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Is Deadstock the Future of Sustainable Fashion?

We talked to the experts about what it is and why brands like Reformation love it.

Welcome to Sustainability Week! While Fashionista covers sustainability news and eco-friendly brands all year round, we wanted to use this time around Earth Day and the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse as a reminder to focus on the impact that the fashion industry has on people and the planet.

As a fashion writer and editor focused on ethics and sustainability, I spend a lot of time looking at small brands that are trying to make eco-friendliness a core value. A few months ago, I started seeing a trend amongst the labels I follow. It seemed like everywhere I looked — whether scrolling the #ethicalfashion tag on Instagram, sifting through PR pitches in my inbox or browsing sustainable e-boutiques — I was coming across proud assertions from brands about their deadstock fabric usage.

"We're keeping fabric out of landfills by using deadstock," they would say. Deadstock, I learned after a little Googling, is the fabric that goes unused by the mill or brand that fabricated it. Be it because the fabric turned out blue when it was meant to be purple, the brand ordered more than they could use or they simply decided it wasn't right for the piece for which they intended it, deadstock fabric is any textile that's sitting around as a leftover without plans for future use.

The claim that this fabric could be kept out of landfills by smaller brands buying it up sounded great, but I was also a little skeptical. Why hadn't I heard people talking about deadstock before? Was it really that straightforward to prevent waste? And if so, would everyone be using it soon?

Turns out that part of the reason that I, an ethical fashion junkie, didn't know the answer to those questions already was because deadstock has had less-than-positive connotations that have kept it out of the spotlight in the past. Yshai Yudekovitz, a manager and buyer at high-end fabric store B&J Fabrics (of "Project Runway" fame), says that this has to do with the fact that deadstock fabrics are inherently limited in quantity.

"The problem is that it's a one-off," Yudekovitz says over the phone. "If our customers are doing something they expect to repeat later on, it's a big no-no."

Since some of B&J's major clients are theater companies that may produce variations on the same costume for years — think something like "The Lion King," which has been on Broadway for over a decade — having fabrics that designers know they can return to buy consistently is important. For some large fashion brands, the same is true, as being able to make sizable quantities of the same garment or re-make a bestseller for next season is a priority.

Interestingly, the quantity limits that can present a challenge to bigger brands is part of what makes deadstock perfect for smaller labels that want to create a product that feels exclusive and unrepeatable. Whether he obtains it from mills, stockhouses in Italy and France or directly from designers, Yudekovitz notes that he does on occasion purchase deadstock for B&J when he's able to find really unique fabrications.

"If you own it and make that part of your mission as a designer, it's a lot easier to say to a boutique, 'Look, I can only give you 35 jackets like this and I can't get you any more after that because that's the nature of what we do,'" Yudekovitz explains.

He adds that it's possible to get deadstock from big-name designers, too, which can add brand value. Sure, Gucci may not release fabric until 10 years have passed since its runway debut, but Gucci fabric from 2007 is still Gucci fabric. Access to that kind of quality and unique fabrication can be enticing for smaller labels, especially since deadstock often comes at a discounted price.

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Still, there are other challenging aspects of working with deadstock that have kept it from being many designers' first choice in the past. Unlike newly fabricated textiles, it's not always as easy to know what exactly you're getting when you purchase deadstock.

"You typically don't have all the fabric information you have for new stock," Kathleen Talbott, VP of Sustainability at Reformation, says via email. "We don't even know exact content, let alone how it may shrink or behave. Sourcing deadstock, searching for discrepancies in the materials or going out to test for quality... takes time and a certain expertise."

In spite of these hurdles, many brands — Reformation included — have become excited about using deadstock in recent years for one simple reason: "There's nothing more sustainable," Talbott says. "We're giving a second life to fabric that was destined for the landfill." As customer demand for environmentally responsible clothing grows, deadstock is becoming an increasingly appealing option for many.

Tanya Ramlaoui, designer and founder of three-year-old clothing line Aoui, confirms this. "More than 15 million tons of textile waste is generated in the United States alone each year, yet only 15 percent of that actually gets recycled," Ramlaoui asserts. "I noticed a lot of wasted fabric that would accumulate at the end of each season during my years designing for other apparel companies. I wanted to reuse what we had in the warehouse, wondering why we needed to source new silk chiffon when we had piles of rolls dusting away."

Independently verifying what would really happen to that unused fabric if it wasn't purchased by brands like Aoui and Reformation is tricky. Claims are often made about these textiles being burned or trashed, but designers and mills who have fabric to get rid of are unlikely to admit to such practices, aware of the PR nightmare that such blatant wastefulness would present.

"I think it's pretty rare for it to go truly unpurchased," Yudekovitz says. "I know for secondhand clothing, remainders often go to foreign countries if they can't be sold here. I imagine with fabric it's sort of the same thing." He adds that some brands even purposely send their leftovers to somewhere like Australia, where they can still fetch high prices but are less likely to end up featured in the lines of a brand's direct competitors.

Still, he adds that with cheaper fabrics in particular, it wouldn't be surprising to learn that some deadstock gets disposed of rather than reused. "If you've got fabric that has a retail value of $3, shipping that out to California will add so much cost into it that it might not be worthwhile," he says.

Since the Reformations and Aouis of the world are using more expensive fabrics, it's perhaps a bit of a stretch to claim that they're directly keeping textiles out of landfills; a deadstock floral print not purchased by an American brand like Reformation would probably just end up being shipped to another country and used there. But in a broader sense, these brands' participation in the secondhand fabric market does make a dent in textile pollution in the same way that purchasing thrifted clothing does. Sure, if you hadn't bought those Goodwill jeans, someone else might have — but if no one was willing to reuse Goodwill jeans, they'd eventually get thrown out. Normalizing and even celebrating deadstock usage the way Reformation does can set an example that encourages other brands to follow suit.

So, is deadstock the future of sustainable fashion? The quantity limits and sourcing challenges will keep it from ever becoming an option for mega-retailers that work on a massive scale. But for smaller and midsize brands looking to minimize their impact, deadstock may be one of the best bets.

"It all goes back to the idea of reducing and reusing as the first places to start in tackling waste," Talbott says. "It's something we think is worth the effort."

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