Why the fashion industry is not surprised by Burberry’s unsold stock problem

Last week, the news broke that British fashion stalwart Burberry, now under the new helm of Riccardo Tisci, incinerated over £28million worth of unsold clothing over the last 12 months, and has admitted to burning over £90million of leftover stock over the last 5 years.

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Unfortunately, to anyone familiar with the fashion industry, this controversial news came as absolutely no surprise. Unethical practises like this are commonplace with both fast fashion, and high-end, luxury brands. The reason why brands like Burberry destroy their unsold or overstocked designs is the same reason as most; to protect their intellectual property. Or that’s what the PR teams say; essentially this means they don’t want their original designs being nabbed by low class copycats, or sold via unaffiliated, unapproved retail channels. For Burberry, this is particularly apt as they still suffer a hangover from the past of the ‘chavs’ embracing Burberry check everything, and overseas manufacturers churning out counterfeit versions of the famous print to an uncontrollable level.

I would argue that another key reason that this ghastly destruction cycle is endemic within the industry is that these brands are notoriously bad at predicting what consumers actually want to buy. When Burberry, and many other designers, took on a ‘see now buy now’ model, stock production no longer relied on a few months of lead time, gaging press reactions, store orders and customer demand, but instead on random guessing on the side of buyers and merchandisers, undoubtedly leading to overproduction of many items assumed to be more popular than in reality. What’s more, with global focus on the landfill epidemic, brands are seeking alternatives to simply ‘throwing it in the bin’, but as the Burberry news goes to show, the media discovers this ‘secret’ burning, slashing and shredding of unsold garments, and it doesn’t stay undercover for long.

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In recent years, there have been many similar ‘breaking news’ headlines about fashion brands going to extreme lengths to protect their brand image. In 2010, The New York Times reported that H&M took part in the regular practice of cutting up unsold clothing with scissors, and last year Treehugger investigated the phenomenon of Swedish towns using over 15 tonnes of excessH&M stock (mostly using toxic synthetic fibres) to burn instead of coal at energy plants. Other mass market labels, like Walmart, who punched multiple holes in hundreds of trash bags full of marked down garments- source, and Nike, whose staff regularly slash trainers and t-shirts with box cutters to render them unwearable- source, are all part of this socially, economically and environmentally destructive problem

Read more: Creative ways to fix fashion’s waste problem

Traditionally, when a company producing clothing has unsold stock at the end of the average 12 week selling period- which nearly all of them do as the retail industry continues to suffer, the brand takes away any recognisable branding, logos and labels from the garments, and sends them across the world to developing countries, either to be donated to those in need- or more often than not- to be sold at heavily discounted prices in local markets. This may seem charitable, but it is actually highly problematic, as supply hugely outweighs demand, so the excess of cheap, poor quality Western style clothing damages business for the local textiles and artisan craft industries. Find out more about the problems surrounding clothing being exported to charity for resale here.

So what are the alternatives?

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A simple solution to an excess of unsold stock is taking part in auctions, sample sales and outlets, but understandably in this world of competitiveness and copycatting that we now live in, companies need to do what they can to protect the reputation they work so hard to build. Another solution that brands could embrace is a made-to-order model, a system ideal for luxury or artisan brands, in order to only manufacture what is needed and only for customers that truly value the product.

A more modern idea is to adopt the model of Mallzee, the UK based shopping app, who pride themselves on using big data to solve the problems that fashion buyers and merchandisers face. By utilising various algorithms and analytics, Mallzee can make educated predictions about what fashion consumers will buy, and feed back to the brands with suggested stock levels, ideally with the view to reducing overall waste.

There are several really positive examples of waste-reducing initiatives being put in place at large fashion houses. At Kering, the luxury conglomerate which owns Gucci, Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen, the Worn Again programme is used, where raw materials are recycled back into a usable fibre to create clothing without new resources. What’s more, ethical fashion champion Stella McCartney is part of Dame Ellen MacArthur’s Make Fashion Circular initiative, which aims to encourage brands to create products that will stay in use for longer, invest in sustainable and renewable materials. and close the loop of the ‘take-make-dispose’ model.

Ultimately, the fashion industry needs to embrace a more circular economy. This means going beyond simply upcycling fabrics into new garments, recycling yarn into new fabrics and utilising offcuts to create beautiful products, but implementing strict guidelines on zero waste pattern cutting to exclude all unnecessary excess product, and designing for disassembly, a system that plans ahead for clothing being undesirable to consumers after a certain amount of time, creating garments that can be dismantled and recreated into something new in a simple and easy fashion.

In conclusion, the positivity of this niche industry topic being brought into a mainstream discussion about consumerism and waste is sadly being squashed by a barrage of feeble excuses. Key players in fashion need to stop doing things like destroying just because ‘everyone else is doing it’. These unethical, eco-unfriendly, unjustified and downright disturbing industry-wide practices need big names to disrupt the norm.

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