Waste Watch: Burberry Pledges to Stop Burning Unsold Goods

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Burberry triggered an avalanche of bad publicity earlier this summer when the company disclosed that in 2017, it had burnt £28.6 million worth of product– clothing, accessories, and perfume– to protect its brand. The value of unsold goods Burberry destroyed over the last five years totalled £105 million.

As ABC News (e.g., Australian Broadcasting Corporation) reported in Burberry burns unsold products and not everyone is buying why in July:

Fashion firms including Burberry destroy unwanted items to prevent them being stolen or sold cheaply.

The Times reported shareholders were unhappy with the practice — critics have reacted angrily on social media, concerned luxury brands don’t want “poor people” to wear the items.

In a statement Burberry said it seeks to reduce its waste and has partnered with the Ellen MacArthur foundation’s Make Fashion Circular Initiative, “where we join other leading organisations to work towards a circular fashion economy”.

That’s nice rhetoric, belied by the company’s practice of destroying unsold goods.

The company’s initial response to criticism after its disclosure was to defend its actions, in terms that suggested it was missing the point. As The Guardian reported in Burberry destroys £28m of stock to guard against counterfeits:

Burberry said it only destroyed items that carried its trademark and only worked with specialist companies able to harness the energy from the process in order to make it environmentally friendly.

Well, alrighty then. As long as they harnessed energy from the process, that makes things hunky-dory, no?

Burberry Responds to Criticism

Perhaps not– as Burberry has belatedly come to realize.

The company has just announced that with immediate effect, it will no longer destroy unsold goods, according to the BBC in Burberry stops burning unsold goods and using real fur. Instead, Burberry will now reuse, repair, donate or recycle all unsold products, thus reducing the waste it generates.

Burberry has also pledged to cease using animal fur in its products.

I’ve written before about the tremendous waste generated by the fashion industry, especially the fast fashion segment, which produces clothing according to a quick timetable, with many items discarded after a few wearings (see The High Hidden Costs of Fast FashionFast Fashion: A Few Thoughts Sparked by Recent News
Faster Fashion Cycle Accelerates; Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Why Burning of Fast Fashion Clothes to Fuel Power Plants is Troubling; Fast Fashion: Magical Shift in Consumption Patterns Will Save the Planet?; and Fast Fashion Juggernaut Rolls Along; Fast Fashion: Recycling No Panacea).

This is just one reason why fashion is often called the second-dirtiest industry in the world– second only to oil, as reported by AlterNet in It’s the Second Dirtiest Thing in the World—And You’re Wearing It.

But the Burberry revelations suggest it’s not only low-end, disposable fashion that’s produced without regard to waste; the problem extends to high-end offerings as well.

The Guardian reports in Burberry to stop burning unsold items after green criticism some positive response to Burberry’s shift:

Greenpeace welcomed the move as a “much-needed sign of a change of mind in the fashion industry”. Kirsten Brodde, who leads the Detox My Fashion campaign at the NGO, said: “Because fashion is a high-volume business with more than 100bn garments produced each year, consumers’ closets are already overflowing with unworn clothes, creating an overstock problem for many companies.

“It’s high time for the whole fashion industry to start dealing with overstock at its source: by slowing down production and rethinking the way it does business.”

Burberry Not Alone

Unfortunately, many other fashion companies pursue the same practice that Burberry has just abandoned, according to the ABC:

“It’s not just Burberry, this practice is systemic in the fashion industry,” Melinda Tually from Fashion Revolution told ABC Radio National Drive.

“It has been based on managing their reputation as a brand, so that is not diminished further, unfortunately that’s what’s driven this decision.”

Burberry’s shift may inspire other companies to reconsider their waste practices. The Guardian notes in Burberry to stop burning unsold items after green criticism:

Burberry is one of the first companies to publicly end the practice of destroying unwanted products. Marco Gobbetti, its chief executive, said he hoped others in the industry would follow suit.

Gobbetti said: “Modern luxury means being socially and environmentally responsible. This belief is core to us at Burberry and key to our long-term success. We are committed to applying the same creativity to all parts of Burberry as we do to our products.”

Luxury brands currently define their product in terms of exclusivity; from such a perspective, there’s a certain logic to destroying stock to protect exclusivity. As ABC noted:

Ms Tually urged luxury brands to value their reputation beyond “exclusivity”.

“You can send the message that our products are durable, we’ve designed them for longevity with craftmanship,” she said.

“Other brands have decided with excess inventory they’re happy for their product to be sold in the charity sector as they stand by their product.”

What Is to Be Done?

Fashion’s waste problem extends well beyond companies burning or destroying excess inventory. According to the ABC:

From manufacture through to legalities of contract supplies, Ms Tually said the industry needs to reconsider how it completes supply deals.

Ms Tually said overproduction results in massive waste in the global fashion industry.

“Thirty per cent of what’s produced doesn’t even make it to the shop floors — that’s pre-consumer waste.

“On top of that, Australia contributes half a million tonnes a year to landfill — 95 per cent of that doesn’t need to be there, textiles can be recycled.”

Ms Tually said different business models such as online consignment rather than meeting minimum order quantities can help reduce oversupply.

Burberry’s latest action is one small step in the right direction.

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