As consumers, we regularly clean out our closets to keep up with the latest trends. But as fresh new styles continuously hit the shelves, what happens to the styles that don't sell? The fashion industry’s overall environmental impact and continued push towards more sustainable practices has become top-of-mind for both consumers, brands and retailers alike. In efforts to combat the impacts, consumers and companies have been exploring innovative change, and more and more consumers are selling their clothing, either directly via platforms like Poshmark and Mercari or through programs like Lululemon’s Like New and The North Face’s Renewed. However, while these channels productively decrease waste, the challenge of unsellable inventory remains. In this article you will learn more about what happens to unwanted and unsold clothing and footwear and how pre-market product testing is helping brands work toward sustainability through informed product creation processes.
What Happens to Unwanted Clothing?
The rise of fast fashion has been contributing to discarded clothing and footwear. According to the BBC, the average American has been estimated to discard over 80 pounds of clothes every year. At the same time, consumers are buying more clothes than ever as they try to keep up with rapidly changing trends. Currently, the average American is estimated to buy an average of 64 items of clothing and 7.5 pairs of shoes per year.
Whether or not a consumer is purchasing 64 items of clothing a year or less, more clothing and footwear continues to enter wardrobes each year. The older items are left to hang in closets, or are discarded. Sustainable options for unwanted clothing still exist, including the option to donate them to local charities or even dropping them off at your local textile recycling bin. Regardless, 85% of our clothes still end up in a landfill or burned. How?
Donating your clothes is a great way to give your slightly worn clothes a second chance. However, roughly five percent of donated clothes are sent directly to landfills right away (this is mainly due to mildew issues). And if your clothes don’t end up selling at Goodwill or similar centers, they are then often donated to textile recycling centers. These textile recycling facilities are great as they repurpose textiles to be used in new products rather than end up in a landfill. But even if we tried to recycle all of our unwanted clothing, roughly 60 percent of it is not recyclable in the first place.
Why Can't Some Clothes Be Recycled?
Cost-effective and often non-renewable materials are often used to produce clothing. Much of this clothing is made from plastics which we know better as polyester, nylon, acrylic, etc. These synthetic fibers in our clothes are commonly made from crude oil and can be difficult to reuse.
According to Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART), these fibers can be processed into polyester chips; essentially plastic pellets that can become raw materials for fabrics again and used in new products. Though, while some materials can be processed into a recycled fiber, there is still a surplus of clothing being produced.
The rise of fast-fashion has changed the consumer mindset. Consumers expect their favorite brands to continuously deliver new, on-trend products, and do so for at a low prices. With consumers buying more clothes than ever, the retail footwear and apparel industry continues to meet demand. Renee Cho, staff writer for the Columbia Climate School, expands on how this demand has resulted in environmental impact which includes an estimated contribution of 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. Textile production itself is estimated to release 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year. Further, vast amounts of water are also needed to produce the clothes we wear too and the fashion industry’s processes are estimated to be responsible for upwards of 20% of global wastewater.
With the financial and environmental impacts of discarded clothing pressurizing manufactures, numerous brands and retailers have begun working ensure validated demand for new products. But what happens when brands and retailers get it wrong, and their products don’t sell as expected? As the seasons change and the latest trends die out, the unsold inventory needs to be addressed, as does the systemic challenge.
Consumers’ growing awareness of these issues - and growing interest in sustainable practices - is causing them more carefully consider their purchasing options. And the industry is responding; more companies are holding themselves accountable for their natural impact and are working towards creating more sustainable products and processes. As segments of consumers and brands both move towards a more sustainable marketplace, some companies have started pioneered new solutions such as Lululemon’s Like New and The North Face’s Renewed mentioned above, which give slightly worn clothing another chance through brand-managed reselling.
Brands have also begun producing products with more sustainable sources, too, reducing their impact by conserving natural resources and decreasing their carbon footprint. As a recent example, Allbirds is already a carbon neutral business. (In April 2021, they even open-sourced their carbon footprint tool so other companies and consumers could benefit and learn more about their impact).
We're still at the beginning of brands trying to find new ways to restore our planet, but a fundamental way companies are working towards sustainability is by utilizing pre-market product testing feedback. While some operational areas of the clothing and apparel industry have been slow to embrace technology, utilizing pre-market feedback platforms such as MESH01 is an effective first step for becoming both responsive and responsible.
How Pre-Market Product Testing Supports Sustainability Initiatives
Pre-market product feedback can be an early step in the right direction towards multiple sustainability initiatives. From understanding which product ideas to invest in to mitigating the risk of costly quality issues, pre-market product testing provides solutions for brands trying to minimize textile waste and prevent discarded overstock. Here’s how.
Concept Testing for Sustainability: To Make or Not to Make
Product testers participating in concept testing are helping brands make sure ideas are worth developing, let alone producing (let alone making major inventory commitments to). Simply put, concept testing takes away the guessing game by allowing brands to:
- Identify trends closer to market
- Understand customer preferences and key drivers of purchases
- Pass or fail product concepts before further development investments
Early in the product creation process, customer feedback is vital and the feedback obtained through concept testing sets products on paths to success. Through concept testing, brands can be confident in creating a product they know their consumers will love, with the right attributes to drive purchases. This early step also helps reduce the risks of overproducing, too, through confirming trend opportunities close to market and informing demand planning.
Product Testing for Sustainability: Getting Products Right the First Time
When an idea becomes validated by customers through pre-market concept testing, product testing then helps brands avoid market underperformance driven by quality or fit issues which result in high return rates, as well as potentially costly critical failures that can lead to recalls. Shipping goods globally and expends enormous amounts of fuel, and recalling products and product returns has potential significant environmental hazards. The increased use of fossil fuels, plastic wrapping, etc. contribute to production and consumption and inevitably, waste.
Product testing has allowed brands to meet customer expectations while becoming more sustainable through product creation. A great recent example is the innovative footwear brand Kizik, who saw a 50% decrease in product returns on a key item by using the MESH01 product testing platform.
Further, product testing also gives brands the opportunity to explore different, more sustainable materials, too. Through product testing, manufacturers can effectively test how new materials may perform compared to previous ones. This can be a great way to hear back from consumers who have been using their products for years and can help inform if a switch to more sustainable materials will still meet customer expectations.
Both consumers and brands are more aware than ever of the collective impacts of production, shipping and consumption. Fortunately, product testers are eager and available to help brands figure out if they should commit to a concept and commit to an inventory purchase.
A push towards sustainability in the footwear and apparel industry is a push towards a better future for our environment and our favorite products. As consumers, our expectations are constantly morphing, and we have a growing desire for fresh new products. Through pre-market product testing, manufacturers and product developers can work with consumers to generate the information they need. They can now ensure that they are producing the right amount of the right products that are proven to perform.