How To Launch a Sustainable Brand Part I: Fabric Decisions, Deadstock and Upcycling

You’ve got a great idea for a new brand. Maybe it’s a niche product, like athleticwear, or something more complicated, like a contemporary designer collection. Well, before you forge ahead with the development of your brand, take into consideration this statistic from Environmental Magazine, “almost 90% of consumers see companies that support social and environmental issues in a positive light. Another 88% of customers tend to remain loyal to these businesses.”

90% of consumers! Digest that tidbit for a second before we move on.

That alone should certainly be enough for you to give some serious thought into the sustainability and socially-conscious practices of your brand. Don’t panic, you don’t need to be perfect. No one is. But if you adopt sustainability practices that work for you and your brand and follow them consistently, you will make a difference in the world.

But where to begin? We’re going to tackle that question right here.

Take a Look at Fabrics First

The most obvious place to start your sustainability practice is with the fabrics you choose. The sustainable choices here are overwhelming, and you might be tempted to simply throw in the towel (making sure it’s 100% organic cotton, of course)!

First of all, consider whether you’re using natural or manufactured fibers. Natural fibers, like cotton or wool, come from either a plant or animal source. Old school manufactured fibers, such as nylon or polyester, are made using chemicals and other synthetic processes.

However, recent advancements in textile technology have brought about a new wave of manufactured fabrics that are actually eco-friendly. The current leaders in this category are Hemp, Tencel and Recycled Polyester. What’s more, new fabrics are popping up daily, including some made of cactus, pineapple, and even coffee grounds!

Next, talk with your fabric vendor in detail about the sustainability of their product offerings. If the product they offer is sustainable, they will be proud of that fact and happily share any information with you, including industry certifications which you can then share with your customer. Certifications aren’t easy to get and promoting them can go a long way towards making your eco-conscious customer feel confident in buying from you.

Look to the Past, aka Deadstock and Upcycling

Upcycling. Recycling. Pre-owned. Dead stock. Surplus. Repurposing. Whatever you want to call it, using garments or fabrics from someone else’s previously existing inventory can save untold amounts of resources. And it can drastically limit the amount of waste the fashion industry is responsible for.

This is also where the socially-conscious designer (you!) can save not only precious environmental resources, but …drum roll please…a bit of money as well.

Leftover fabric and trims that are the result of overproduction or over-ordering on part of designer brands are available for the taking, often at heavily discounted pricing.

DEADSTOCK: While the phrase “deadstock” fabric has some unfortunate connotations, we highly encourage you to think twice about it. Deadstock does NOT necessarily mean it is defective or damaged (although it COULD). What it typically means is that somewhere along the line, production or creative plans changed, and designers (or manufacturers) are left with unused fabric inventory sitting in warehouses. And make no mistake, there are shelves and shelves of it!

So, how do you get your hands on this precious resource you ask? It’s a lot easier than you might think.

The re-selling of deadstock fabric is a thriving industry and there are many enterprising fabric vendors dealing specifically in deadstock fabric and trims. So not only can you possibly score some stunning fabric from high-end designers from around the world, the price per yard will most likely be heavily discounted! Sounds like a windfall for the environment, and for you.

Using deadstock requires some serious planning on your part. It’s always a good idea to have some idea of what materials you want to work with beforehand. Also, your use of the deadstock fabric is always limited to the amount that the vendor has on hand. We can’t stress this point strongly enough! Once they sell through it, there is no more to be had.

Therefore, if you decide to use deadstock fabric for a certain garment, you must plan ahead. You’ll need to know how many units you plan to produce and the fabric yield per unit. Allow for about 10 – 15% extra yardage in your calculations.

With some perseverance and planning, it’s a viable alternative to buying new. Even some “majors” are testing collections using this approach. New for 2022, ASOS is throwing their hat in the sustainability ring with their “circular” brand, Thrift+.

A word to the wise, there have been some rumblings and rumors in the fashion industry that there is fabric out there labeled as “deadstock” which isn’t actually deadstock at all. Instead it is purposeful overproduction by fabric manufacturers. So if you’re going to go the deadstock route, be aware of the ethical implications of advertising your brand as “deadstock.” And always discuss the origin of your deadstock fabric with the seller.

This leads us to another recycling possibility, and that is “upcycling.”

UPCYCLING: “Reuse (discarded objects or material) in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original.”– Oxford English Dictionary

Some of the most interesting garments you’ll find come from the creative process known as “upcycling.” Upcycling is making new pieces of clothing by cutting and sewing used garments and other textiles. It gives new life to old items and extends the time they are being used. Some upcycled clothes are even biodegradable or recyclable at the end of their lifecycle.

Upcycling lives in stark contrast to mass production and bulk manufacturing. As we discussed earlier, while there have been significant improvements, the fashion industry has a long way to go before it can be considered “environmentally friendly.” Upcycled clothing has the massive potential to bring down carbon emissions and the global warming contribution of the textile and apparel industry.

That said, just like working from deadstock, upcycling requires a lot of research, planning and creativity. Maybe even more so. If you want to create garments in bulk that are similar to each other, you need to find your “raw materials” in bulk. One way to do this is to build a relationship with a good “rag house.” A rag house sorts and organizes discarded garments, and resells them in bulk, usually by the pound.

Designing via upcycling is really a numbers game. You’ll find it works best from garments that were originally produced in very large numbers to begin with. Think jeans, sweatshirts, tee shirts, polo shirts, and even military surplus. These categories will offer you the most raw materials in the same fabric category.

In other words, you probably aren’t going to find large numbers of similar cocktail dresses at a rag house. Unless you are very persistent, or very lucky.

That said, if you find a single garment that sparks your creativity and you want to use it, go for it! Why not add some “one-of-a-kind” styles into your collection? Offering a “one of a kind” creation is often a great marketing tool. And is about as sustainable as fashion gets!

Watch for our next post: How To Launch a Sustainable Brand, Part II. Here we’ll discuss eco-certifications and different fabric treatment techniques, including dyeing and bleaching.

Launching an eco-friendly brand means finding a development and production partner that understands all the intricacies involved. If you’re ready to discuss creating your collection, we’d love to speak with you. Feel free to reach out to us at or call us at 800-916-0910.

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