The problem with deadstock fabrics...
Deadstock fabric is a big problem. And buying it is not the answer.
Deadstock fabric is big right now. We're told it's eco-friendly, green and sustainable. Buying it is good for the planet and if we don't get our wallets out today, that deadstock fabric is going into landfill tomorrow, right?
But it's become clear to me that the overwhelming majority of deadstock is not dead and it's not going to landfill or incineration. Rather, it's just your average fabric, of often completely unknown origin and composition, that's been 'greenwashed' to increase profits and avoid the need for big corporations to spend money on business transparency and environmental processes.
Over the last year I've become very concerned about deadstock fabric. I've not always been a fabric seller, rather I've spent my whole career up to September 2019 working with and advising businesses of all kinds, including large global manufacturers, and I can see what's happening here.
Deadstock fabric is a wonderful business opportunity - and boy is it being worked!
The classic sign that a great business opportunity is going mainstream is a rapid increase in supply (and suppliers), and a product that's going up in price fast. Right now there are way too many deadstock fabrics and deadstock sellers, and the fabric is getting more expensive by the day. We've now entered a deadstock boom!
It's now so bad that in 2022 a group of high-end fashion brands including Dior and Louis Vuitton started offloading their over-produced fabrics on a new deadstock portal called Nona Source. (See link below). On there you can buy the excess fabric that these brands should never have produced in the first place. And there has been a recent change of emphasis by deadstock retail sellers; deadstock is increasingly being sold as 'luxury fabric at a bargain price'. And frankly why would you believe the idea of luxury when many UK retail shops openly admit they don't actually know what the fabric is made of?
So what? Why do I care? Well, let's face it, you can explain it whichever way you want, and sellers can kid themselves they're helping the planet all day every day, but in reality deadstock is wanton over-production, plain and simple. And if certain high-fashion clothing brands and textile manufacturers had any real conviction and intention of working more sustainably for the good of the planet, and being careful not to produce enormous amounts of fabric they can't use, there would be less deadstock on the market this year than last - not more.
Forget landfill, this needs tackling at the source.
Deadstock is the thin edge of a ginormous wedge. It's the bit of the iceberg that sticks out above the surface. What we don't see is the nightmare that lies beneath the waterline, way back at the start of the textiles production process. To really tackle the whole textiles-sustainability issue, from top to bottom, we need to think very carefully about buying deadstock fabric. If we don't, we're giving the green light to global textile manufacturers and fashion brands not just to over-specify and over-produce, but potentially engage in much worse besides.
Buying deadstock lets fashion clothing brands fudge the issue of who manufacturers all their fabrics, where, and under what working conditions and processes. It lets them cover their tracks, safe in the knowledge that they can block the awkward questions, bury them, and get their PR team to deal with any fallout. After all, they're not putting fabric into landfill or incinerating it, they're selling the surplus that they don't use to make clothes as deadstock, so that makes everything about them green, right?
Buying deadstock lets fabric manufacturers ignore any talk of zero-waste or zero-carbon textile production; continue to use even more natural resources, water, energy, pesticides and high-polluting chemicals; not to mention letting them turn a blind eye to where the raw materials come from and who, for example, is picking the cotton or producing the dyes, and under what working conditions. And where the production waste of all types is dumped. After all, they've got big-name fashion brands queuing up outside the door - more than willing to give them lots of money, no questions asked.
Not one single thing about this is good for sustainability, our environment or people.
To emphasis the point using viscose production as an example, check out which fashion brands care about the way their viscose fabrics are produced...and which of them have a very long way to go: The Dirty Fashion Report
What is deadstock fabric?
What's termed 'deadstock' fabric today falls into three categories in my view:
Surplus available fabric
The vast majority of what we call deadstock fabrics, the ones sold by UK fabric shops, exist because, either it's over-produced on purpose because fashion brands can't get their act together to specify accurately, make an effort to actually use all the fabric they've bought, or use just-in-time ordering - something that's been around for decades now; or, I suspect in some cases, the manufacturer or intermediary has decided to keep the textile mill producing that print or not being too careful about quantities because, in this deadstock boom-time, if it has a designer tag they know they can shift it, at a profit. After all, it's no secret that many high street (& designer) fashion brands are notorious for cost-cutting - there are myriad examples of big brands going with the cheapest quote with little regard to ethics or sustainability. Or, are UK retailers picking up fabrics from wholesalers' sales (wholesalers in the UK and the EU have lots of sales!) and then flogging these sale fabrics as deadstock? Quite possibly because cheap fabric is much easier to shift, and at a higher price, if you call it 'deadstock'.
To emphasis this point, one of the great mysteries is why there is such a lot of Liberty deadstock. Now, Liberty fabric is one of those things that most people, including me, will save up for as a very special treat. It's a brand with a wonderful heritage and Liberty produces some of the world's most gorgeous and sought-after fabrics. Can I believe that any bona fide Liberty fabric at all is really destined for landfill? Well, no. (And if it is, shame on you Liberty, even if you're just licensing the prints to fashion brands; that's why you have legal contracts). Do I believe that Liberty will sell it on to retailers as deadstock today because tomorrow it's going into landfill? Nope. Do I believe that Liberty, rather than billing it as deadstock, will sell end-of-line / last season's designs to retailers at a discount in a sale? Yes. Are these retailers passing on most of that discount? I doubt it. They're selling it as deadstock because they can. Or, are Liberty selling it in bulk to a wholesaler or fashion brand in good faith, who is then selling it on to retailers as deadstock while Liberty turn a blind eye? Who knows. But, and I just can't emphasis this enough, SALE FABRIC IS NOT DEADSTOCK!
Some fabrics have faults, this is true - but hey, I know because I sell the stuff and I understand modern high-tech factory processes, that it's unlikely you're going to get a high-quality textile mill with great workers' rights and living wages producing hundreds or thousands of metres of faulty fabric and not noticing: 'Oh, it appears we've produced 1000 metres with pink flowers on it when they should have been white' or, 'Oh dear this 500 metres has a whacking-great hole in it every three metres'.
Think about it - successful modern manufacturers in all sectors, not just fabric, live or die on the quality of what they produce, and it costs vast sums to set up a new print and keep the mill producing that fabric. The end client, be that a fashion brand or a wholesaler, is closely involved at every stage.
A great manufacturer, one that's committed to sustainability, is careful with resources including people. It's innovative when it comes to new greener processes and fabrics, and is always aiming for high eco standards such as zero waste. These manufacturers leave nothing to chance. Everything is triple checked, and then checked again. In a manufacturing plant that really cares it's in no one's interest to produce faulty goods and waste fabric - and that's why they very rarely do.
Fabric that the original buyer doesn't now need
This is very different to surplus available fabric. It's where, say, a production company or a small independent clothing designer thought they needed 35 metres of canvas for the film set or event, or say 100 metres for a new small range of clothes and actually went out and bought it. But now they've scoped the project out fully they've realised they need much less, so they sell the remaining fabric on directly to a retail shop. You could argue this is true deadstock - it's small quantities and not anything to do with big global fashion brands - and it's often not dressmaking fabric. This, I'm just about comfortable with.
I'm comfortable with it because the owner possibly did not design or specify the fabric; they definitely didn't manufacture it in huge bulk at a textile mill. They likely bought it off the shelf like any other business, possibly from a fabric wholesaler, and they made a mistake when it came to small quantities. I can see how this fabric would eventually end up being thrown out and might end up in landfill. Though, of course, we actually have no way of knowing if it would - buying it does not guarantee that you saved it from landfill; the events company might have recycled it for another project, and the small designer might have found another use for it in next season's range - or gifted it to any number of charities, social enterprises and startup businesses that are crying out for fabric. And there's the rub: if you're a business and you buy the fabric, you're responsible for where it ends up.
So what's going on with this whole deadstock fabric market, particularly in the UK?
Over the last couple of years many manufacturers, intermediaries and UK fabric shops have seen the opportunity that deadstock fabric represents, and like all good business people, they've re-branded it as something great - in this case 'greenwashed' surplus available fabric and lumped in the small amounts of faulty fabric the mills produce, given it a sparkly new name, in this case 'deadstock', and made lots of money. And all this at a time when we're trying to conserve resources and live more sustainably.
Deadstock is such a booming market that big fashion clothing brands and their textile manufacturers - often the ones with the lowest minimum levels of workers' rights and wages - continue to purposefully overproduce. I mean, what's the incentive to stop? To be more careful about quantity and quality? Why stop producing when you know you can sell it at a profit anyway?
Deadstock fabric has turned into a cult, led by UK fabric shops
It also has to be said (& I know I'm going to win no friends here!) that the wanton disregard by fashion brands and others that produces all this deadstock works excellently for many UK fabric shops. They love deadstock because it's so cheap for them to buy. Much, much cheaper than the customer thinks. It's also easier to sell wildly unattractive prints made from frankly quite nasty substrates because, hey, it's deadstock.
In some cases, the retail profit on a deadstock fabric can top 1000% or more - and they can get this profit because it can be marketed to you on a guilt-trip - BUY THIS FABRIC NOW OR YOU'RE SENDING IT TO LANDFILL AND DESTROYING THE PLANET! With the obvious inference that if you don't buy deadstock you're a nasty person; you're someone who does not care about the planet; you are part of the problem.
This clever guilt-tripping of their customers has worked so well that deadstock is now so uber-fashionable that it's a cult, and some shops have found they can charge the buyer almost as much for a deadstock fabric, if not a lot more, than a non-deadstock fabric! It's a licence to print money frankly. Again, why stop buying and selling deadstock when you're making such a big profit out of it? I get it, I really do - we all have rent to pay; we all have to eat. But deadstock is just not the way. At the very least it's got to worry you, right?!
It's also worth remembering that fabric is a commodity just like anything else, and, at the wholesale end in particular, it's an incredibly cutthroat business. There's nothing fluffy, sweet or pretty about this business; it's the rag trade with nice websites. It's factory-like wholesale warehouses so large you can probably see them from space; it's foot-in-the-door, door-to-door salesmen in shiny suits; it's small independent businesses with big overheads fighting for survival in a crowded marketplace; it's dog-eat-dog, and despite all the cute fashionista-style Insta video posts, it's a tough business for tough people, some of whom will do anything to make a sale, including giving away huge quantities of fabric in exchange for favourable publicity and great reviews. So selling deadstock at 1000% mark-up is just not an ethical problem many of them recognise.
What's the real problem?
In my view, the real problem is that such a lot of deadstock fabric on sale in the UK is of highly questionable quality. And it's potentially fake. Much of it is viscose or polyester of dubious origin, imported from the Far East (sometimes via a wholesaler or fabric agent) and it's made from wood-pulp and high-polluting chemicals. Some of it is sold as one thing when it's really something else entirely.
Deadstock is often bought by fabric shops in bulk - job lots, say 10 rolls of deadstock, each roll a different fabric; or bought 'blind' with no information except the type of base substrate (if you can believe it) - and so most shops don't know what it's actually made of - what is the fabric composition? What's actually in it? They get told it's, say, 100% cotton - but is it? It could be made of something very nasty indeed. We actually have no way of knowing. Is it even a fabric used by that fashion brand or just a fake made of who-knows-what?
Deadstock fabric is sometimes such a mystery that shops will actually admit they don't really know what it's made of. But fear not, they say, we have done a 'burn test' and we think that it is polyester/viscose/cotton etc. Or, just as bad: we don't know what this is made of, but don't worry, we've guessed the composition. I mean, that's laughable, right?! Do you really want to wear that fabric with zero traceability, manufactured god-knows where in the world, potentially made by the modern equivalent of slave labour, under horrendous conditions, that might be full of very nasty chemicals, next to your skin?! This Guardian article demonstrates exactly why traceability matters when it comes to the composition and chemicals in your fabric: Are Your Clothes Making You Sick: The Opaque World Of Chemicals In Fashion.
A recent real-life UK example of dodgy composition, in mid-2023, was a non-deadstock fabric that was sold to a very large, very well-respected wholesaler by a Chinese mill as as 100% linen. The wholesaler began to sell it as pure linen. But after a while they became suspicious and had their own independent tests done. Turns out...it wasn't linen. It was a ramie-cotton mix. This wholesaler had the guts and the moral compass to tell its customers of the mistake. Other wholesalers have not been as upfront with the exact same fabric. If this can happen with a non-deadstock fabric, and to a heritage wholesaler, how can you trust actual deadstock?
And, unlike brand-name textiles from say, for example, Swafing, Nutex, Poppy Europe, John Louden, Tilda, Art Gallery Fabrics, Atelier Brunette or any one of the brilliant high-quality brands on sale in the UK today, with deadstock fabric there is no traceability you can trust.
In addition, you hardly ever see Oeko-Tex Standard or GOTS certified organic deadstock fabric. That on its own should raise a red flag. The only time I did see it I recognised the print and knew that it was a fabric the shop had bought in the sale at a UK wholesaler - and re-branded it as deadstock! Sale fabric is not deadstock! Oeko-Tex and GOTS fabric is only produced by the very best textile mills; ones that have been scrutinised to within an inch of their lives. You hardly ever see jersey fabric as deadstock either - most deadstock is 90% viscose and 100% questionable. But watch this space - soon we'll be swamped with GOTS-organic deadstock - that's the logical next step.
Don't buy deadstock fabric unless you trust that it's really and truly dead.
If we want to reduce our impact on the planet's natural resources and encourage textile manufacturers to up their game on sustainability, working conditions and rights, we need to think very hard before buying deadstock fabric. There's no doubt that six years ago buying it was a good thing - but now it isn't. It's a bad idea almost all of the time because we're allowing some fashion brands to ignore sustainability. We're encouraging bad practice in some of the world's worst textile mills. We're saying it's OK to over-produce. We've allowed them to stop caring what happens to all that fabric because, hey, it's now called deadstock, and that's cool!
It's worth pointing out that every retail fabric shop in the UK could sell deadstock; we could all grab a few rolls of this stuff with a fashion-brand name attached - it's not hard to find and there are fabric agents falling over themselves to flog it to you; it's not exclusive or only available to a few shops; anyone can buy the stuff. But we don't. We have made a conscious decision not to go there, and that decision costs us money. I could sell deadstock and make 1000% plus on half a metre, no problem. But I don't.
But some fabric shops have gone the other way and now sell almost as much deadstock as they do other fabrics; and we have a few that literally only sell deadstock - another red flag in my opinion - and their fascination with highly profitable fabrics of largely unknown origin, composition and quality will continue if we don't make a stand. If we don't kick our deadstock habit, in the worse case scenario, even some of the wonderful smaller independent textile mills might be tempted - because to win the race you need to enter the contest. The only way we can all force manufacturers, designer brands and fast-fashion chains to up their game is by not buying deadstock fabric.
Deadstock fabric is a very big problem and that's why I don't, and never will, sell deadstock of any kind.
If you're interested in further information, here are a few great articles on why deadstock fabric is not as sustainable or green as people think: