Why Are Billions Of Clothes Never Even Sold?

Photo by Shaira Luna

Given that an estimated 150 billion garments are produced every single year, we know that the fashion industry produces far too many clothes. But did you know that a staggering amount of those garments – between 15 and 45 billion, according to one report – are never sold in the first place?

The main reason for this is fashion’s business model, which relies on buyers predicting the amount of product that they will sell ahead of time. Naturally, there will be leftover stock because of this – a problem that’s exacerbated by the potential financial losses involved in not having enough of the right garment. “To sell out of a product actually costs a business more than having extra product that you end up discounting,” Mairi Fairley, partner and head of retail practice at OC&C Strategy Consultants, tells Vogue. “From a business perspective, buying more is better because you don’t want to risk not having enough.”

Of course, this comes at a huge cost to the planet, considering that the fashion industry is responsible for up to eight per cent of global greenhouse emissions – not to mention other environmental impacts, such as biodiversity loss, water pollution and deforestation.

Meanwhile, there’s the enormous waste issue. In the past, luxury brands have been known to destroy unsold stock, a practice that still persists, despite now being banned in France. However, the majority of garments are shipped off to countries in the Global South, including Ghana, Kenya and Chile. While the idea is that the garments will be sold on, the vast volumes involved mean a large amount is incinerated or ends up in landfill – as evidenced by the mountain of clothes in the Atacama Desert in Chile which can be seen from space – having a devastating effect on local communities.

It’s clear that fashion needs to urgently tackle the problem. According to WGSN and OC&C Strategy’s report, retailers could decrease overproduction by 10 to 15 percent via better forecasting. “It’s about using more data and more analysis to understand what customers are actually going to buy,” Fairley says, with AI tools increasingly playing a part. Shortening production times to be responsive to what customers are actually buying is another solution, too. “One of the reasons we have to guess what consumers are going to buy is that it takes a long time to produce product,” the retail expert continues.

The mountain of clothing waste in Chile’s Atacama Desert. MARTIN BERNETTI/Getty Images

Evidently, the best way to address overproduction is by eliminating the need to guess what people are going to buy. That’s why pre-ordering has been central to Moda Operandi’s model from the start. “With pre-order, a look is only produced when there is proven demand,” April Hennig, chief merchandising officer at Moda Operandi, says. “If everyone were to shop in this way, there would be much less waste in the fashion cycle.”

While only 20 per cent of Moda Operandi’s business comes from pre-orders (its “Trunkshow” offering), the data collected during this period helps inform the product it buys for its ready-to-ship products, again helping to reduce waste. “The selling metrics are a strong predictor of what a wider audience will demand later in the life cycle,” Henning explains, adding that the brands themselves also use this data. “Our designers often use our selling reports to make decisions for their own retail stores or e-commerce shops – we are the only retailer who can provide this information prior to their factory orders being cut.”

For independent brands like Cawley Studio, the pre-order model also makes sense from a business perspective. “During lockdown I went from working in a pub to finance the brand to not having a job and moving back in with my parents,” founder Hannah Cawley explains. “Introducing made-to-order was a way for me to not spend money on fabrics or produce anything [that wouldn’t sell]. It was a more financially viable option.”

Fast forward to today, and pre-order now makes up 90 per cent of the brand’s business. Cawley says that customers have responded positively to the model, which also allows a certain degree of customisation – from the length to whether or not you want sleeves on a dress. “It’s more of a special process,” the designer says. “People feel like it’s being made for them.”

As modern-day customers are so used to instant gratification, with the rise of next-day and even same-day delivery, having to wait six weeks or more for a new garment is going to require a mindset shift for many. “Moda was founded entirely on the pre-order model, and over our 12 years in business, we’ve trained our client to shop this way,” Henning explains. “Rather than settling for something in-the-moment for an event or vacation that is just “okay”, she’d rather secure a perfect item that she is truly excited by, far ahead of time.”

Changing the way we shop – and breaking free from the cycle of overconsumption that we’re currently stuck in – will be crucial in order to tackle fashion’s overproduction problem. “As consumers we are buying more and more products,” Fairley says. “As you buy more, brands have more available – which means you’re increasing the chances of [brands] buying the wrong stuff.”

This article was originally published on British Vogue.

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