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 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 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!
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 fashion brands or textile manufacturers had any intention of working more sustainably for the good of the planet 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. To mix my metaphors, 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 engage in much worse besides.
Buying deadstock lets fashion 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 surplus 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 big fashion brands can't get their act together to specify correctly or use just-in-time ordering - something that's been around for decades now; or, I suspect, the manufacturer 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.
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 keep the mill producing a certain 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 thought it needed 35 metres of canvas for the film set or event and actually went out and bought it. But now they've scoped the project out fully they've realised they only need 15 metres. You could argue this is true deadstock - it's usually very small quantities and not anything to do with fashion brands - it's not usually dress fabric, and it's very, very rarely made of viscose or anything man made. This, I'm comfortable with.
So what's going on with this whole deadstock fabric market?
Over the last couple of years many manufacturers and intermediaries 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 they 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 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?
It also has to be said (& I know I'm going to win no friends here!) that this 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. In some cases, the profit on a deadstock fabric can top 1000% or more. And thanks to it being so uber-fashionable, some shops can now charge the buyer almost as much for a deadstock fabric, if not 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?!
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 questionable-quality viscose or polyester of dubious origin, imported from the Far East (sometimes via a wholesaler) and it's made from wood-pulp and high-polluting chemicals. It's bought by most fabric shops in bulk - job lots, say 10 rolls of deadstock, each roll a different fabric - and 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? Is it even a fabric used by that fashion brand or just a fake? 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.
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 five 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!
Some fabric shops in the UK now sell almost as much deadstock as they do other fabrics - 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: