January 22, 2024 • By The UCI Paul Merage School of Business
In 2018, news outlets around the world reported that Burberry, a luxury fashion brand, destroyed £28.6 million ($38 million) worth of unsold inventory. Although the company insisted the heat and pollution generated from burning the products was captured to avoid environmental damage, the reporting raised public concern about the wastefulness of this practice.
But for Luyi Gui, this kind of story is nothing new. She’s been studying waste reduction and sustainable operations for more than 10 years. “In the past, I’ve looked into waste management and reduction for electronics and technological devices, which tends to have more legislation around it,” she said. “But the fashion waste problem has not been addressed to the same extent.”
In Waste Not Want Not? The Environmental Implications of Quick Response and Upcycling, Gui and her research partner, Xiaoyang Long of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, delve into two of the most common ways the fashion industry attempts to address overproduction, one of its “biggest environmental issues.” These approaches are known as quick response and upcycling.
“Quick response is widely adopted in the fashion industry—in particular, the fast-fashion marketplace,” Gui explained. “Before quick response came onto the scene, the fashion industry was like most businesses. It tried to predict in advance what consumers would want before manufacturing anything. It used a traditional supply-and-demand approach with a long lead time.”
About 30 years ago, some brands experimented with reversing the sequence. Instead of aiming to predict fashion trends, which are notoriously difficult to keep up with, they sat back and observed what consumers wanted. Then, using rapid manufacturing techniques, they responded as quickly as possible to catch those trends.
And it worked. It worked well. This clothing-on-demand approach resulted in fewer clothing items that do not sell, and appeared to be a promising solution to overproduction.
Upcycling is an even newer solution. It was born from the conundrum that textiles and unsold clothing cannot be recycled the way aluminum, plastic, and other materials can, and even if they can technically, recycling brand-new fabric and garments remains wasteful. In recent years, hundreds of innovative upcycling projects have popped up, and their answer to the problem is simple but impactful: collect unused fabric and unsold clothing and repurpose it. This can include using bolts of fabric to make patchwork blankets, transforming jeans into a denim skirt, making coasters out of scraps of material, and so on.
“During the pandemic, people made hospital gowns and face coverings out of deadstock,” Gui said. “That’s a great example of how creative and resourceful upcycling can be.”
Today, brands like LVMH, Gucci, Adidas, Jacquemus, and others engage in upcycling or quick response to reduce overproduction and waste. Even NGOs subscribe to these approaches as acceptable solutions to the fashion industry’s ugly side. But Gui and Long wanted to dig deeper into these practices. They wanted to know if potential downsides were being overlooked.
“As researchers, we wanted to look for any hidden implications of these solutions,” Gui said. “We know that quick response and upcycling are good for reducing waste in the later stages of the supply chain, but what about the earlier stages? Are we missing any issues there?”
Indeed we are. Their research found that, although quick response and upcycling reduce the deadstock of finished products, they can result in an increased demand for fabric from the early-stage supply chain, and can even generate more deadstock fabric—fabric that never gets used. In other words, brands end up with material no one wants because they ordered large amounts of fabric far in advance. This is not good news because fabric manufacturing is a highly polluting and resource-demanding process.
“To do quick response, you have to have textiles ready on hand,” Gui explained. “So you have to stock up early to be capable of responding quickly to fashion trends. If the trends shift before you use up all the fabric you bought, you may end up with more deadstock than you might have if you stuck to a more traditional supply-and-demand manufacturing model.”
None of this is to say that quick response, upcycling, and other solutions aren’t worth doing. They aren’t perfect solutions, but according to Gui, they are a step in the right direction. “It’s the right way to think,” she said. “It’s an attempt to match supply to demand in an effort to reduce overproduction, and that’s a good thing. But we need to consider the bigger picture and examine the unintended consequences. We have to find solutions that work for the whole supply chain going all the way back to how raw materials are produced.”
For instance, growing cotton demands large quantities of water, and the parts of the world—like the Middle East—that cultivate cotton often lack plentiful water. After it’s grown and harvested, cotton still has to be washed, bleached, and dyed—all before it can be woven into fabric. These processes also require a lot of water and can be quite toxic. “This means the developing world often bears the largest environmental impact because these countries are the ones manufacturing the textiles,” Gui said. “Any ‘solution’ that demands more fabric is still very detrimental to these communities.”
And while producing natural fibers consumes a lot of resources, synthetic fabrics are usually a byproduct of oil production, which is a major culprit in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. On the post-production side of things, synthetic textiles shed microplastics into the water system when they’re washed. UNESCO estimates that between 50 trillion to 75 trillion pieces of microplastics are in the ocean today.
“Each type of fabric has its pros and cons,” Gui explained. “Cotton uses a lot of water, but it can be recycled, despite quality degradation, by shredding it and using it in towels or insulation materials. Synthetic fabrics might not use as much water, but they are difficult and expensive to recycle. We read about companies using ‘recycled’ polyester, but that often means the polyester comes from recycled plastic bottles, not from the textile itself.”
According to Gui, her study’s biggest contribution is that it provides evidence for the importance of considering the entire supply chain when creating waste-reduction solutions. It’s not enough to examine waste from finished goods manufacturing and consumption; industries must take into account premanufacturing stages such as demand and waste in raw materials as well.
For governments and NGOs, the lesson is that subsidizing quick response, upcycling, and similar techniques could hurt more than it helps from a global perspective because it ignores a major portion of the supply chain. “Lawmakers need to have a whole set of policies to account for the complicated and nuanced challenge of reducing fashion waste,” said Gui. “One or two solutions that target only part of the fashion supply chain will not be enough.”
For consumers, the message is that cutting consumption has a paramount impact on reducing fashion waste. Inexpensive, low-quality clothing tends to be the biggest culprit, so buying fewer of those types of products can make the most difference.
“When you do purchase clothes, try to buy items made from organic natural fibers. Those tend to consume fewer resources and cause less pollution,” Gui suggested. “That said, such clothing is typically much more expensive than fast-fashion products, so low-income families often don’t have the means to buy it. Again, it’s a very complex problem.”
Gui’s hope is that with studies like hers, the fashion industry, policymakers, and consumers will all gain a better understanding of where current solutions fall short and where improvements need to be made. Then, with better understanding, we can come up with more innovative and effective solutions. Newer movements like extended producer responsibility (EPR) for textile recycling and repair look promising, and California is looking to launch the first such program in the US. Also, more and more brands are establishing buyback programs and exploring ways to make existing resale models more profitable.
“The magic wand is in the consumers’ hands, though. We consumers will have to change our attitude and behavior because overproduction cannot be curbed with overconsumption,” Gui said. “However, government policy is an important part of the equation because it reflects what matters to the public and has the power to offer incentives or enforce restrictions. The good news is that even small changes can make a big difference because of the ripple effect. A shopper’s choice to buy one less brand-new article of clothing impacts the supply chain all the way back to where the raw materials are made.”
Luyi Gui is an associate professor in operations and decision technologies in the Paul Merage School of Business at UC Irvine. She has received several awards for her work in sustainable operations, and her research has been published in journals such as Management Science, Manufacturing & Service Operations Management, and Production and Operations Management.