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How Slow Fashion Can Eliminate Waste In The Fashion Industry

Fashion is a trillion dollar industry which has grown at a phenomenal pace globally in recent decades. But this growth has come at huge cost, with the apparel industry becoming one of the most polluting in the world.

The industry is responsible for an astronomical amount of waste and pollution, which has had severe adverse impacts on land and aquatic ecosystems, global climate, and human health. And one of the most significant contributors to this problem is the fabric waste the industry produces, with millions of tons of textile waste and clothing being dumped to rot in landfills and being burned in incinerators each year.

In this blog post, we discuss the importance of eliminating fabric waste across the fashion industry and examine the key role that the slow fashion movement is playing in working towards this goal.


Shopping centre busy with many shoppers


Just how much damage is fast fashion doing?

Regular readers of the ColieCo blog will already have a very good idea of the damage that the fast fashion industry - in the form of the mass production of cheaply produced 'throwaway' garments - has already wreaked on the environment, on the global climate, and on communities in the developing world, particularly over the last quarter of a century.

It has done incredible damage to waterways and marine environments. It has become one of the most significant contributors to climate change, with greenhouse gas emissions from textile production, transport and disposal accounting for up to 10% of global carbon emissions. And it has exploited cheap labour in the developing world at great human cost.

It's clear that addressing these issues is going to require nothing short of revolutionary change across the fashion industry. And reducing the gigantic amount of fabric waste that the industry generates will be an essential part of that process, as this waste accounts for a significant proportion of the pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and overconsumption that the industry is responsible for.

To understand how we can combat the problem, we first need to understand how and why the industry is creating so much fabric waste.


Environmental protest calling for change in the fashion industry


Where does all of this fabric waste come from?

Fabric waste appears throughout the fashion industry's end-to-end production process in the form of unused fabric discarded at each and every stage, from textile manufacturing to garment production to retail.

Four key sources of fabric waste

1. Fast fashion brands cancelling orders with manufacturers

The fast fashion business model relies on the production of inexpensive on-trend clothing, which is manufactured as quickly as possible to be sold in large quantities before the next trend emerges. And from a waste perspective, this model has two inherent problems.

Firstly, it frequently results in brands cancelling the fabric orders they've placed with manufacturers. This can happen for various reasons, but will often be the result of brands' trend forecasters advising them that the tides of fashion have shifted and that they need to get new designs in different textiles and different colours to market. This can happen even after the fabric a brand has ordered has been manufactured.

Even prior to the notorious behaviour of many brands during the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK Parliament Environmental Audit Committee had found that fast fashion brands were responsible for canceling orders worth an astonishing £1.7bn (€2bn) annually, resulting in hugely significant amounts of fabric waste. 

Secondly, the model commonly results in the overproduction of fabric. Setting up large production runs for fashion textiles is an expensive business with large overheads, and brands would rather produce excess fabric at low marginal cost than risk having to re-run from scratch the production of a fabric needed to produce what turns out to be a popular and successful collection. In short, ordering too much fabric is seen to be less of an issue than ordering too little.

Criminally, this excess overproduced fabric, which is sometimes referred to as 'overstock' and can include entire rolls of fabric, is often discarded by manufacturers and variously ends up in landfill sites or incinerators.

2. Bulk cutting processes producing factory floor waste

Bulk cutting is a manufacturing process used by the fashion industry which involves cutting multiple layers of fabric at once. This process is used because it saves manufacturers time and reduces labour costs. However, it also generates a significant amount of waste.

The process, which often results in uneven and imprecise cuts, sees the offcuts and scraps it produces discarded on the factory floor. Once again, this fabric waste usually ends up in landfill sites or an incinerator.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, up to 15% of the fabric used in bulk cutting processes ends up as factory floor waste.


Bulk fabric cutting process used by the fast fashion industry


3. Fabric roll line ends

The term 'line end' refers to fabric left over at the end of a fabric roll, which is often considered by factories manufacturing for large fast fashion brands too short for use in future production runs. This fabric is typically discarded with factory floor waste, adding considerably to the total amount of waste created during garment manufacture.

According to a report by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), up to 10% of fabric is wasted due to roll line ends.

4. Overproduction of garments leading to unsold retail stock

As with the overproduction of fabric, the overproduction of garments is a common problem in the fast fashion industry, with brands habitually producing more garments than they can sell. This overproduction results in unsold stock, which is eventually discarded by retailers. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, up to 30% of clothing produced is never sold, resulting in a significant amount of fabric waste.

Although some brands are able to bulk re-sell stock to clearance retailers and others donate at least some of it to charities, a significant proportion of overstock can be shredded and recycled, or, well, by now I think you might be able to guess where it can end up...

How slow fashion models can eliminate fabric waste

Slow fashion is an emergent and growing movement with a diametrically opposed perspective to that of the fast fashion industry. Or, as Good On You eloquently put it, slow fashion "...encompasses an awareness and approach to fashion that considers the processes and resources required to make clothing. It advocates for buying better-quality garments that will last longer, and values fair treatment of people, animals, and the planet along the way."

Distilled down, the identity of the slow fashion movement can be described by the intersection of three key distinct, yet closely interconnected, ideals: 

  • Ethical fashion - concerned with reducing harm to people and animals
  • Sustainable fashion - concerned with reducing harm to the environment, and
  • Lasting fashion - concerned with producing high-quality products designed and constructed to last.


A diagram showing the identity of slow fashion - ColieCo Lingerie


There are various ways in which the ethical and sustainable brands leading the slow fashion revolution (like ColieCo!) are proving that fabric waste can be eliminated from the fashion industry's processes. And beyond demonstrating the viability of zero waste manufacturing models, they're even helping clean up the mess that fast fashion brands are leaving behind.

Here's how...

By using reclaimed fabrics

The term 'reclaimed fabric' refers to fabric that has been sourced from pre-existing textiles rejected by brands and then discarded by manufacturers before being repurposed for use in new clothing production before it has had the chance to arrive in landfill. This is one of the most effective ways for the fashion industry to reduce fabric waste, and the source of all of the fabric used in ColieCo's Reclaimed Mesh, Reclaimed Prints and Swimwear collections.

The suppliers who provide the reclaimed fabrics we work with in the ColieCo studio work directly both with fabric manufacturers to rescue surplus fabric stock resulting from fast fashion brands' order cancellations, and with garment manufacturers to rescue line ends and larger offcuts otherwise destined for landfill.

Slow and sustainable fashion brands' use of reclaimed fabrics reduces the demand for new fabric production, which in turn reduces the amount of downstream fabric waste generated by the fashion industry. It also promotes the concept of circularity in garment production, which will be an essential element of future efforts to reduce the industry's environmental impact.

By employing manual cutting processes

Another one of the major contributors to fabric waste in the fashion industry is bulk cutting processes. These processes involve cutting multiple layers of fabric at once, which can lead to uneven cutting and excess fabric waste.

To help minimise waste during the cutting process, most slow fashion brands, including ColieCo, instead use manual cutting techniques in producing their ethical clothing collections. These techniques involve cutting fabric one layer at a time, which beyond helping reduce the amount of fabric wasted by allowing for the tessellation of pattern pieces, also allows for greater precision and control, resulting in higher quality garments.


 Manual cutting process in the ColieCo Lingerie studio


By manufacturing with a made-to-order model

The overproduction of garments is another key contributor to fabric waste. Fast fashion brands will as a matter of course produce excess garments in the hopes of meeting any and all consumer demand, the result almost always being excess stock, much of which ends up as waste.

To combat this issue, most slow fashion brands, including ColieCo, employ a made-to-order garment manufacturing model. This model involves producing garments only when they are ordered by customers, completely eliminating the production of excess stock.

And brands like ours are demonstrating that slow fashion can be anything but slow - we commit to completing and dispatching orders to customers within two weeks of placement.

By offering adjustments and repairs

The fast fashion model relies entirely on sales volumes to drive profits. Garment prices are perpetually being driven down in the name of competition, and profit margins per unit are incredibly slim compared with many other industries.

This means that brands are perpetually pushing their customers to consume more and more of their products, and it follows that it is in the brands' interests that garments are worn only a few times before their customers are ready to replace them with the new lines they are producing. This is no great incentive for fast fashion brands to produce high-quality products or to offer high-quality after-sales services to customers.

Many slow fashion brands offer customers much more each time they make a purchase.

Firstly, garments produced by ethical and sustainable fashion brands are commonly of a much higher quality - they are usually made from better fabrics and are usually designed and constructed to last, rather than to be replaced after just a few wears.

Secondly, many slow fashion brands (as well as, it should be acknowledged, a growing if very small number of mainstream fashion brands) offer customers alteration and repair services. These services can help further extend the lifespans of garments and reduce the need and demand for ready replacements.

At ColieCo, we're proud to offer customers both a free adjustment service and a free repairs service.

Here's how we (fabric) roll!

We've put together a graphic explaining how ColieCo Lingerie's own made-to-order slow fashion model uses reclaimed fabrics rescued by our suppliers:

  • to minimise the amount of fabric waste we create in producing our lingerie, underwear and swimwear collections
  • to ensure that unavoidable waste is managed conscientiously, and
  • to help give fabric discarded by the mainstream fashion industry a second chance at life!


How we minimise fabric waste throughout our process - ColieCo Lingerie


Reducing fabric waste in the fashion industry - the future

Reducing the amount of fabric waste created by the fashion industry is crucial if we are to combat climate change, reduce pollution, and promote sustainable practices across what is an industry with a huge ecological footprint.

The fashion industry has become notorious for its high levels of waste, and this is an issue which must be addressed urgently.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of ethical and sustainable slow fashion brands entering the marketplace and introducing progressive and more sustainable new business models.

These models commonly feature a number of measures designed to reduce fabric waste, including the use of reclaimed and upcycled fabrics, the adoption of manual cutting techniques, and the implementation of made-to-order garment production processes.

Ultimately, reducing fabric waste is going to require a collective effort including the participation of consumers, manufacturers and retailers alike. By making conscious choices as consumers - by considering the volume of our consumption and by supporting ethical slow fashion brands - we can all help contribute to creating a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly future for the fashion industry.

Thanks as always for reading, and let us know what you think about our post and how you see the future of the slow fashion revolution developing on via our social channels - we love hearing your thoughts!

Nicole x 

Cover Photograph Creator: Antonio Cossio. Credit: DPA. Copyright: Antonio Cossio / DPA / NTB.

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