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What is the local fashion industry doing about its overproduction?

by | Aug 7, 2023

Too much of anything is hardly ever a good thing and excess inventory, or so-called dead stock is no different. What to do with surplus garments, textiles, footwear or the stock that gets returned to retailers but can’t be resold has become a growing environmental concern.

The waste of raw materials, the energy costs of production and the high likelihood for dumping and incineration are all bad news for the planet. It’s also a business management headache and speaks to the systemic challenges caused by oversupply.

Two South African organisations are among those trying to come up with solutions and to tick the boxes for social impact while they’re at it. Clothes to Good in Centurion, Gauteng and Taking Care of Business (TCB) based in Cape Town, which was previously known as The Clothing Bank, work on innovative models to give surplus goods a new life of usefulness and along the way to help create jobs, especially for vulnerable communities. They also indirectly raise the awareness for recycling, repurposing and the need to close the gaps in production and marketing that lead to oversupply, overconsumption and wastefulness.

For both organisations their models involve recovering goods from retailers and other donors then sorting them into different streams either for charity, disposal, or to be remade or up-cycled into new items. These could be the likes of rugs from t-shirts or kitchen gloves and aprons from dissembled denims. After processing the new items are ready for a whole new market.

A woman at Clothes To GoodPhoto: Clothes to Good

Key to the concept for both organisations is being able to create sustainable livelihoods for those who are unemployed and, in the case of Clothes to Good, to people with disabilities who have challenges finding work easily.

Both organisations have been tackling clothing waste for over a decade. TCB now has offices across the country and according to their statistics they have diverted 16.45 million clothes from landfill on behalf of major retailers over this period. “Our relationship with our retail partners is collaborative. Our intentions are to support a healthy planet and to grow our social foundation. We provide a local solution to our retail partners to manage their surplus stock,” says Tracey Gilmore, co-founder of TCB.

We provide a local solution to our retail partners to manage their surplus stock

She adds: “Unsold stock [of what is made from the recovered excess stock] is not a problem experienced by our micro-entrepreneurs. They select quality, in-demand products, and they understand their market. TCB does have ‘dead stock’ sitting on our shelves but a portion of this is donated to charities and we have recruited 50 seamstresses into our Remake Programme.” She says despite challenges for recycling or repurposing some items, such as footwear, they haven’t had to shred or dump any clothing.

A woman at Taking Care of BusinessPhoto: Taking Care of Business

Tracey also notes that in recent years the volumes of oversupply garments they receive has reduced. She says it’s a positive sign that retailers are improving on planning and business models. “The main reason for this, which we respect, is that they are focusing on improving the quality of their clothing. This reduces textile waste, adds value to their consumers and extends the life of their products.”

She says though that the real pressures from mounting clothing waste in South Africa is not driven by local retailers but rather by the practice of dumping imported garments and textile on South African shores. She says hundreds of tons of confiscated garments will turn to “waste” being stuck in SARS warehouses around the country.

The real pressures from mounting clothing waste in South Africa is not driven by local retailers but rather by the practice of dumping imported garments and textile on South African shores

In the case of Clothes to Good their model has focused on partnership with fast fashion brand H&M. They give a second life to clothing amassed through their in-store take-back programmes. Jesse Naidoo, founder of Clothes to Good, says one critical strategy they employ is to encourage micro-business owners to focus of good quality in their up-cycled items. It pays off and he says: “We do not get many items back from micro-businesses because the quality of the pre-loved clothes is always at its best,” he says. But he adds that they have a no questions asked swap policy to ensure that there is movement of stock.

Maintaining quality means clothes that are of lower quality or need minor repairs are donated to one of the 10 non-profit Clothes to Good partners. These 10 organisations repair and re-use the clothes.

“Some of the worn-out clothes are sorted and dissembled. We remove buttons, zips and elastic, and then the clothes are baled and down-cycled into fibre at Connacher [Durban-based textile recycler] which serves the motor and mattress industries,” Jesse says.

He adds that down-cycling, however, is costly and difficult to sustain, which means they strive instead to reuse and up-cycle as much as possible. They also have an agreement that if excess supply items have to be destroyed it is the retailer who must foot the bill. It’s an incentive, he says, for retailers to produce just what the market demands. “Some of our retail customers are paying us to responsibly up-cycle because to down-cycle is costly and affects their margins. So this is a good reason to limit excess stock.”

Three women entrepreneurs at Taking Care of BusinessPhoto: Taking Care of Business

The two organisations represent innovative and socially impactful enterprise models that address stock management headaches and the waste and overconsumption crises. But there remains the questions of retailers needing to take greater responsibility for managing stock better and also to reform and innovate their business models to minimise overproduction and to encourage more responsible consumption.

Alison Lloyd is Woolworths’ sustainability and packaging manager. She says the retailer has tackled oversupply in a number of ways. “Woolworths is ensuring that our goods last, and do not have any quality or fit defects. We also work closely with our raw materials suppliers to ensure they have the same focus. Regular customer engagement along with trend research also ensures that we are stocking the most wanted items at all times to reduce markdowns and unwanted stock,” she says.

Another strategy Woolworths uses it to manage store size and stock ratio. They also focus on stocking seasonally relevant products and to manage schedules accordingly. Alison says proper scheduling is essential. She explains: “For example if puffer jackets run late for winter, they would need to go onto markdown if they cannot be stored till the following winter.”

For Cape Union Mart, that specialises in outdoor apparel, the strategies for less waste from their various manufacturing streams has included donations of offcuts to be recycled into car mats, used in their sewing school and the company uses smarter fabric marker efficiency.

Senior Buyer Mari Crause says better marker efficiency has seen fabric utilisation go up from 82% to 90%. They’ve also been able to use up smaller pieces of fabric for items like beans and bags. She adds: “We have included small gear pouches in our markers so that we can make up the pouches in our own factory – doing this helps train our new machinists in our training school.”

There is growing awareness among retailers that the grim hitch at the end of the line – when stock supply turns to excess and then to waste – has its origins at the top end of the chain. There’s still more to be done but and the starting point is as good a place as any to make the right changes.

  • Cover image: Photograph supplied by Taking Care of Business
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