Fashion’s Dirty Secret: The Excess Garments Hidden in Warehouses and Landfills

Fashion's Dirty Secret: The Excess Garments Hidden in Warehouses and Landfills

The fashion industry’s environmental impact is exacerbated by the staggering amount of unsold garments that end up in waste. The lack of transparency surrounding production volumes hinders efforts to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint.

In the world of fast fashion, the production and consumption of clothing have reached unprecedented levels. However, a hidden crisis lies beneath the glitz and glamour of the industry: the excess garments that remain unsold in warehouses or are destined for landfill. The lack of data on the number of unsold garments poses a significant challenge in addressing the fashion industry’s environmental impact. Without this information, efforts to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint are akin to solving a puzzle in the dark.

The Scale of the Problem:

Estimates suggest that between 80 billion and 150 billion garments are produced annually, with 10% to 40% of these garments left unsold. This staggering disparity translates to potentially 8 billion to 60 billion excess garments each year. The need for transparency regarding production volumes is crucial in understanding and tackling the environmental problems caused by the fashion industry.

The Speak Volumes Campaign:

Recognizing the importance of transparency, the Or Foundation, an environmental justice charity based in Ghana, launched the Speak Volumes campaign in November. This initiative urges fashion brands to disclose the number of units they produced in 2022. While 32 small- and medium-sized businesses have participated, major players in the industry have yet to join.

The Dirty Secret of Overproduction:

The reluctance of fashion brands to disclose their production volumes stems from a fear of public backlash. Overproduction has become the industry’s dirty secret, with potentially billions of unsold garments hidden from consumers. The consequences of overproduction are evident in places like Kantamanto market in Accra, Ghana, where approximately 40% of every bale of textiles ends up as waste. The Or Foundation calls for a 40% reduction in the production of new clothes over five years, a goal that can only be achieved with visibility of production volumes.

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Reasons for Overproduction:

The overproduction of garments stems from various factors, including manufacturers’ insistence on minimum order quantities, the fast retail cycle driven by frequent deliveries, and a failure to accurately gauge market demand. Additionally, the current manufacturing system incentivizes volume, as larger orders result in lower production costs. Brands also fear missing out on sales, leading them to order more than necessary.

The Human Cost of Waste:

The excessive waste in the fashion industry reflects the disposable nature of clothing in affluent countries. It also highlights the hidden and misunderstood supply chains that consumers rarely consider. Behind every garment lies a chain of human toil, from cotton pickers to garment workers. Trashing these pieces signifies a misalignment with the well-being of fellow global citizens.

Addressing the Issue:

While 78% of fashion brands claim to have targets to reduce overproduction, a lack of clarity on what constitutes overproduction hinders progress. The Global Fashion Agenda defines overproduction as buying or producing more stock than can be sold, resulting in discounted sales, reselling, or potential destruction. The industry must acknowledge that overproduction is not solely about excess stock but also about the marketing mechanisms that drive oversupply.

The Role of Overconsumption:

Overconsumption is the other side of the coin, with purchased garments accounting for the majority of the industry’s carbon footprint. To meet the Paris agreement goal of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, the fashion industry must halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. This will require a 60% reduction in consumption in high-income countries.

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The Need for Legislation and Responsibility:

To curb production and consumption rates, pending European legislation on extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes is crucial. EPR schemes propose financial levies on producers and a responsibility to manage a product’s end of life through initiatives such as recycling, upcycling, rental, resale, and repair. However, industry experts argue that the levies must be significant to drive meaningful change, and the funds raised must benefit communities burdened by textile waste.


The fashion industry’s excessive production and consumption patterns have resulted in an environmental crisis. Addressing this crisis requires transparency, legislation, and a shift in consumer behavior. The Speak Volumes campaign and pending EPR schemes are steps in the right direction, but true progress will only be achieved when production volumes are acknowledged, overconsumption is curbed, and responsibility is shared throughout the supply chain. The fashion industry must slow down and transition to circularity to create a sustainable future.