How Retailers are Dealing with the Lockdown Apparel Mountain


Before COVID-19 restrictions came into effect, many of us were preparing to splash out on new pieces for our summer wardrobes, in anticipation of jetting off on foreign holidays. Retailers were at our service, to provide an array of choice for the latest summertime fashion trends. And then suddenly, everything came to a halt.

Walking past clothing stores, with the shutters down, the lights turned off, and all the clothes still hanging on the racks, it got me thinking, ‘What is going to happen to all those clothes?’.

With clothing brands so heavily reliant on the summer fashion season, a mountain of unsold apparel has piled up in stores, distribution centres, warehouses, factories and even shipping containers. So, the question being asked is ‘What are retailers doing to cope with their unsold mounds of clothes?’

Online and Discount Sales

The most obvious way in which retailers have managed to relieve some of the pressures of selling their stock, is through online channels. Online clothes sales have skyrocketed since strict social distancing measures inhibited our trips to the shopping centre. However, for brands who do not have online platforms, the situation has been quite the opposite.

A well-known UK high-street fashion brand, went from making £650 million a month, to making £0. This resulted in the brand having piles of unsold stock worth £284 million. Many other labels, who are also without an online presence, have implemented large discount sales to shift excess stock. But, for brands whose prices are already so cheap that they would not make a profit from further reductions, they have sought alternative solutions for tackling their apparel mountains.

Increase in Landfill Waste?

Initially, I was worried that the pile up of clothes would lead to a huge surplus of wares being sent to landfills, or even being burnt. The shocking revelation disclosed by a luxury fashion brand in their 2018 annual report, was that approximately £28.6 million of unsold stock was dealt with by burning. Due to public backlash, the company is now banning this practice from 2023 onwards, and have since been the only major luxury brand name to announce their plans for how they are dealing with their COVID-19 lockdown overstock.

Other popular retailers have declined to comment on their strategies of how they are dealing with the masses of unsold stock.

Although, there is not much written about landfill statistics from this year, you can be sure it is still going on. However, there are some positive strategies being put into effect. Here are some I have found:

  • Donations to charity shops, third-party retailers and clearance stores

The overproduction of seasonal items is a common practice in the fashion industry; they expect half of the stock to be sold full price, and the other half to be discounted in end-of-season sales. This strategic overproduction happens because it is cheaper to produce larger quantities with factory deals. Thus, many companies are donating more low-priced items to clearance stores and third-party retailers. This way more clothing pieces will ultimately find a buyer, and less will end up in the dump.

  • “Surprise boxes”

One company has set up a scheme that distributes surprise boxes to customers, which not only help to prevent unsold clothes from being sent to landfill sites, but also give proceeds to vulnerable factory workers.

Due to COVID-19, their work has been jeopardized by brands cancelling huge clothes orders that were ready for shipping. Cancelled shipments equated to over $2 billion worth of clothes, left in factories, which resulted in manufacturers receiving little to no payment for the clothes they already had spent money on producing.

The “surprise box” scheme works by asking customers a few questions about their style choices, providing a few items of clothing at 50% less than their usual RRP and giving the proceeds directly to the garment workers and their families.

Next year’s lines and repurposed winter and autumn lines

There are plans from big clothing labels to either reallocate fabrics from existing clothes to autumn and winter clothing, or to move their stock to next year’s clothing lines.

This is a huge statement from brands that under normal circumstances produce apparel that encourages people to keep buying the latest model, as previous models are labelled as “out of fashion”. The cancellation of major fashion shows has helped to slow down the pace of new trends, which usually convince consumers they need that new trend instantly.

Lessons Learnt

The mass production of clothing has spent the last 5 months staring the fashion industry directly in the face. It has been on their doorstep, not moving anywhere. The repurposing of unsold clothes, donations to charities, banning of burning practices and creation of “surprise boxes” highlights that when the world has faced unprecedented changes, the way to correct it has been to follow a more sustainable approach.

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