Less is More: Fixing Overproduction in the Fashion Industry

Piles of clothes overproduced and on sale

Less is More: Fixing Overproduction in the Fashion Industry

Overproduction in the fashion industry is one of the great struggles of creating a sustainable sector. From tales of top fashion brands burning £90 million of unwanted items in just five years to the billions in unsold inventory that fast fashion brands hold, fashion overproduction is a major source of needless waste.

Differing from clothing waste generated at the post-consumer stage, fashion overproduction is when a company deliberately makes more items than it sells. These unwanted garments need to go somewhere.

In the case of many fashion companies, particularly luxury brands, these clothes are destroyed. This avoids them turning up on second-hand markets or being sold at discounted rates which may negatively impact the image, price, or exclusivity of a clothing company.

However, luxury companies aren’t the only overproduction culprits. Fast fashion giant H&M has reported in the past to have $4.3 billion of unsold inventory.

With overproduction such a widespread issue in the industry, how many unwanted clothes are we producing and why do brands do it?

Mountains of Clothing

It can be difficult to find the exact number of unsold clothing that’s deliberately overproduced. Brands don’t generally like to share this information. Admitting to large scale overproduction is often bad for publicity, as could be seen with Burberry’s deadstock scandal in 2017.

It is estimated that 30% of global clothing is never sold. A further 30% of clothing is only sold at a discount. This means more than half of global clothing produced doesn’t sell at full price in stores.

When you consider that the fashion industry produces on average 150 billion garments every year, roughly enough for 20 items for each person in the world, that 30% of unsold clothing starts to equal a huge volume of wasted materials.

At its core, overproduction is bad for everybody, producing products that can’t be sold costs a company wasted time and resources and creates a steep environmental toll.

So, Why do Brands Overproduce?

Brands engage in overproduction activities for a range of reasons. These can be caused by everything from incorrect market forecasting to mistrusting suppliers to produce clothing on a reliable schedule.

However, in the fashion industry there are four key drivers of overproduction:

1.      Changing Tastes

In a world of Instagram feeds and Tik Tok trends, preferences change on a dime toss. Even with the best forecasting models, the changing desires of the modern fashion scene are unpredictable. This means that while a company may have had a large demand for a style when it started production, that demand may have dwindled rapidly, leaving it with stock that is no longer wanted.

Some companies have adapted to be able to rapidly produce new items to cater to changing tastes. This only further feeds into overproduction in the fashion industry.

2.      Cost Saving

Quite simply, the more items that are ordered in one batch, the lower the individual price per item. In companies that are built on a high-volume business model, over-ordering large quantities can be cost effective, these can then be sold at a discount while still turning a profit, feeding a cycle of fashion overproduction, and ultimately, overconsumption.

3.      An Over-Buying Attitude

Girl with lots of shopping bags
There are many reasons that brands overproduce. Photo by Tim Douglas from Pexels

In the modern world, the average American will purchase 70 new pieces of apparel a year. The fashion industry, built by fast-fashion retailers, is one of impulse purchases and short-lived styles. To cater to this attitude of consumer over-buying, companies over-produce.

By over-producing stock, fashion brands can always have items on hand to cater to any and every impulse buy.

4.      Incorrect Market Forecasting

Sometimes market forecasts just get it wrong. Even without an attitude of rapidly changing consumer preferences, companies sometimes predict that an item will sell better than it does. When this happens, they are left with a large quantity of stock that simply isn’t wanted.

What Happens to Excess Clothing?

What happens to unsold products relies on a myriad of factors, including the markets a brand operates in and the cost-effectiveness of disposal.

going up in flames

Perhaps the biggest headline maker is when it is revealed that brands have burnt excess stock. Companies from Nike to H&M, to Burberry, have been accused of their stock literally going up in flames. Brands may burn their stock for several reasons, from maintaining a desired brand image or simply having no other way to get rid of excess items.

Resold, Donated and Discounted

Sales signs showing discounts because of clothing overproduction
Some brands have more discount outlets for overproduced clothing than standard stores. Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Going up in flames is not the only fate of overproduced clothing. Clothing may also be sent to be sold on non-competing markets, such as those in different countries. Alternatively, clothes may be sold through discount outlets. Shockingly, some brands now have more discount outlets for selling overproduced stock than standard stores.

Clothing may also be given to charity. While this may sound good, a brand donating unwanted stock to charity isn’t always a perfect solution. When done irresponsibly, it can lead to organisations dumping unwanted clothes in third-world countries, under the guise of donation. This simply moves the pollution to somewhere else.

Some sustainable brands have started repurposing unused stock. Re-incorporating it into production. Although not perfect, this is more sustainable than the alternate fates of unwanted garments.

Why Should We Care?

Overproduction is so ingrained in the fashion sector that it can be easy to overlook. However, its impacts are varied, inter-connected and when mismanaged can be disastrous.

Fashion is already a major polluter, responsible for roughly 10% of global carbon emissions. Overproduction compounds this pollution, unused clothing that is burned or dumped serves no purpose and adds to the 92 million tonnes of solid waste produced by the industry every year

Our article on the clothing waste crisis has more information about the magnitude and effects of this humungous waste problem and what consumers can do to help. 

Overproduction also wastes all the energy and resources that have gone into creating a garment. When one pair of jeans needs 7,500 litres of water to produce, these jeans not even being used makes that wasted water all the more disastrous.

Clothing waste from clothing overproduction in landfill
The clothing waste problem is humongous. Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

How do we Stop Overproduction in the Fashion Industry?

While it is likely that there will always be some level of fashion overproduction, its prominence, and as such impact, can be drastically reduced. To do this will require policies, cooperation and commitments from governments, consumers, and companies.

Governments

Government legislation goes a long way in creating a cleaner industry. Changes in policies requiring companies to manage production sustainably can make a real impact on reducing overproduction.

Laws, such as the one passed in France in 2020 banning companies from destroying clothing and cosmetics, among other products, encourages and forces companies to produce sustainably and dispose of products responsibly.

For more on government laws and regulations in the fashion industry, those that exist already and why we need more, see our article Fashion Rules: Why We Need Tougher Laws and Regulations in the Fashion Industry.

Companies

Ultimately, companies need to change how they manufacture and the business models they are built on. One promising development is the rise of on-demand production. This is when clothing is only made as it is ordered, eliminating and reducing the risk of over-production. 

While it’s still gaining traction in the industry, on demand clothing manufacturing promises a viable solution to overproduction. Read more in Is On-Demand Clothing Manufacturing the Future of Fashion?

Similarly, reduced product runs, where only a limited number of items are made also offers a move away from overproduction.

Consumers

At the end of the day, where we spend our money casts a vote for the sort of industry we want. By supporting companies that are moving away from overproduction methods, we are supporting a greener fashion sector.

Investing in quality clothing can also help reduce overconsumption and overproduction of clothing. Quality products last longer and don’t feed into an overproduction cycle by needing constant replacement.

Clothing Made should be Clothing Worn

Overproduction has been a long-standing issue in the fashion sector. While some level of overproduction in the fashion industry may be inevitable, it is something that can be improved drastically. By changing our relationship with the fashion sector, and through consumers, corporations and governments working together, we can change the needless waste levels of the industry.

Clothing that will never get worn is clothing that should never be made.

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