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"Why fashion's oversupply issue is an environmental catastrophe, known as the industry's hidden truth."
Environment World News

“Why fashion’s oversupply issue is an environmental catastrophe, known as the industry’s hidden truth.”


The exact number of coats, jeans, T-shirts and trainers produced annually is unknown, leading to uncertainty about the amount of unsold items in warehouses that may end up in landfills or destroyed. Without this crucial data, it is difficult to effectively address the fashion industry’s carbon footprint. It is akin to attempting to solve a puzzle without being able to see it clearly.

Based on the data, it appears that anywhere from 80 billion to 150 billion articles of clothing are produced annually, with 10% to 40% of them remaining unsold. This means there could be anywhere from 8 billion to 60 billion extra garments each year, which is a concerning discrepancy.

Liz Ricketts, co-founder and executive director of the Or Foundation, a charity focused on environmental justice in Ghana, emphasizes the significance of production volumes as a means of promoting transparency. These volumes serve as a readily available data point, but it ultimately depends on companies’ willingness to disclose this information.

The Or Foundation initiated the Speak Volumes campaign in November, emphasizing the importance of transparency in addressing the environmental impact of the fashion industry. The campaign encourages brands to reveal their production volume for 2022.

Up to now, 32 small and medium-sized companies have taken part. The biggest contribution was made by British brand Lucy & Yak, producing 760,951 pieces; while the smallest was from Scottish brand Mlambo, only at 100 items. This is significantly less than the estimated billions of garments produced by the top players in the fashion industry, none of which have joined in.

A trader at Kantamanto market in Accra, Ghana

According to Francois Souchet, a strategist specializing in circular economy and sustainability, the industry avoids discussing their product inventory due to it being a taboo topic. Revealing the amount of unsold products is likely to result in public criticism.

The Or Foundation is active at the Kantamanto market in Accra, Ghana, where they provide aid to the community that deals in discarded clothing from the global North. Around 40% of the fabrics from each bale ultimately goes to waste. This statistic has prompted Ricketts to urge brands to decrease their production of new clothing by 40% within a five-year period, a goal that can only be achieved with accurate data on production levels. Ricketts expresses frustration, stating, “It seems like poor business practice. Why create such an excess of goods?”

There are numerous factors that lead to brands producing excess inventory: manufacturers requiring minimum order quantities, a rapid retail cycle fueled by frequent product releases, and a lack of market understanding. Although there are emerging technologies, such as AI for predicting consumer demand and made-to-order models, they have not yet been widely adopted.

Excessive production is a sign of an outdated manufacturing method that rewards high quantities. As the number of T-shirts ordered increases, the cost per garment decreases. This is due to the majority of expenses being incurred during the initial setup. As the production line continues to operate, it becomes more efficient. Additionally, companies are hesitant to risk losing a potential sale, leading them to order excessive amounts instead of just enough. According to Souchet, this fear drives overproduction.

The excessive amount of waste in the fashion industry is a direct consequence of disposable clothing being seen as the norm in affluent nations. This also serves as a representation of how consumers are largely unaware of and misunderstand the complexities of supply chains.

According to Christina Dean, the founder of Redress, our clothing involves a great deal of human labor, from picking cotton and spinning and weaving, to the long hours garment workers put in, often sacrificing time with their families. Disregarding these items in such a callous manner highlights our lack of connection and empathy towards others in our global community.

According to the Global Fashion Agenda (GFA), a recent study revealed that 78% of companies have set goals to decrease overproduction. However, Holly Syrett, the director of GFA’s impact programs and sustainability, stated that participants identified a lack of understanding of the term “overproduction” as a hindrance in addressing the issue.

She explains that overproduction is when a company purchases or creates a surplus of inventory that cannot be sold, resulting in the excess stock being sold at a reduced price, resold to other parties, or potentially discarded. The feedback we received indicated that our definition was not precise enough.

A textile factory in Guangzhou, southern China, that supplies western retailers

According to Ricketts, surplus inventory is not the sole issue. Instead, we should focus on the term “oversupply” rather than “overproduction”, as it pertains to the marketing tactics used to push an excessive amount of goods onto consumers. Brands are using strategies to artificially generate demand, much like how they produce an excess of clothing. This demand is perpetuated through constant marketing on social media, targeted online ads, email promotions, and an endless stream of discounts and deals.

The flip side of this issue is excessive consumption. Without exact knowledge of the amount of unsold products, it is challenging to determine, but it is evident that the majority of the fashion industry’s carbon footprint comes from purchased garments. According to Souchet, “If we estimate that 60% to 70% of garments are sold, that is where the majority of emissions originate.”

Industry summits and corporate targets often avoid acknowledging the hard truth. The Hot or Cool Institute, a sustainability thinktank, states that in order to comply with the Paris agreement and limit global temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, the fashion industry must cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% from 2018 levels by 2030. While alternative business models like rental, resale, and repair are frequently mentioned, Hot or Cool asserts that high-income countries in the G20, such as the UK, US, France, and Australia, will need to decrease consumption by 60% in order to achieve the 1.5C goal.

The industry’s emissions are expected to double within the next decade if no changes are made. It is evident that urgent action is needed, such as the pending European legislation on extended producer responsibility schemes, to reduce production and consumption rates.

“The managing director of Hot or Cool, Lewis Akenji, emphasizes the importance of swift and substantial shifts in production and laws. He believes that implementing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for fashion companies beyond the initial use phase shows potential, but should not solely serve as a means of shifting burdens.”

Proposed EPR programs suggest a small financial fee of €0.06 per item, to be paid by the manufacturer, and a duty to assist in handling a product’s end-of-life through methods like recycling, upcycling, downcycling, renting, reselling, and repairing.

According to Ricketts and Souchet, the levy should be increased significantly in order to effectively decrease overproduction. Souchet argues that this is necessary due to economic considerations, and the amount must be substantial enough to impact the industry. Ricketts stresses the importance of EPR legislation ensuring that the funds collected are directed towards communities, such as those in Ghana, that are affected by textile waste.

“How can we achieve circularity if we continue to produce an excessive amount of products? This is not feasible,” she explains. “Policies must consider production levels. Even with significant investment and advancements in solutions, such as textile recycling, our efforts will be ineffective without reducing our pace.”

Source: theguardian.com