Coming clean on fast fashion’s wasteful secret

This year’s brands are overwhelmed with record amounts of accumulated overstock because of COVID-19 lockdowns. All that clothing has to go somewhere if it’s not being sold.

Olivia Sullivan

If you’ve been on the internet since the presidential inauguration ceremony, you’re familiar with the image of Sen. Bernie Sanders, sitting cross legged on a chair in a thick winter jacket, a blue surgical mask and hand-knit, cozy-looking mittens. In case you were wondering, the mittens are made from repurposed wool sweaters and recycled plastic, and like his coat, Bernie has been wearing them for years.

While Bernie tries to hold onto his clothes for as long as he can, large fast fashion brands take an opposite approach. The fast fashion business model relies on a constant stream of new product trends, which are released throughout the year to drive consistent sales and consumption. 

However, in a system designed to constantly churn out the next trend, massive amounts of waste are inevitable. This winter holiday season is one of five classic fashion seasons, but within the fast fashion universe it is 1 of 52 yearly micro-seasons which release new collections weekly. A high turnaround of multiple collections creates discarded overstock year round. 

The United States apparel market is estimated to be worth $368 billion as of 2019, making it the largest apparel market in the world. There’s no reliable data on how much of that is unsold inventory, but one thing is for certain: this year’s brands are overwhelmed with record amounts of accumulated overstock because of COVID-19 lockdowns. All that clothing has to go somewhere if it’s not being sold. 

In order to make room for new merchandise, one of the best kept secrets of the fashion industry is that fashion brands will incinerate overstock or send it to landfills. In doing so, toxic polluting chemicals are released into the atmosphere and waste piles up in landfills. Textile and clothing waste is now the fastest growing waste stream in the United States. 

Prior to the pandemic, overstock had started to accumulate amongst noteworthy global fashion brands. In 2018, international fashion house Burberry was caught destroying $36.8 million worth of unsold inventory. Similarly, that same year, H&M reported an overstock of designs worth $4.3 billion dollars in its 2018 first quarter report. This is particularly unnerving due to the anonymity certain brands have when disclosing sales margins for a particular period in regard to stock quantity. 

Though other global countries have had similar issues with fast fashion brands, they have found groundbreaking solutions. In early 2020, the French parliament passed a law making it illegal for brands to destroy overstock. This law aims to eliminate the destruction of over $900 million worth of consumer goods, including that of apparel brands.

In the United States, environmental and consumer advocacy groups are campaigning to end overstock clothing waste. Changing the throwaway fashion mindset through increased consumer awareness is a part of the solution. Beyond the incorporation of its consumers, the fashion industry as a whole needs to perceive overstock as a design flaw rather than a disposable byproduct of overproduction.

While a few companies are taking steps to address the overproduction that leads to massive amounts of clothing waste, not enough are taking the issue seriously or coming clean about what is happening to their overstock product. To truly solve this problem, we have to stop producing more clothing than we can actually wear and hold fashion companies accountable for their overproduction to ensure waste stays out of fashion. 

Taryn Sage Larock contributed to this piece. She is the founder of the ethically made in Los Angeles sustainable fashion brand Sage Larock and is a committed advocate for sustainable fashion and wildlife conservation.


Olivia Sullivan