Did Burberry Break the Law by Incinerating Its Own Clothes?

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Burberry shop in a mall

slayer / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The fashion label burned £28m of stock to prevent it from entering the counterfeit market, which could go against UK environmental requirements.

British fashion label Burberry has made international headlines for destroying clothing and cosmetics worth £28.6 million in the past year. The purpose of the destruction, according to the company, is to "protect intellectual property and prevent illegal counterfeiting by ensuring the supply chain remains intact." But that explanation makes it no less shocking to the average consumer, who cannot fathom putting a match to perfectly good (and exorbitantly expensive) clothes.

A number of articles on Burberry's actions explain that ruining old stock is a common practice among fashion brands. The Guardian writes, "The received wisdom is many labels would rather burn past season items than risk damaging their brand by selling them at a reduced price, but very few admit this." There are accounts of H&M; and Nike slashing unsold merchandise to prevent it from entering the counterfeit market, of luxury watchmaker Richemont destroying merchandise, and fashion brand Céline destroying "all the old inventory so there was no physical reminder of what had come before."

As someone who has written extensively about the backstory of fashion -- how it's made and comes to be on store shelves -- these accounts of destruction are horrifying, and yet shouldn't surprise us all that much. The fashion industry is notoriously uncaring about the welfare of its garment workers, in terms of hours worked, paid received, and unsafe working conditions, and Burberry's actions are simply an extension of this disposable attitude toward humans and planet. As Kirsten Brodde, director of Greenpeace's Detox My Fashion campaign, wrote on Twitter, Burberry "shows no respect for its own products and the hard work and resources that are used to make them."

It's the environmental cost of this destruction that really rubs me the wrong way in this particular case, mainly because Burberry has tried to lessen the severity of its actions by stating it "worked with specialist companies able to harness the energy from the process in order to make it environmentally friendly."

There is nothing environmentally friendly about incinerating millions and millions of pounds' worth of perfectly good, wearable clothing, no matter what kind of energy-harnessing process is being used. In fact, an article for Apparel Insider argues that Burberry may have even broken the law by doing so. UK environmental law requires all companies to apply a 'waste hierarchy' before taking such a drastic step as incineration. Quoting Peter Jones, principal consultant at Eunomia Research & Consulting Ltd:

"[The waste hierarchy] means they have to take all reasonable steps to prevent waste; to reuse what can’t be prevented; and recycle what can’t be reused. Only after these possibilities have been exhausted should they consider incineration or landfill. Our experience is that there is a great deal that companies can do to apply the waste hierarchy, saving money and achieving better environmental outcomes in the process."

The waste hierarchy includes actions in the following order: prevention, preparing for reuse, recycling, other recovery (e.g. energy recovery), disposal.

Jones maintains that the UK Environmental Agency should enforce the law and investigate what happened. If so, it could serve as a valuable precedent and help push the fashion industry toward the more circular economy that it so desperately needs to become.