The fashion industry operates in a shroud of uncertainty regarding the sheer volume of clothing produced annually and the staggering amount that remains unsold, destined for landfill or incineration. This lack of transparency hampers efforts to mitigate the industry’s carbon footprint effectively, akin to solving a puzzle in darkness.

Estimates indicate a production range of 80 billion to 150 billion garments yearly, with between 10% and 40% left unsold, representing a potential surplus of 8 billion to 60 billion garments—an alarming disparity.

“Production volumes represent a really important opportunity to bring honesty back into the conversation,” says Liz Ricketts, the co-founder and executive director of the Or Foundation, an environmental justice charity based in Ghana. “It’s a data point that everyone has accessible to them. It’s just about companies being willing to share it.”

Recognising that transparency regarding production volumes is paramount in addressing fashion’s environmental impact, the Or Foundation launched the Speak Volumes campaign, urging brands to disclose their 2022 production figures. Though 32 small- and medium-sized businesses have participated, major industry players have remained silent.

“The reason they don’t really like to talk about how much product they have is because it’s the dirty secret of the industry,” says Francois Souchet, a circular economy and sustainability strategist. “There’s likely to be a huge public backlash when people understand how much product is not sold.”

At Ghana’s Kantamanto market, where the Or Foundation supports a community dealing in discarded Western clothing, approximately 40% of textile bales end up as waste. This reality prompts calls for a 40% reduction in new clothing production over five years, a goal attainable only through visibility of production volumes.

“It just feels like bad business,” says Ricketts. “Why did you make so much extra stuff?”

Overproduction stems from various factors, including manufacturers’ minimum order requirements, a rapid retail cycle driven by frequent new releases, and an inability to gauge market demand accurately. While technologies like AI-driven demand prediction and made-to-order models offer solutions, their adoption remains limited.

“On top of all that, brands are afraid of missing out on a sale, so they always order too much, rather than not enough,” says Souchet.

The industry’s wasteful practices underscore a systemic issue where disposable fashion thrives in affluent societies, shielded by opaque supply chains.

“There’s a lot of human toil that goes into our clothes, from the cotton picking, spinning and weaving to the garment workers and how often they don’t see their children because of the hours they work,” says Christina Dean, the founder of the anti-waste charity Redress. “To have those pieces trashed in such an uncaring way signifies how misaligned we are to our fellow people in this world.”

Despite 78% of brands expressing intentions to reduce overproduction, clarity on what constitutes overproduction remains a hurdle.

But according to Holly Syrett, GFA’s impact programmes and sustainability director, respondents cited a lack of clarity about what overproduction means as a barrier to tackling it.

“We define overproduction in quite a simple way,” she says. “When a company buys or produces more stock than it can sell, leaving stock that is then sold at a discount, resold to other parties or potentially destroyed. The feedback we received was that our definition isn’t specific enough.”

However, overproduction is just one facet of the issue, says Ricketts: “We try to use the language of ‘oversupply’ more than ‘overproduction’, because we’re talking about the marketing mechanisms used to push oversupply on to consumers. Brands are manufacturing demand in the same way they manufacture too many clothes.

Relentless marketing, including social media campaigns and perpetual discounts, fuels overconsumption—a critical contributor to the industry’s carbon footprint.

“If we say, conservatively, 60% to 70% of garments get sold, that’s where the bulk of the emissions are,” says Souchet.

To align with the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature increases to 1.5°C, the fashion industry must halve its emissions by 2030. Achieving this requires a 60% reduction in consumption across high-income G20 countries.

Proposed Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes, including modest levies on each item produced, aim to address the environmental impact of fashion.

“Rapid and radical changes in production and legislation are critical,” says Lewis Akenji, the managing director of Hot or Cool. “Extending producer responsibility [EPR] for fashion brands into the post-use phase is a promising path … but it should not be a burden-shifting mechanism.”

Yet, advocates argue that higher levies are necessary to induce meaningful change. Ensuring that EPR funds benefit communities grappling with textile waste, such as those in Ghana, is essential for equitable solutions.

Since overproduction makes sense from an economic perspective, says Souchet, the sum would need to be “significant” to change the industry. Ricketts says it is critical that EPR legislation ensures the funds raised reach communities like those in Ghana that are shouldering the burden of textile waste.

“How do we think we are going to transition to circularity by continuing to pump out this endless oversupply of product? It’s not possible,” she adds. “Policies have to take production volumes into account. No matter how much innovation or money brands pump into solutions [such as textile recycling], we won’t be successful if we don’t slow down.”



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