Unraveling fast fashion headlines

This article is drawn from the Circular Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Fridays.

Did you read about Burberry’s recent bad press? The British luxury fashion brand received significant criticism for physically destroying about $38 million worth of unsold clothing, accessories and perfume last year to protect its brand. By burning deadstock (unsold products), Burberry prevents the sale of marked-down goods, avoids counterfeiting and eliminates the possibility of grey-market transactions, in which products are sold at a discount by unauthorized distributors.

Ironically, in an effort to preserve its exclusive image, the brand seems to have tarnished it.

I’ll be honest: I used to think the idea of sustainable fashion sounded both contradictory and superfluous. So If you’re thinking, “Why should I care?” you’re not alone.

For me, fashion conjures up images of models on runways, evoking a sense of indulgence and extravagance. Sustainability means stewarding natural resources, ecological balance and social well-being. But when you take a step back, apparel is just human packaging.

No one denies the importance of tackling waste from bottles, bags and boxes. Why not people?

Even so, the statistics speak for themselves. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Textiles Economy (PDF), 2015 textile production generated 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide, more than equivalent to all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned, while less than 1 percent of textiles are recycled. At this rate, the fashion industry will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.

Given this context, if you’re surprised by Burberry’s practices, then you probably haven’t been paying attention. While only a handful of other retailers have received public backlash for similar practices, virtually every brand destroys deadstock in the same way. But the industry is aware of its burning problem, and a handful of innovators are working on scalable solutions to recapture the $100 billion in clothing and textiles currently lost to landfill and incineration each year.

  • British startup Worn Again has developed a patented process to turn currently unusable textiles, PET bottles and packaging into a raw material for new textile production.

  • Regenerative fiber company Evrnu works with brands such as Levi’s and Target to produce recycled fabrics from textile waste, using 98 percent less water compared with farmed cotton and reusing chemical solvents in the process.

  • Moral Fiber (formerly Ambercycle) uses microbes to convert post-consumer polyester textile feedstock and PET bottles into the materials for new fabrics.

In the shift towards a circular economy, recycling alone can’t close the loop, and there’s no lack of opportunity for improvement in the fashion industry value chain. Despite the headlines, I would argue that Burberry is actually doing more than most companies to close the loop on its fashion footprint.

Unlike its competitors, Burberry has been transparent about the scale of its deadstock destruction, releasing these stats in the company’s 2017-18 Annual Report (PDF). In alignment with its 2022 Responsibility Strategy, Burberry is actively working to minimize excess stock and serves as a core partner in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular initiative, a pre-competitive collaboration between brands to radically redesign the fashion industry.

I don’t suggest we celebrate Burberry as a titan of environmental sustainability, but it’s important to recognize the company’s strides in weaving together a circular fashion framework. It has a ways to go, but if we stay wrapped up in today’s headlines, we’ll miss the bigger picture of the work being done.

Speaking of leadership, don’t forget to nominate a person or company for our VERGE Vanguard Awards, honoring innovators and pioneers in clean energy, zero-emissions transportation and the circulareconomy. The application window closes Aug. 3.

Questions or thoughts? Send me a note at [email protected] to suggest a story or topic we should cover.

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