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The State of Clothing Production is a Gluttonous Mess

As a planet, we’re grossly overdressed. There is simply too much to wear, according to ShareCloth, a startup that provides technology solutions for on-demand apparel production.

The New York-based firm pulled together facts and figures from disparate sources into a single infographic, one that takes a gimlet-eyed look at clothing overproduction. Did you know, for instance, that the fashion industry produces 150 billion garments every year, which works out to roughly 20 items per person? Or that 30 percent is never sold? How about the fact more than 50 percent of fast fashion produced is disposed of within a year? Or that 12.8 million tons of clothing is trucked to landfills annually?

“The fashion industry is enormous,” ShareCloth’s Olena Rudenko wrote. “If each one of the 7.5 billion people on Earth owned only one pair of pants and one shirt, that would make 15 billion items of clothing.”

Viewed in tandem, the numbers paint a disquieting picture of today’s manufacturing landscape. Not only is there a yawning $210 billion disconnect between what consumers want and what retailers have in stores, Rudenko notes, but the economy also loses out on $460 billion every year because people are throwing out clothing they could continue to wear.

“Not only are brands producing more, customers are using large amounts of clothing for a shorter time,” she said.

But piles of surplus and unwanted clothing à la H&M’s $4.3 billion in unsold inventory isn’t just a sign retailers are missing the mark; they also bode ill for the environment. An annual 92 million tons of solid waste is produced by the fashion industry using 98 million tons of natural resources, according to statistics culled from Greenpeace. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation says textile production burps up 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse-gas emissions every year, or more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined.

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Overproduction can also weigh heavily on the economy. If business continues as usual, fashion brands will see a profit reduction of $52 billion across the industry by 2030, asserts the Global Fashion Agenda’s 2017 “ Pulse of the Fashion Industry” report. The reason? As resources become scarcer, the industry will face rising costs in everything from labor to materials to energy.

“Not only does excess output of apparel harm our planet, it is also dangerous for the economy,” Rudenko said. “Overproduction was one of the reasons for the Great Depression and the lean manufacturing approach considers overproduction to be the worst of the seven wastes in business as it obscures all the other problems with processes. Many businesses have failed because they cannot buy raw materials to service a customer because they have already put their money in producing goods that are not required.”

There are a few reasons for overproduction, per Rudenko. A growing demand for clothing in a world where everything is documented on social media and nobody wants to be seen in the same outfit twice is partly to blame, as is low-price and low-quality fast fashion, which “distorts our sense of value,” she said.

Tastes also are often wildly unpredictable, which means trend forecasters miss more often than hit, but given how cheap production is in regions like Asia, a lot of brands “prefer to overestimate future sales” by placing high-volume orders, Rudenko said. Because of this, supply often exceeds actual demand, and as a result, large quantities of clothing become heavily discounted.

“Many shoppers now anticipate those markdowns, which in turn effectively invites them to overconsume,” she said. “This is a vicious cycle: an increase in the number of clothes being produced, sold and by extension, the amount of clothing being dumped.”

These excess garments are discharged through various channels: pawned off to discounters and outlets, sold in bulk to non-competing markets, donated to charities or quietly destroyed. The haste to dominate customer’s hearts and wallets just as quickly turns to waste.

Still, ShareCloth points out at least one silver lining amid the mathematical doom and gloom. As the Global Fashion Agenda indicated in its report, the world economy can gain $182 billion annually if the fashion industry is able to successfully address its environmental and social issues.