functional characteristics, and enduring quality, so consumers wouldn’t need to buy a new one for a long time. Patagonia also charges slightly higher prices, discouraging the disposable mindset that pushes consumers to buy clothes just because they are cheap.
Solutions through process innovation
Up the supply chain, process innovations can help reduce tissue waste. According to a recent McKinsey Report (pdf), over 25 percent of clothing is unsold. Better alignment between production needs, such as fabric sourcing, and consumer needs is good practice for businesses and our planet.
Thorbeck argues that process innovation in fashion offers a significant alternative to lower cost production. In electronics, the practice of carryover (staging capabilities and cover materials to mitigate inventory risk) shows how companies can reduce uncertainty as well as overproduction. Rapid design cycles, as Zara illustrates, based on fabric requirements could minimize demand or overstated inventory.
Process innovation is one of the keys to restoring the future of fashion. However, the industry also faces the risk and burden caused by the millions of tons of tissue scraps accumulated in the past.
Solutions by design
We can use design to turn fabric scraps into opportunities.
The idea of reusing wasted fabric is not new. Kantha quilting from the Bengal region of India is a traditional practice of sewing discarded fabrics together to breathe new life into wasted scraps while providing warmth to the wearer. It was revived by entrepreneurs such as Shamlu Dudeja, founder of SHE (Self Help Enterprise) India, who was recently interviewed by Harvard Business School’s Creating Emerging Markets project.
The challenge, however, is the scale. Putting together many pieces of fabric takes time and results in inconsistent designs. While this works well for high-end and unique crafts, it doesn’t allow for scalable production that moves the industry.
Moving the industry forward requires not only the mindset of reusing wasted fabric, but also the discipline of efficient designs with scale of scale in mind.
Design often begins in a sketchbook or drawing pad; unconstrained artistic vision comes first. The fabric is then cut to fit the vision. While this process has resulted in many innovative designs, it also wastes 10 to 30 percent of the fabric. In addition, because this design process is trend-driven, it often requires new fabric orders without dealing with the old, accumulated fabrics.
Another design philosophy may be the solution. For thousands of years, in China, Japan and India, designers have created garments with the constraints of their fabric resources in mind. The fabric first, the design second. This process begins with the rectangular fabric and shapes garments within the creative constraints of the fabric. The resulting designs, like the classic kimono or saree, are minimal and versatile, and waste no fabric. Straight cuts and blocky pieces of fabric also result in a modular Lego-like design that can simplify manufacturing. This design method can reuse leftover fabric rolls into full scale zero waste designs.
Turning waste into opportunities
For too long, the fashion industry has relied on cheap labor and supply to keep costs down. The chaos of COVID-19 has shed new light on this unethical and unsustainable practice. To survive and thrive in the post-pandemic market, brands must find a more human and lasting cost advantage.
More judicious use of fabrics through design and processes is probably the answer. The material is often the highest cost in the production of clothing. Yet fabric is also the most wasted resource. By reusing unused fabrics, the fashion industry can help save the planet.
Geoffrey jones is Isidor Straus professor of business history. He co-directs the Creation of emerging markets project at the School. Shelly xu is the founder of Shelly Xu Design, a fashion startup that creates zero waste clothing.