Waste associated with the fashion industry has traditionally been linked with “fast fashion” consumers who dispose of clothing or accessories in a rapid, virtually ceaseless, search for new trends. And though you may already have some familiarity with this concept––as a name for a set of production practices in the global apparel and textile industries––it fundamentally refers to a larger economic paradigm; a culture of mass-produced, throw-away consumption habits designed to convince people to buy more stuff, more frequently, at very low prices. But, if we switch our attention to the production side of this story, few would consider the possibility of manufacturers disposing of their products before they're even sold.
Yet, this very real phenomenon has garnered attention in recent weeks since the publication of Burberry’s annual report. The British fashion giant, whose annual revenue exceeds $3.53 billion, has remained near the top of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for the last 3 years. Burberry has also highlighted it's “Responsibility strategy”––“Creating Tomorrow’s Heritage”––early on in the report, but buried further in, on page 165 in the “Notes to Financial Statements,” is a rather alarming statement:
The cost of finished goods physically destroyed in the year was $36.77 (2017: $34.58m), including $13.37m of destruction for Beauty inventory.
This astounding figure exceeds each of the previous 4 years of waste (totaling around $116 million of destroyed stock) and is 6-times greater than the value of their 2013 waste—indicating little improvement in forecasts or monitoring. Such figures are ironic for a company that recently joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular initiative, whose ambition is to 'ensure clothes are made from safe and renewable materials, new business models increase their use, and old clothes are turned into new.'
This is what Burberry had to say about the practice:
Burberry has careful processes in place to minimize the amount of excess stock we produce. On the occasions when disposal of products is necessary, we do so in a responsible manner and we continue to seek ways to reduce and revalue our waste.
The designer brand asserts that they are “disposing” of their clothes to protect their intellectual property and prevent illegal counterfeiting. In other words, they are burning their products, instead of cutting prices or distributing freely, in order to preserve their elite luxury brand image.
Unfortunately, Burberry is not alone in this destructive practice. Richemont, the elite holding company who owns Cartier (among other luxury brands), has destroyed $556M of their own watches. Nike and H&M have both been caught slashing or punching holes in their unsold products before throwing them in the trash—all under the ruse of destroying goods that do not meet standards for recycling or donating.
The Fundamental Problem
Whatever the reasons for disposing of stock are, the practice explicitly highlights the social and environmental issues of the fast-fashion industry; the immeasurable value we as consumers have placed on wearing the trendiest and most-respected brands has enormous costs on the planet. The rampant advertising campaigns fuelling such recurring patterns have diverted attention away from the energy-intensive supply chains using up irrecoverable natural and human capital, of which the negative consequences (including pollution and labor exploitation) have simply become hidden or accepted details, encapsulated within a vastly destructive runaway system.
Ultimately, no brand wants to be caught in the circumstances where they're having to dispose of unused stock; this article isn't accusing them of that naively or in isolation. Rather, we're trying to unearth the contradictions in fashion sustainability and simultaneously link the fast fashion model to these exploitative and detrimental practices, which are not only common but arguably inherent for the industry.