Deadstock, Remnant and Recycled Fabric: the benfits and drawbacks of wearing textile waste

Utilising textile waste is a popular choice for eco-conscious designers. These days it is easy to for designers to get their hands on a myriad of textiles that would otherwise go to landfill. Looking for labels that make use of fabric waste is an easy way to give your wardrobe some sustainability cred. But choosing this option is far from perfect. A topic I will delve into here.

The reason that eco-conscious designers can easily access fabric waste is that there is just so much of it. And vast amounts of it is new (pre-consumer) waste. Textile mills and garments factories typically have vast amounts of left over fabric, known as deadstock fabric. These are rolls of fabric that are left after a garment production run, fabric that was dyed the wrong colour, or surplus fabric that is unsold by the textile mills and left in storage. Often these fabrics are in smaller amounts so they will never be bought or used by larger garment companies. Making use of this fabric is a popular choice for designers who want to make thier production more sustainable. Eco-conscious fashion labels such as tonlé (also stocked at MadeFAIR) and Seamly both make use of deadstock fabrics to produce their eco-conscious range.

But it is not only left over fabric rolls that go to waste in the fashion industry. The normal pattern cutting processes (the way the pieces of a garment are cut from a bolt of cloth) waste 15% of the fabric on average. Many garments will waste far more than average. Zero-waste fashion designers (such as tonlé) aim to change this statistic. But until this becomes the normal process for pattern making, off-cuts from garment factories will provide a rich source of textiles for eco conscious designers to put their creative skills to. Orsola de Castro, founder and director of Fashion Revolution, was also one of the first designers to promote the use of textile waste from garment factories. She started upcycyling textile waste in 1997 through her label From Somewhere and later through Reclaim to Wear. Her advocacy efforts have seen her collaborate with many top global fashion brands to reduce their environmental impact through upcycling. The upcycling of fabric waste is not new. Traditional textile crafts have long made use fabric waste. The beautiful patchwork sari silk quilts from India are the perfect example of this. But the vast amounts of textile waste available for upcycling is a recent development, and until practices change this fabric waste needs to be put to good use.

You will also see some small scale labels who search out fabrics that have been worn, such as vintage saris, old denim or old woolens. These pre-worn fabrics are can be upcycled into new garments or homewares. These labels are usually run by individuals makers who produce everything themselves. Sourcing second-hand materials that are of high quality can be time consuming and it is usually best suited to one-off garments rather than a large scale fashion range.

The final way that the fashion system can make use of textile waste is through recycling textiles. Textiles are recycled from two sources- pre-consumer waste and post-consumer waste. Pre-consumer waste means the off-cuts and left over fabrics from factories. These are often spun into yarn for knitting and crochet, or are woven into new fabrics. Post-consumer waste takes garments that have been worn and recycles these into new textiles. This is a valuable form of recycling that aims to close the loop in the fashion system, taking discarded clothing and making them into something new. Re:newcell is a recent development in closed loop textile recycling. It is a new process which recycles old garments that are made from cellulose (plant-based) fibres, such as cotton. The other common recycled textile fabrics are Econyl for nylon and Repreve and Eco Intelligent Polyester for polyester. These fabrics are far from common, but there are a growing number of labels that are making use of them. These textiles are worth your consumer dollar if you do seek them out for something that you need.

Whilst I do believe that making use of textiles that would otherwise go to landfill is a good thing. I do think that there are some aspects of these that are problematic. To begin with, I have found that labels using deadstock fabric or offcuts can produce poorer quality garments if the designer is not skilled in seeking out good quality textiles. The large amount of textile waste that is exists is poor quality, because the most of the garments that are produced globally are poor quality. So you need to find a trusted label that is carefully seeking out good quality fabrics.

Another reason that I find these textiles problematic is the same reason that recycling food packing is more problematic than choosing unpackaged products. When you make use of waste generated by a wasteful system, you will only ever be tinkering at the edges. Helping mainstream companies to reduce their waste footprint is a good thing, and it will certainly have an impact. But it may not give them an imperative to change their wasteful processes. We need to be moving towards  wholescale transformation of the system.

The post-consumer recycling programs are a step better. They are closing the loop, ensure that the garments we wear and love can eventually have a second life. This reduces the need for virgin textiles. But ultimately we need to be reducing the amount of clothing we buy, and improving the quality of the garments that are produces so  that they last the wearer much longer.

I do endorse garments that make use of fabric waste as a sustainable option for now. But we also need help build the sustainable alternative. That means supporting new sustainable textiles and lower waste or zero-waste processes as well. Garments that make use of fabric waste are a big part of the solution for now. But we can only hope that the amount of fabric waste will reduce over time. Ultimately that should be the goal of the fashion system.

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