Camille Diane Tagle spent the first decade of her career designing for brands across the fashion spectrum, from the highest luxury to mass market. The amount of waste her operations alone generated was enough to make her question her career choice.
“I loved designing. Designing was fun, but I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that I was adding to the problem,” Tagle, now cofounder of nonprofit fashion waste management organization Fabscrap, told sister publication Supply Chain Dive from inside the Fabscrap Shop — a store she and former New York City sanitation worker Jessica Schreiber opened last month in Chelsea. The shop is the result of three years of work building a secondary market for the waste generated by fashion design offices across Manhattan's five boroughs.
A 2017 white paper from Reverse Resources estimated one-quarter of fashion manufacturers’ purchased materials are wasted every year. Furthermore, the authors conclude this type of waste is “systematically underreported.”
To get a sense of the real size of the problem, Reverse Resources conducted more than 100 interviews at all levels of the supply chain and in seven factories in China and Bangladesh. At least 25% of purchased materials went to waste, with some factories wasting nearly half of the materials brought in.
Waste is a constant presence at all levels of the fashion industry — from design to production to delivery to consumption. In design and production, which are within the purview of fashion companies’ operations, fabric, trim and other materials necessary to design and finish garments are discarded at a level that would seem untenable for other industries.
Pre-consumer textile waste pales in comparison to the waste that comes after clothes are sold. Still, the raw materials waste that never reaches consumers takes on a different hue since the immense raw yardage discarded or incinerated is, for the most part, perfectly useable — it’s just in the wrong place or the wrong specifications to productively reenter the chain.
A designer dilemma
A common recommendation from supply chain analysts, and a common inclusion in sustainability commitments published by brands, is designer retraining as a method of reducing waste. But according to Tagle, minimum orders from suppliers, plus the pace of work at most design shops, produce a strong counterargument to that recommendation.
“The demands on designers and the timeline that they’re forced to work within doesn’t leave that much leeway. Unless you actually truly care about making that change, it’s very easy to put blinders on and just go to the next collection,” said Tagle.
Designers, Tagle explained, are somewhat at the mercy of fabric mill minimum orders in the design process. Fabric samples (running 6’ x 6’ or 12’ by 12’) are enough to make choices, but to create full-sized sample garments, designers need more fabric and minimums often run from 10 to 50 yards. Tagle said to cut one sample or even a few duplicates likely requires no more than 10 yards. So if a style does not go into production, most of the time the rest of the fabric is simply waste.
Making use of that waste has to be engrained in the culture of a design office to change behavior, explained Sarah Willersdorf, partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group. Incentives and rewards built into the company culture and compensation system may help in turning good intentions into actual process changes. “Having the right targets and those targets integrated into how people are compensated and how they’re rewarded is also a big factor,” she told Supply Chain Dive.
Seeking a mature aftermarket
A massive part of the problem that leads fabric and trim to the landfill or the incinerator is the lack of a mature, professional secondary market for these materials. Waste streams in other industries have such markets. For example, most supply chains generate used cardboard, which can be a lucrative market in parts of the world where processing infrastructure exists. Spent barley from beer-making does not go to the landfill; it is sold on a secondary market for animal feed and, more recently, human consumption.
Wasteful operations should never be justified by the value placed on certain waste products, but a healthy secondary market is essential to incentivize responsible management of these materials.
Existing aftermarkets for unfinished textiles, said Willersdorf, are not “professionalized,” and, according to Reverse Resources, incentivize inaccurate reporting of wastage up the chain from factory to brand.
In the major garment-producing countries, informal and convoluted aftermarkets, where textiles change hands many times, make tracking waste extremely difficult and inaccurate, drive up the price of these goods and keep the textiles from being used in the most productive way while devaluing transparent reselling practices, the white paper explained.
In other words, there is a massive mismatch between the size of the wastage and the opportunities to redirect it productively. But there are a few organizations working to develop such markets with models targeting fashion operators at different points in the supply chain.
Designing a new waste stream
Schreiber built a waste management service to pick up design waste, sort it and make the most productive choice for its next use. Sometimes that means selling perfectly good yardage in the Manhattan shop, which is around the corner from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). Other times, that means shredding fiber into a fabric pulp-like substance called shoddy, which is commonly used in insulation, carpet padding, moving blankets and mattress stuffing.
Design offices, nearly 350 of them across the five boroughs and New Jersey, put waste in color-coded 50-pound bags and Fabscrap charges $45-55 per bag for the pickup and sortation service.
In fact, some offices hand over every bit of garment-related waste they have, even if they know it will end up in a landfill, because Fabscrap’s yearly data reports allow each client to benchmark their waste as an organization.
“When it comes to pre-consumer waste, I think the big problem is a lack of real-time data."
Founder and CEO of Queen of Raw
Ideally, organizations would use the data to change their operations and waste less — but so far that result hasn’t come to fruition since, as brands get used to the program, they tend to broaden the types of waste they turn over as they use it, and volume increases.
“Right now, they’re just so excited to have an anonymous and accessible outlet. We haven’t seen numbers go down yet, but that’s the intention with the ‘pay as you throw’ model” said Schreiber. This model also covers the majority of the non-profit organization’s operating costs.
At nearly 400,000 pounds of waste picked up in just three years, Schreiber marvels at the iceberg she has only begun to uncover.
This summer, Fabscrap will pilot a pick-up arrangement with a production facility for the first time. Production waste comes in smaller, more irregular pieces, but at greater total volume and significantly greater consistency. Where a design office may produce 500 pounds of waste per month, production operations can produce that amount every working day, said Schreiber.
Stitching together an aftermarket
Like the founders of Fabscrap, Stephanie Benedetto was surprised her business didn’t already exist when she founded Queen of Raw, an online marketplace for deadstock, in 2014.
Benedetto’s business to business e-commerce platform is part of a data offering that goes with it, to help brands understand what raw materials they have, where they are and what’s going to waste. Unlike Fabscrap, Queen of Raw is a for-profit venture where Benedetto sells insights as much as fabric.
“When it comes to pre-consumer waste, I think the big problem is a lack of real-time data,” Benedetto told Supply Chain Dive. “A lot of times they don’t even know the waste that they actually have or what it’s worth,” she said, adding technology investment in the industry is more focused on predicting the future of demand rather than seeing deeper into operations today.
But Benedetto has convinced some very high-profile brands to take their deadstock seriously by creating what Reverse Resources found to be a fundamental lack in the industry — real data.
Though reputational risk is certainly a concern for brands, said Benedetto, the dollars and cents, once she can dig them out from deep beneath the sometimes 10 to 12 tiers, are often a better motivator.
“One of the world’s biggest fashion brands we work with, they literally showed us their financial records and they told us they had X in liability on the books. Since working with us, they realized they have 10X that liability on the books. At 10X it became valuable to their bottom line — before that — maybe, maybe not,” said Benedetto.
And the cost goes beyond the fabric, especially in countries with pricier real estate. “We’ve computed for our customers in America alone, for every dollar in unsold fabric, they’re spending another $1.40 on warehousing it. It’s crazy,” she said.
A yard of prevention
Waste on the post-consumer side of the fashion industry is growing as consumers buy more clothes and wear them less, according to Boston Consulting Group’s Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report. As demand for clothing steadily increases year after year, the number of times consumers wear individual garments has dropped by a third since the early aughts.
The consumer is not entirely to blame here as “much of today’s production is designed neither for longevity nor recycling, but rather for short life cycles to encourage consumers to buy anew,” according to Boston Consulting Group.
The way the fashion industry is headed operationally to satiate consumers who want “new” above all else has the potential to make the pre-consumer problem worse or better, depending on how brands meet the challenge.
"We talk about sustainability a lot but making things circular, as in it continues to always become something else, is something we haven’t seen as much of.”
Partner and Managing Director, Boston Consulting Group
Shrinking lead times and creating more designs per season requires more fabric orders and therefore more samples. Plus, the pressure to be current within a trend that may last six weeks can drive quick but impactful changes to design, which generates waste.
But operating at these great speeds takes high levels of operational competency and supply chain visibility, both of which can positively contribute to waste levels if intentionally wielded. Willersdorf said she hopes these trends will drive more supply chain agility and possibly less waste.
The least worst solution
Apart from prevention, there aren’t many good options to recirculate pre-consumer fashion waste at scale, yet. Even Schreiber conceded that the market for shoddy is not the ideal solution for fabrics that can’t be resold (she calls it “downcycling” as opposed to “recycling.”)
She and Willersdorf said the industry is essentially waiting for technology to catch up and transform the waste back into bulk, virgin fabric. Such technology is available now for some fabrics, but processing capacity is low, meaning the cost dynamics are not yet attractive in many locales.
“That’s what I imagine is going to be the big unlock. We talk about sustainability a lot but making things circular, as in it continues to always become something else, is something we haven’t seen as much of,” said Willersdorf.
In the meantime, Schreiber is saving up the types of fabric that are likely to be eligible for transformation first in New York — pure cotton, pure polyester, pure wool and some cotton-poly blends — so whenever a processing provider comes knocking, she’ll know exactly how much volume she can commit.
For everyone else, the focus for now ought to be on preventing waste in the first place.
“Unless there’s a viable option to transform, I think the only other viable option is prevention,” said Willersdorf.