You get the sense that luxury fashion label Burberry very much regrets its decision to burn $38 million of unsold stock rather than let it fall into the wrong hands.
It was embarrassing. The Burberry burn — #burnberry on social media — broke as a huge story in July, just two months after the brand announced it was a core signatory to Making Fashion Circular, an initiative aiming to design waste out of fashion and keep resources in circulation. When you cremate clothes, that’s obviously not going to happen. The materials are lost. It’s the antithesis of the circular economy.
The company moved to stem the fierce criticism and this month announced it would immediately cease incinerating clothes. But the backlash shined some light on the practice of destroying fashion. Burberry had not tried to hide its use of incineration, which was listed in its 2017/2018 annual report under “finished goods physically destroyed during the year.” But most brands don’t talk publicly about the practice, which they have no obligation to disclose.
So why do they do it? Most often, the reason is to avoid devaluing the brand; there is a terror of what discounting would do to prestige. Some brands, such as Chanel, never discount. The idea is, keep it scarce and you keep it exclusive.
Over the last two years, Cartier owner Richemont, for example, has bought back about $575 million worth of watches from retail partners to avoid having the timepieces sold more cheaply on the gray market of unauthorized retailers. Most were destroyed, and the parts were recycled.
It’s not just high-end brands that are destroying their stock. Fast fashion is at it too. In 2017 it was revealed that fashion behemoth H&M — which has made much of its green agenda with recycling points in stores and what it calls a Conscious Collection — burned about 19 tons of obsolete clothing (the equivalent to 50,000 pairs of jeans) in a waste-to-energy facility run by one of Sweden’s energy giants, Mälarenergi.
H&M said that the clothes were unsellable for safety reasons — for example, they didn’t meet restrictions on chemicals or had been damaged by mold. The company used the same defense again this month after the German current affairs program “Frontal 21” dedicated a show to an investigation into the burning of unsold H&M stock in Germany, alleging that the brand destroyed 100,000 pieces of clothing unsold from multiple seasons.
And Nike was the subject of a New York Times article in 2017 that alleged the company slashed clothing and shoes to render them unwearable before disposing of them. One of them was the king and queen shirts style.
Public outcry over the destruction of fashion overstock shows that these methods of disposal carry an unofficial public approval rating close to zero. To input all the resources, emit so much pollution and waste and then destroy those clothes is pure madness, given the ecological emergencies we face.
Waste and fashion go hand in glove. The industry continues to pump out a swelling inventory; each year, north of 100 billion new garments from virgin fibers are pushed onto the market. H&M alone was reported in March to have $4.3 billion worth of unsold clothes.
The energy needs of fashion are incredible. More often than not — particularly in fast fashion — these demands are shouldered by developing economies with scant or patchy energy cover. A Cambodian factory producing garments for export, for example, needs power to iron and dye clothes. The French environmental organization Geres estimated that garment factories in Phnom Penh burn through 2.3 million cubic feet of wood every month. To feed wood-fired boilers, factories are clearing old-growth forests.
Then there are the emissions. The fashion industry pumps out more carbon dioxide than international flights and shipping combined, according to a 2017 Ellen MacArthur Foundation report.