Will fashion firms stop burning clothes?

By Chris Baraniuk

Imagine being a business that regularly takes huge swathes of your own products worth millions of pounds, and incinerates them. Your stock literally going up in smoke.

It sounds crazy, but the practice has become increasingly common for some of the world’s biggest clothing manufacturers. Why? They argue it is the most cost-effective way of maintaining their brand’s exclusivity.

The clothes that are burned are those that don’t sell at a high enough price. Rather than watch them go on sale at hefty discounts, the companies in question would rather set fire to them and recoup a small amount of energy via the incineration.

Burberry is one of the most well-known firms that, until recently, did this. In 2017, clothing worth £28.6 million was incinerated by the company – a figure that made global headlines. By September 2018, following intense media scrutiny, Burberry announced it had stopped incinerating clothes with immediate effect.

No-one knows exactly how much unsold stock is sent up in flames every year by the world’s fashion houses, but many clearly feel it makes business sense. Brands are under huge pressure to maintain the perception that their products – which cost time and money to make – are worth paying a certain amount for.

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women walking on a catwalk
Brands are under huge pressure to maintain the perception that their products are worth paying a certain amount for. © Goran Jakus Photography | Getty

“Selling them at lower and lower prices perpetuates a problem,” explains Pammi Sinha at the University of Leeds’ School of Design.

But incineration has some very negative consequences. Burning clothes of course releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which exacerbates global warming.

A UK parliamentary committee report on sustainability and the fashion industry published in February considered the various environmental impacts of incineration.

It said, “While incineration of unsold stock ‘recovers’ some energy from the products, it multiplies the climate impact of the product by generating further emissions and air pollutants that can harm human health.

“Incineration of clothes made from synthetic fibres may release plastic microfibres into the atmosphere.”

The report advised the government to ban the burning or dumping of unsold stock if it can be reused or recycled.

Sinha says that part of the problem is that fashion firms are built from the ground up to produce and sell products. The only option for much unsold stock is disposal. Entire assembly lines are constructed with this model in mind. Naturally, that can lead to a lot of waste. Elizabeth Napier at Georgia State University says of 100 billion garments made every year worldwide, 92 million tons become waste.

This could change, though. What if those companies had an arm tasked with taking back clothes that haven’t been sold so that they can be disassembled, redesigned into new products, and shipped out to the market once again?

“Within a big luxury label where their reputation rests on design, they could possibly put together a design and production team for this,” explains Sinha.

sewing a shirt
Some brands are leading the way on upcycling. © Atli Mar Hafsteinsson | Getty

That would require some investment and, for the venture to be worthwhile, companies would have to make sure the remade products are desirable so that the waste problem isn’t simply kicked down the road. But in principle it would be a step up from simply burning or dumping products in huge quantities.

Some firms are leading the way on upcycling – where unwanted products are remade into desirable new attire. That can include reusing anything from old industrial fabrics to unsold clothing from other companies.

LA-based brand Reformation is one example of a firm that takes such “deadstock” clothing and reuses the materials in its own designs. Nearly 15% of the fabric Reformation uses comes from deadstock.

There’s also an opportunity to focus on biodegradable fabrics. Clothes that decompose better might not have to be burned. They would also appeal to many consumers who care about the environmental impact of their own wardrobes.

For significant effects to be felt, though, the fashion giants would have to take sustainability practices, like those mentioned above, on board. It can’t be left to start-ups and bespoke brands. That brings us to the bigger picture – and the other major hurdle for sustainability in the fashion industry.

In essence, we have an over-production problem. According to data from the World Bank, analysed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, while clothing sales have risen steadily since the year 2000, clothing utilisation has fallen at roughly the same rate. That means for every extra t-shirt that is sold, it will be worn roughly half as much as it would have been 20 years ago.

clothes factory
Of 100 billion garments made every year worldwide, 92 million tons become waste. © Idealistock | Getty

“I definitely think we’re in a position where we’re over-supplying the market and we’ve got to rethink,” says Sinha.

Napier agrees. She says that one way fashion firms could avoid having to burn so many clothes is through better forecasting of market trends, which would in theory result in less waste. But a move towards making clothes designed to last would help greatly. Garments with long lives can of course be marketed as good investments for customers.

“It makes consumers feel better about their purchases,” says Napier.

She gives the example of Patagonia, one among several outdoor brands that guarantee the long life of their products.

Both Sinha and Napier argue that ending the incineration of unsold clothes won’t happen simply through fashion firms reusing and recycling materials. The sheer scale of fashion production has to change too.

And it’s important to recognise that these consumer-focused brands will only go where the market takes them. If protecting the environment really matters to the public, then they have to make clear that they want more sustainable clothing in the first place.

“Without consumers demanding that, it won’t change,” says Napier.

By Chris Baraniuk