What goes into your cycling clothes
When we put on our kit in the morning before heading out for a ride we wear the results of an incredibly complex chain of processes that creates beautiful materials all the way from seeds, or crude oil (or waste bottles and fishing nets), through to fibres, yarns, raw then finished material before finally making it into your clothes. It's a system that has been based on lowest cost and highest volume, but not one that has traditionally focussed on sustainability of the clothing we wear.
A wasteful system
If you cycle, the chances are you're probably more aware of the environment and you may well be conscious of environmental issues in general. Whilst cycling is often considered to be an incredibly environmentally friendly way to travel some of the equipment we use is definitely not. And that certainly applies to cycling clothing.
One of the issues that the industry struggles with is waste. During the manufacturing process, waste is created at every step, from reject fabrics, microfibre release in dyeing (and later in use), overproduction of material (deadstock), offcuts, unsold garments, etc etc. That’s not to mention the immensely wasteful take-make-waste model the industry is founded upon, amplified by fast-fashion and the high volume of insanely cheap clothing, which is reducing the average life of our clothing significantly, and increasing the textile waste problem.
In fact, of the 50 million (ish) tonnes of material produced year approximately 12% of that is wasted between fibre and completed garment (Ellen MacArthur Foundation).
In time we’ll be covering each of these issues, and many other associated environmental and social challenges, but this blog specifically addresses the problem of deadstock and offers some ideas for how clothing companies and mills might address it.
Deadstock materials (or surplus/overstock) are those leftover from, e.g. a production run, cancelled orders, or those that have been rejected. These may range from a few metres at the end of a roll, or can commonly be many hundreds of metres if intentionally overproduced by the mill/overordered by the factory.
How much deadstock do we produce?
With the help of information collected by Reverse Resources (2017) we’ve calculated that roughly 500,000 tonnes of deadstock material is produced every single year. Of course the qualities will vary wildly but that weight of material would be enough to make a tshirt for nearly every single person on the planet. Per Year. From deadstock textile alone.
Why is that an issue?
Every metre of fabric that is produced has a significant environmental impact. Whether that is in the form of pesticide use for cotton, land use and potential animals rights issues for merino wool, or energy and water use for synthetics such as polyester and nylon.
The industry is working hard to produce more sustainable fibres, such as recycled versions, bio-based, etc. But at other end of the equation we need to lower the amounts of material produced.
In the same way that food waste needs to become a thing of the past, so over-production of fabrics also needs to be greatly reduced.
But if a brand has overordered, or a mill has knitted/woven more than is needed then ultimately the mill can't afford to store unwanted material indefinitely. If it isn’t possible to find a buyer for it then all the energy, water, chemicals and labour that has gone into making it will go to waste in landfill or incineration.
Surely “deadstock” material has been rejected for a reason?
There’s a strong argument to make that if it’s just oversupply of fabric this isn’t true deadstock, it’s just in-stock. After all no mill wants to throw money away and they will try to sell it. In fact they may even have overproduced in order to sell the extra-over to another customer. In this case the brand will need to understand whether the “deadstock” is part of a planned over-production for resale or whether it's a result of, e.g. overordering to account for potential defects leading to a few metres/rolls at the end of the project.
True deadstock that is destined for landfill or incineration will have been rejected for a quality reason. That may be an error in colouring, in which case it’s still perfectly useable, or it could be something more sinister like the wrong chemicals used in the finishing, or the waterproofing not being adequate.
In the case of the former this is definitely a useful fabric that should and could be resold. In the case of the latter this should probably not make it on to the market but there is no law forcing mills to explain reasons for it being rejected.
The trick from a sustainability point of view is to find the materials that are either (i) genuine end-of-line (probably small quantities which introduces a different challenge for a brand), or (ii) rejected for a reason that doesn't impact the material safety or performance.
Are deadstock fabrics one way for a brand to make more their cycling clothing more sustainable?
There are so many ways a brand can make their cycling clothing more sustainable. From using the most environmentally friendly fibres, to choosing the lowest impact methods to make their sustainable materials and creating high quality sportswear that will stand the test of time, reducing the need for more clothing. The most sustainable cycling shorts are the ones that were never made.
We already know that using more sustainable fabrics can be a great starting point. Sustainable natural fibres (such as regenerative, or at the very least, organic cotton and wool, or recycled synthetics (such as recycled polyester from plastic bottles) have a much lower environmental impact. Less energy and water is used in their manufacture, as well as significantly less pesticides in the case of the natural fibres.
We set out a few ideas below for how brands can further reduce the impact of their cycling clothing, specifically with regards to textile waste:
- Instead of buying X number of garments from a factory, why not buy X metres of fabric instead, and pay an additional price for each garment that can be made from that amount. That will incentivise factories to maximise efficiency of production.
- Speak to your mills about the optimum quantities for their production runs. Smaller mills will generally be able to run smaller MoQs, but for bigger mills “It is cheaper for mills to produce extra fabric that they plan to sell at a discount than to shut the machines off after the order is fulfilled.” MELANIE DI SALVO, VIRTUE+VICE
- Actively seek out genuine deadstock fabrics for new ranges, as one way to reduce the issue of wastage. But beware, if this is a route you're looking to take do the homework and work out what you're buying, and be prepared to work in part rolls and short runs. This introduces its own logistical challenges but opens up the opportunity to run genuine one-off limited editions in your latest cycling kit.
- If you’re a brand holding deadstock material (I’m not going to lie, we have a few rolls as a result of issues with some of our previous factories) work with companies/students that can turn these into amazing products.
- Look at how you can make new eco-friendly products from returns/ end of life clothing, to keep that material in use for another time around.
- A simple step to reduce waste in the development of your cycling garments is to begin digital sampling to reduce the number of physical samples
- We're actively considering zero waste pattern cutting and how that can significantly reduce any offcuts from manufacture
- One great way to reduce deadstock (and increase efficiency in production) is for your designers to use the same qualities in multiple styles/seasons of garment. As an industry we often feel the need to introduce new fabrics for every iteration so we can sell the performance benefits. But stop-press ... most of that is marketing BS. I would prefer designers to be innovative with fewer fabrics. That will certainly make end of life recycling easier.
What can we do as consumers?
As consumers we have immense power through making conscious purchasing decisions. As a starting point whenever you're looking to replace a jersey consider whether the world really needs more jerseys? If you can't do without a new one, then put time into searching for the most sustainable cycling clothing you can find (you're probably already doing that if you're reading this blog and have got this far!).
First and foremost it has to perform when you're cycling, but there are a myriad of green alternatives on the market now. And the one you choose will be based on your personal priorities:
- If natural fibres are important for you then merino wool is likely to tick the boxes as long as the merino has been farmed in a way that is both kind to the environment whilst at the same time respecting animal rights.
- If your priority is reducing carbon emissions and resource use then consider recycled materials as your best option. Clothing made from recycled fibres is a great place to go and it won't be long before brands are able to take your old jerseys back and recycle them into brand new ones. Watch this space...
If anything in this blog has sparked your interest do feel free to contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org
CEO & Scientist