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Photography Thurstan Redding, via @burberry

It’s not just Burberry – burning clothes is fashion’s dirty open secret


Last week, a story hit the headlines about the fact that beloved British brand Burberry had destroyed over £28m of clothes and perfume last year. The outcry was immediate and widespread: that the clothing had not been donated to those in need was described as “indefensible” by users on Twitter, while some people said they’d be taking their Burberry clothing to the nearest charity shop. But if you work in fashion, the fact that luxury houses and high street brands alike routinely burn millions of pounds worth of stock (including samples and unsold products) is an open secret – albeit an incredibly bleak, very #HumansOfLateCapitalism one.

Why do brands burn? Well, there’s the fact that hefty markdowns can hurt a company’s image of being exclusive and always in-demand; a row of messy sale rails in a luxury boutique selling handbags that cost more than the average person makes in two months doesn’t exactly scream, ‘THIS IS A WORTHWHILE INVESTMENT’. If the market becomes oversaturated with cut-price products, it can negatively impact a label’s prestige – brands need their high prices to seem justifiable, and exclusivity is a key part of that. While many high-end companies operate their own outlets, they are perhaps less willing to palm off unsold stock to chains – after all, who is going to shell out for a cashmere coat if it might end up in TK Maxx in a few weeks?

Then there’s the argument that destroying clothing is protection against counterfeiting – if enough stock is sold cheaply enough to end up in the wrong hands to be copied, a brand’s intellectual property is at risk. Counterfeiting is a huge, and illegal, industry reportedly worth $450bn – where vulnerable people like undocumented immigrants are regularly exploited for low-cost labour, including in the UK. According to the UK’s Anti-Counterfeiting Group, intellectual property crime helps to fund other kinds of illegal behaviour, including the smuggling of drugs, guns and people.

Still, does that mean burning is really the answer? While some brands could argue that incineration generates energy, Orsola de Castro, co-founder and creative director of Fashion Revolution, says “there is no such thing as an environmentally friendly way of burning clothes.” Part of this is to do with the materials: “Many of these (pieces of) clothing contain components such as synthetic linings or zips and buttons that are plastic. You can burn plastic, but it doesn't become ash. Harnessing energy is not a really good excuse, because (producing) them in the first place is very energy consuming. It just doesn't make any sense.”

Despite the potential environmental implications, for big brands, burning surplus products might just be easier – and cheaper – than finding new uses for them. But it’s also important to note that waste doesn’t only occur when a brand wrongly projects sales and ends up making more units than it can sell – it happens throughout the manufacturing process.

“Incorrect disposal of clothing happens throughout the entire supply chain,” de Castro says – “from the mills to the manufacturers” in gross quantities. “What happens to the finished product is literally the tip of the iceberg.”

“Incorrect disposal of clothing happens throughout the entire supply chain... What happens to the finished product is literally the tip of the iceberg” – Orsola de Castro

Think about it – there’s offcuts of fabric, defective items, pieces where the dyeing process didn’t quite take or come out right. Transforming this waste into product takes time and creativity – Hermès, for example, has petit H, an initiative which sees artisans repurpose scraps left over from manufacturing into new items. But it’s a private, family-owned business that’s based around the idea of luxury as something which takes time – which is to say, it produces far slower and in smaller quantities than fast fashion companies. What about the rest of the industry? “If we look at the entire supply chain and the waste and surplus that is being disposed of at every stage, I do not think there is a brand that is exempt from this,” explains de Castro. It’s an endemic problem, and certainly bigger than a few big brands.

Burberry, de Castro says, is actually one of the better companies when it comes to transparency – how open businesses are about their practices, from supply chains to wages and wastage. The revelation that the British label destroyed so much stock wasn’t information tracked down by some sleuth or revealed by a source – it’s publicly available in the company’s annual report, which you can read here. Reached for a comment, the brand issued a statement which included the following: “Burberry has careful processes in place to minimise 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.” It also said that the brand is working towards a circular fashion economy, or a way of making which minimises waste and regenerates old products into something new.  

Still, de Castro argues that while fashion keeps accelerating, eye-watering amounts of waste will continue to occur. “This relentless pace of making things quicker – not just fast fashion in the sense of cheap clothing but also fast trends, cheap or expensive – has rendered the making of clothing cheaper than investing (in ways) to dispose of (waste) correctly,” she says. The solution needs to lie in prioritising creativity, and innovation over profit. “The reason why we're in this mess is because this creative industry has been taken over completely and entirely run by business. I’d inject another huge dose of creativity in there as a kind of rebalancing.”

The most important thing, for now, though, is that people are talking about this – and that we continue to do so. “I have to say, I have been waiting for this moment for about 15, 20 years,” says de Castro. “I am delighted that this conversation is happening.”