Did you know that the fashion/apparel industry has billions of dollars of unsold inventory that ends up in landfills every single year? Swedish fashion conglomerate H&M, alone, has reportedly said that it is sitting on billions of dollars of unsold stock that it has no idea how to dispose of. Maybe they should call some of their contemporaries in the industry – or for that matter, me – for some ideas of what to do with it.

I tell you, it is amazing what you learn when you start to look at the business of fashion!

I mean, did you know that companies are literally incinerating unsold products and (for example) slashing perfectly good, brand new Nike Sneakers that don’t sell? It is just crazy when you think of the kind of merchandise that is being trashed, dumped and burned every year. I am not talking about the local mom and pop. I am talking about companies with products that could cost thousands of dollars, like a Burberry coat, a Baume & Mercier watch or a Louis Vuitton purse.

Like, seriously, rather than call me to go through the bins to see what I want (cause god knows I have a lot of needs and wants), these lunatics (and I say this with all due respect) are burning up the things, slashing them and throwing them into landfills! I am talking about stuff that is perfectly new, unworn and fabulous! Can you believe it???

It appears that this happens due to overproduction of merchandise. It is an industry wide problem because the whole business of fashion is based on forecasting and projecting and it is very difficult, by all accounts, to do that accurately. So rather than not having enough merchandise to meet demand, companies just over-produce and the excess and surplus gets thrown away in the garbage even if it is perfectly new and nothing at all is wrong with it. This just is a catastrophe as far as the argument for sustainability is concerned, no?

Apparently, Burberry got into big trouble for doing that a couple of years ago. I don’t know where I was at the time, but this bit of gossip totally escaped me. The company and others explained that the reason for the practice is that destroying the clothing is the only way to protect their brand from counterfeiters, trademark bandits and intellectual property kleptocrats. And so rather than have these undesirables destroy their brand by selling their stuff cheaply to other “undesirables” the luxury brands preferred to just burn up the surplus and overstock.

Well, when people found out what was going on, they got really angry. And Burberry found itself in the middle of a media casserole. To their credit, the company immediately did a mea culpa and put in place new policies to avoid such a fiasco happening again. One of their representatives said at the time, “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. » Fair enough.

Other companies have a similar challenge of dealing with their “waste” in an environmentally friendly manner. Some of the companies cited in the unverified research I conducted are Celine, Nike, Burberry, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, H&M, Michael Kors, Urban Outfitters, Victoria’s Secret, Baume & Mercier and Cartier. The list is hardly exhaustive. But assuming the research is accurate, it is quite a lot of well-respected brands who are being accused of this practice. I am really surprised. After all, there are so many other alternatives to burning up clothes to protect your brand image and remain “scarce.” For example, they can:

  • Donate to local charity shops
  • Donate to poor countries
  • Product fewer items in the first place
  • Sell to third party discounted stores
  • Archive the products and resell them years later
  • Recycle the clothes into new products
  • Have a massive online yard sale
  • Develop and invest in technology that helps you forecast demand more accurately
  • Hold competitions that allow young people to win the clothes
  • Offer the clothes free to customers for another purchase.

Okay. Maybe some of these suggestions are not solutions, but the idea is that there are so many ways to deal with this that would be more environmentally responsible. And countries like France recognize this which is why it is now against the law in France to dispose of unsold clothing in the manner in which companies had been doing routinely. In the article, “What Should French Fashion Do With Its Unsold Clothing?” it is suggested that the French government is aiming for a “circular economy” and is trying to incentivize these brands (with tax breaks, for example) to handle their fashion waste in a different way other than destruction so as to further is sustainability goals. So as of 2019, in France, clothing that was unsold could not be destroyed but rather had to be donated or recycled. Good for France, always at the forefront of the environmental debate.

And it apparently is not just clothing. According to Vox.com they are even burning up mattresses, washing machines, dishwashers and cellphones rather than finding a way to make use of the product. Sustainability, folks. Whatever happened to sustainability?

Me, I think this is terrible and I really have to slap these people on their wrists on this one. Or worse. I mean, I do understand about their brand image. Really, I do. But you can’t solve it this way, obviously. It is not just environmentally damaging. It is inhumane. It’s kind of like if you live in an exclusive gated community and several houses are empty for one reason or another and instead of allowing certain people to rent or buy the property, you burn it down because you feel that you would rather destroy the property than live next to “undesirables.” There is something really uncool about that.

I am not pointing the finger at any brand in particular because I know many brands are on the problem and trying to find solutions – including Burberry. Zara is one such brand. There was an article in Bloomberg about how Zara is getting leaner because of its RFID tracking device technology which helps them to manage shipments and reduce overproduction. So, by tracking their merchandise, they were able to reduce their stock-in-trade and increase their sales. There are other technologies on the market and in the works that seeks to take the guess work out of forecasting and replace it with on demand supply chains (see medium.com).

But there is no question that this problem is far from being resolved. And there is also no question that it is a big and serious environmental and humanitarian issue that needs to be seriously addressed by brands. Because burning up and destroying billions of dollars of clothing, cosmetics and other products is environmentally not okay.

So voila. Just my two cents.

References

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-12-11/inditex-sales-rise-as-zara-owner-benefits-from-tech-investment

https://www.bbc.com/news/business-44885983

https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/9/17/17852294/fashion-brands-burning-merchandise-burberry-nike-h-and-m

https://www.businessoffashion.com/amp/articles/news-bites/what-should-french-fashion-do-with-its-unsold-clothing

https://medium.com/mmc-writes/fashion-waste-unmade-3f325849d819

https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2018/jul/20/why-does-burberry-destroy-its-products-q-and-a

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