We explore the reasons behind the fashion industry’s dirty but not-so-secret practice of destroying unsold inventory. Banning or pledging to stop the destruction of items in good condition is not enough, and the whole system needs to be redesigned to create less waste overall. Here’s why some brands burn unsold clothes.
An inherently unsustainable system
It’s no secret that the fashion industry produces way more than we’ll ever need. Fashion Revolution revealed that the number of garments produced annually has doubled since 2000 and exceeded 100 billion for the first time in 2014.
Why is that? With the advent of fast fashion, retailers started producing clothes at breakneck speed to get the newest styles on the market as fast as possible. The recent example of SHEIN, which may have added up to 314,877 new items to its US website since the beginning of the year, is the most poignant.
Sadly, every season about 30% of the clothes produced are never sold. So to make space for shinier items, that unsold stock has to go somewhere. But where?
Going up in flames
In 2017, it was revealed that H&M had been burning 12 tons of unsold clothing every year since 2013.
H&M isn’t the only culprit, and stories like this have revealed destroying—and especially burning—unsold stock is common practice in the fashion industry. Years before this story, the New York Times revealed it had found bags of H&M and Walmart clothing that had been slashed through, possibly to prevent them from being resold or returned for cash.
Where there is smoke, there is fire, and unfortunately, even luxury brands have been found guilty of destroying goods. In July 2018, Burberry reportedly burned unsold stock worth millions of dollars. In its annual report, the brand acknowledged that it had destroyed unsold goods worth up to £28.6 million, or US$37 million. Louis Vuitton, Coach, Michael Kors, and Juicy Couture have also been tied to this practice.
Burning stock is said to be the most cost-effective way for luxury brands to protect exclusivity and avoid devaluing their image. Luxury fashion is a status symbol, so burning excess inventory—as opposed to selling it at a discount—maintains the brand’s value and sense of exclusivity.
Sadly, every season about 30% of the clothes produced are never sold. So to make space for shinier items, that unsold stock has to go somewhere.
Many brands are also afraid of the “grey market” where genuine designer goods are bought cheaply and resold by others. In one case, Richemont, the parent company of fine watch brands such as Cartier and Montblanc, was caught up in controversy after it destroyed more than £400 million worth of designer timepieces in a bid to stop them from being sold by unauthorised vendors.
Luxury brands may also have a financial incentive to destroy unsold stock. For example, brands have to pay all sorts of taxes and charges to import goods into the USA. But if the goods are unsold, and the brand exports them again or destroys them under US customs supervision, they can recover up to 99% of the taxes and charges they paid in a process known as “drawback”. In the end, it can be cheaper (and entirely legal) for brands to destroy excess products rather than spend resources finding ways to repurpose or recycle them.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truckload of clothes is burnt or buried in landfill. But it’s hard to know exactly how much of it is unsold stock.
What’s the environmental impact of destroying stock?
When brands are accused of burning unsold stock, they often highlight that the energy generated from burning these products was captured, making it “environmentally friendly”. Really?
According to a report on sustainability and the fashion industry from the UK Parliament in February 2019, while burning unsold inventory might help recover some energy, it multiplies the actual climate impact of the products. When burning clothes, carbon dioxide and other gases are released into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and harming our health. The truth is, the energy recouped by burning goods is often nearly not enough to balance the energy required to produce the garments in the first place.
The energy recouped by burning goods is often nearly not enough to balance the energy required to produce the garments in the first place.
Plus, a lot of clothing these days is made of plastic, and the incineration of these clothes may release plastic microfibres into the atmosphere. Even if clothes aren’t burned and are “simply” dumped in landfills, they take years to decompose. And landfills are said to be the third-largest source of methane emissions in the US.
“But why don’t they recycle the clothes?” you might ask. Well, contrary to popular belief, many of our clothes aren’t recyclable. The issue often stems from the fact that most of our clothing is made from a blend of natural and synthetic fibres that are difficult to separate. This, combined with the lack of reliable, large-scale fabric recycling technology means that disposed clothes often end up in landfills. In the US, only 13.6% of clothes and shoes thrown away are recycled, and just 12% of the material used for clothing ends up being recycled. This 12% will likely be shredded and used as furniture stuffing or made into insulation or cleaning cloths, as shown in the short documentary “Unravel: The final resting place of your cast-off clothing“. Less than 1% of what is collected will be used to make new clothing.
Will brands ever stop burning unsold clothes?
Stories like Burberry’s and H&M’s have shocked shoppers around the globe, and the idea of a big pile of perfectly good items going up in flames left all of us stunned.
As a result, some brands have taken measures to reduce waste and have pledged to stop destroying unsaleable goods. But this is not enough.
Even with new groundbreaking legislation, as long as big fashion brands keep producing at a dangerously fast rate, we're in big trouble.
The issue comes from the traditional linear, take-make-waste model, where there’s only one way out for the tons of clothes produced each year. And even with new groundbreaking legislation, such as France’s law prohibiting the destruction of unsold goods, as long as big fashion brands keep producing at a dangerously fast rate, we’re in big trouble. There needs to be a shift to a more circular system that gives value to recycled and reclaimed goods where the focus is on the longevity and life cycle of our possessions.
Luckily, we’re seeing more and more sustainable brands moving towards circularity and implementing solutions to reuse waste, such as using deadstock fabric. But the burden of change can’t fall solely on small sustainable labels. Change needs to be systemic, and it needs to happen at every stage of a garment’s lifecycle—starting with major fashion players producing less.
What can we do to help?
Consumers also play a key role in reducing waste in the fashion industry. Here are some key actions you can take to align with circular fashion and reduce waste in the industry:
- Know about the brands you buy by using resources such as Good On You
- Support sustainable and ethical fashion
- Live by the five R’s of fashion
- Shop second hand where possible, or consider renting for your next event
- Host and attend clothes swaps
- Ask “What are the alternatives?” before throwing away used clothing