The figures are shocking – Around £140m worth of textile waste is sent to UK landfill each year according to a report by WRAP.
And a study by LABFRESH puts the UK as the third largest producing of textile waste in the world. Much of this waste is clothing that has been mass-manufactured overseas, yet it doesn’t have to be this way if more brands sourced locally.
Why are we seeing such a large number of textile waste being created in the UK?
I spent over twenty years working in fashion buying for large high street retailers. During that time, nearly all garment and textile production went overseas.
The problem is, when clothing is sourced from overseas factories, development and lead-times can be long.
Buyers have to take an educated guess as to what consumers are going to want to buy many months in advance of it going on sale.
With fashion being so fickle, trends change quickly. Typically not everything that the buyer orders will be what the customer wants by the time it lands in the UK. Making the product more difficult to sell. Which leads to waste being left over at the end of the selling season.
The other issue is, in order to negotiate the best prices, retailers buy huge order quantities of each item. And if they have brick and mortar stores they need a lot of stock just to fill the rails. Having the right stock in the right store at the right time doesn’t always happen. Resulting in lots of unsold stock on the shop floor. Which, you guessed it, ends up as waste.
It’s also why big retailers work on high gross margins, because they have to account for the percentage of each order that won’t sell. But that’s a topic for a whole other blog post!
Seasonal products, such as swimwear, coats and boots, are always difficult to get the order quantities right on. I was previously a swimwear buyer for Debenhams, and if you didn’t have a hot summer in the UK, there was always tons of stock leftover. The British weather is even more difficult to predict than the fashion trends!
Another problem that occurs with mass manufacturing is left over sizes. Clothing is bought in a ratio of sizes e.g. three size 10s are bought for every one size 16. It’s impossible to get this ratio exactly right when you are buying for so many different customers, so there are always odd sizes left over.
This becomes even more difficult when someone is buying a bottom and top half together, such as a bikini. Very few people are the same size top and bottom. The amount of unsold bikini tops that used to hang from the rails at Debenhams at the end of the summer was gob-smacking. Most likely destined for landfill too.
And it’s not just the big high street retailers that have this waste problem either. In 2018, Burberry was in the news for burning unsold stock. A practice that it claims to no longer do.
What percentage of unsold clothing ends up as waste?
It’s difficult to put a figure on exactly how much new clothing ends up as going to waste, as retailers are notoriously opaque about where all of their unsold stock goes.
But the best indication of waste is to look at what the average sell-through of a fashion product is. Sell-through is how much the store sold of any given item over the planned selling period. Anything after that goes into the sale or ends up as textile waste.
The sell-through on clothing can vary depending on many different factors, but lead-times, size of order and seasonality of the product play a big part.
I would estimate the average sell-through in women’s fashion being about 50-60% in brick and mortar stores. Although this article in Forbes puts it at 60% versus online retailers at 85%. Menswear generally has a better sell-through as they tend to be less trend-led.
Of course it is not just the finished garments that create all this waste. If you add on the fabric that is produced, that never makes it into a garment, then you can see how the figures start to ramp up.
Often a buyer places a forward commitment on cloth in order that they can go back for repeat orders more quickly. They basically hedge their bets on the garment selling by investing in the cloth. But if they don’t place the repeat order then the fabric just sits there as deadstock.
There are factories all over the world full of mountains of unwanted fabric. Luckily there are several initiatives now for using up deadstock material, but often it is not the factory’s responsibility to dispose of it. It’s owned by whoever originally purchased it, so it ends up just sitting there. A mountain of out-of-fashion printed, polyester!
How does making locally help solve the problem of textile waste?
When brands manufacture clothing locally the lead-times are considerably reduced. Meaning that less guesswork is involved in the whole buying process. Orders can be placed much closer to the selling season, so the right product is available at the right time.
UK factories are generally smaller, and have lower minimum order quantities as a result, so they’re not churning out thousands of units that no one wants to buy too. Which means a much better sell-through.
Plus UK manufacturing tends to focus on higher quality, lower volume production. And when you buy a product that is made with love and care in the UK is not an impulse purchase that is later regretted.
You’re much more likely to throw out a dress “because it only cost a fiver” rather than one that you paid £100 for.
In an ideal world, clothing brands would have a sell-through of 100% on every item. Then nothing would go to waste. This is possible when clothing is made to order. Something that those brands that do their own manufacturing, are able to achieve. More clothing is now being made to order in the UK in micro factories set up to produce on demand. And this figure is likely to grow as sustainability becomes an increasing focus in the textile industry.
By buying a product that is made with care and attention in the UK, and turning your back on mass-manufactured, disposable fashion, you are helping to play your part in reducing textile waste – as well as lowering your carbon footprint. Win, win!
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Hello, I'm Kate Hills
I’ve been passionate about UK manufacturing ever since I had my own recycled clothing company and micro-factory in the early '90s! After 20 years as a designer and buyer developing products all over the world, I launched Make it British to support creative small businesses that want to make sustainably and locally.
Over the last ten years, I've helped 1,000s of businesses to work with UK manufacturers. Now it's your turn!