Explainer: Why fast fashion brands destroy unsold clothes

One truckload of perfectly wearable textiles is dumped in landfills or incinerated every second. Why? And what is being done to challenge the fashion trade’s wasteful business model?

Destroying Unused Clothes Fast Fashion
Destroying unsold clothes is a cost-effective way to prevent the erosion of brand value. Image: Freepik

Fast fashion is fast in more ways than one.

The rate of production is fast; the customer’s decision to purchase is fast; product delivery is fast; and the rate of disposal of garments is fast – items are usually worn only a few times before they are thrown away.

The word “fast” also reflects the rapid pace at which the fashion industry is growing. 

Over the past year, the global fast fashion market soared from US$106.42 billion in 2022 to US$122.98 billion in 2023 at a compound annual growth rate of 15.6 per cent. 

An aspirational middle class in populous regions such as Asia, combined with a boom in e-commerce, is responsible for much of this growth, along with cheaper, speedier manufacturing and shipping methods. 

China, for example, has become the world’s biggest fashion market, overtaking the United States in 2019. Greater China accounts for a fifth of Japanese retail giant Uniqlo’s global revenue. The company’s sales in Greater China rose almost 27 per cent in the 2017-2018 fiscal year to more than US$4 billion.

Clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014, while the number of garments purchased per capita between 2000 and 2014 increased by about 60 per cent, according to McKinsey & Company

Asia, with its abundance of raw materials such as cotton, produces more than half of the world’s fabrics and textiles. China produces more than a quarter of these textiles.

Across nearly every apparel category, consumers keep clothing items about half as long as they did 15 years ago. Some estimates suggest that consumers treat the lowest-priced garments as disposable, discarding them after merely seven or eight wears.

Fast fashion has also become a major air polluter. Producing clothes consumes natural resources and generates planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

Overall, the fashion industry is responsible for 8-10 per cent of global emissions, according to the United Nations – more than the aviation and shipping industries combined. 

As such, the European Union has recently announced that it will clamp down on fast fashion. Among the policies proposed is a ban on the destruction of unsold textiles

What are fast fashion brands doing about their unsold clothes?

It is an open secret that fast fashion brands destroy their unsold clothes.

A team of journalists from the Danish television programme Operation X revealed in 2017 that the Swedish brand H&M had been burning up to 12 tonnes of clothing a year since 2013

In 2010, The New York Times also ran a story about a cache of trash bags containing unsold H&M clothing that had been trashed behind the H&M store on 35th Street in New York. More unworn shredded clothes were found in the trash of a Wal-Mart contractor nearby. 

H&M subsequently issued a statement saying that it will no longer destroy unused items.

Even luxury brands have been found guilty of destroying unsold goods. 

In July 2018, Burberry reportedly burned unsold stock worth millions of dollars. In its annual report, the brand revealed that it had destroyed unsold goods worth up to US$37 million. Louis Vuitton, Coach, Michael Kors, and Juicy Couture have also been linked to the practice. 

Burning and shredding are the two most popular ways for fashion brands to destroy their unused clothes, followed by landfilling. To circumvent regulations in their own jurisdictions, some brands export their unused clothes to developing countries to be destroyed. 

One town in India, Panipat, specialises in shredding discarded clothes, for example.

Why do fast fashion brands not recycle their unsold clothes?

The main reason why brands destroy their unsold clothes is because of how cost-inefficient it is to recycle them. The fact is that most clothes are simply not meant to be recycled, Timo Rissasen, associate professor at the University of Technology, Sydney, writes in an opinion piece for The Conversation, a network of not-for-profit media outlets

Even a seemingly simple garment may contain several materials, with fibre blends such as cotton/polyester and cotton/elastane being prevalent, making recycling a Herculean task.

Different fibres seldom have the same capacities for recycling. Natural fibres, such as wool or cotton, can be recycled mechanically. In this process, the fabric is shredded and re-spun into yarn, from which new fabric can be woven or knitted.

However, the fibres become shorter through the shredding process, resulting in lower quality yarn and cloth. Recycled cotton is often mixed with virgin cotton to ensure a better quality of yarn. 

Most fabrics are also dyed with chemicals, which can have implications for recycling. If the original fabric is a mixture of many colours, the new yarn or fabric will likely require bleaching. 

A complex garment, like a lined jacket, easily contains more than five different materials, as well as trims including buttons and zippers. If the goal of recycling is to arrive at a material as close to the original as possible, the garment’s components would first need to be separated. This process is manpower-intensive and can cost a lot of money.

It is also expensive to have clothes transported to garment recycling centres. It is therefore often easier to shred the garment and turn it into a low-quality product, which can be used for insulation, for instance. A report by Bloomberg reveals that less than 1 per cent of used clothing gets recycled into new clothing.

Fast fashion brands also have a financial incentive to destroy unused items to avoid paying inventory tax. Inventory tax must be paid by business owners on items that remain unsold at the end of the year. In essence, all damaged inventory can be considered a tax write-off. 

Another reason why brands destroy unused textiles is to protect their exclusivity and avoid devaluing their brand image. This is especially so for luxury fashion brands. 

Luxury fashion is worn as a status symbol, so burning excess inventory — as opposed to selling it at a discount — maintains the brand’s value and sense of exclusivity.

Many brands are also afraid of the “grey market” where genuine designer goods are bought cheaply and resold by others. In one case, Richemont, the parent company of high-end watch brands such as Cartier and Montblanc, was mired in controversy after it destroyed more than US$494 million of designer timepieces in a bid to stop them from being sold by unauthorised vendors.

What are fashion brands in Asia doing to mitigate their environmental impact? 

ZERRIN, Singapore and Southeast Asia’s first marketplace curating exclusively independent and sustainable designers, says that it operates largely on a consignment model. 

Under this arrangement, no waste is left over from their online sales or pop-up events and any unsold product remains the property of the brands. 

“Over the years, many of our brands have found creative ways to upcycle past collections or products that have not sold well, including turning leftover fabric into accessories, like hats, bags or jewellery,” said Susannah Jaffer, founder and chief executive of ZERRIN. 

TELAstory, a clothing design, sourcing, and manufacturing collective based in the Philippines, says that it does not send its unsold garments to landfill. They are either converted into new products such as hats and tote bags, or are donated directly to local communities in the Philippines in the event of disasters like floods and fires.

“Even the tiniest textile scraps are turned into usable and sellable products, in collaboration with the artisan communities we work with around the Philippines,” said Hannah Neumann, co-founder of TELAstory. 

Ms Semun Ho, chief executive of the Singapore Fashion Council, says that it takes two hands to clap. As fast fashion brands reinvent themselves, consumers must also do their part to support sustainable fashion. 

“This is why as part of our Fashion Sustainability Programme at Singapore Fashion Council, we do a lot of school outreach where we educate youth about sustainability,” said Ms Ho.

“We also promote consumer education where we encourage them to extend the lifespan of one clothing, or learn to upcycle the clothing,” she added.

Most popular

Featured Events

Publish your event
leaf background pattern

Transforming Innovation for Sustainability Join the Ecosystem →