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Recently, I participated in a very insightful activity at the office of a fabric manufacturer. With other volunteers, I helped to remove labels which contained sensitive pricing and product information from thousands of pieces of cloth samples.  The labels contained proprietary info – if the labels were not removed, the samples would have had to be bagged and thrown into the landfill to prevent the info from being passed to competitors.  After we removed the labels, these samples were instead given away free-of-charge for up-cycling into usable items such as cushion covers, clothes, bags, dolls etc.

Being ordinary consumers, we normally only see the waste from fast fashion after an item has been purchased.  For example, the used clothes collection box in my building is always overflowing to such an extent that the property management recently decided to replace it with one double the size. Shopping it seems is therapy and we need plenty of it.

While we were removing these labels by hand, the organiser (who had successfully convinced his family business to give away these cloth samples rather than throwing them away) shared his insider knowledge of the hidden waste in the fashion industry:

Every season, fashion designers and their sourcing agents design numerous styles of clothing.  Those shortlisted require sourcing of material for making samples, some for the buyers and designers to choose from, others for conducting product testing. To take one international clothing brand as an example – each season over a 1000 styles are produced for their men, women and children’s wear collections.  Each style usually comes in multiple colours which requires its own sample. Over 10,000 yards of cloth are used each season just to make samples for one brand.

After finalising the style and the colour selection, the next stage involves mass production where more cloth is wasted at each and every stage of the manufacturing process. The greater the variety of styles and colours, the greater the amount of waste produced. To drive consumption, the fashion industry is constantly invoking the ideas of “personal style” and keeping our wardrobe “up to date”. To what end? And at what cost to the environment?

The Clean by Design initiative promoted by Natural Resources Defense Council(NRDC) is trying to address the issue of waste in the supply chain:

“Through extensive hands-on research in China, NRDC has developed 10 practical, inexpensive, easy-to-implement best practices for textile mills that significantly reduce water, energy and chemical use, thereby improving manufacturing efficiency. In fact, in nearly all cases, NRDC’s best practices pay themselves back in less than a year. Designers, retailers and brands can reduce the footprint of their global supply chain by encouraging or requiring mills to adopt these improvements and reward those that do so with more business.”

When I mentioned this initiative to the organizer – whose family business owns factories in mainland China – he told me that he has never heard of it. He further went on to explain that the profit margins of textile mills have been depressed since the rise of fast fashion – which is all about “cheap, fast and quantity”. As such, the mills owners are not willing or able to invest in implementing any of these best practices. 

Even though his family business relies on sales to the fashion industry, his advice for consumers is to simply “say no to fast fashion, and go for good quality clothing which will last”.