When you think of the brand Burberry, you most likely imagine the classic beige trench coat, maybe paired with a checkered-pattern scarf, and rightly so. Burberry was founded in 1856 by Thomas Burberry, with the sole mission of creating garments that could protect people from the British weather. Thomas Burberry invented a breathable, wearable fabric that was both waterproof and hardwearing in 1879, a backbone for much of Burberry’s garments. This new material, named Gaberdine, revolutionized rainwear, as this fashion niche was mostly heavy and uncomfortable to wear in the past. Thomas Burberry patented the fabric in 1888.
Another fond design statement brought forward by Burberry was the Burberry check, a pattern that will become very familiar amongst consumers. This check design was trademarked in 1920, and continues to be a statement on Burberry garments.
130 years later, and Burberry still holds the same mission as when it was founded: to create sleek, fashionable garments durable for British weather conditions. With over 500 stores worldwide, Burberry has evolved into one of the most well-known fashion brands, respected for the vast history and classic silhouettes.
With popularity comes a need for lots of inventory, and with lots of inventory, companies can find lots of unsold merchandise. How a company deals with merchandise that doesn’t sell at full-price can differ. At the end of every season, Burberry burns unsold merchandise in an effort to upkeep the brand’s perceived value and identity. According to an article posted to Independent in July 2018, Burberry burns their leftover inventory to prevent clothes from “being sold at knockdown prices and worn by the ‘wrong people’.”
According to The Times, Burberry has burned over $37 million worth of merchandise in the past year. (That is the equivalent of more than 20,000 of the brand’s signature trench coat.) The question at hand is does Burberry’s burning merchandise have a negative effect on the environment? Well, it depends who you ask.
If you ask Timo Rissanen, an Associate Dean at Parsons School of Design and a professor of fashion design and sustainability, he’ll tell you that burning merchandise has a poor effect on the environment, in that it is releasing lots of carbon and other chemicals into the air, according to an interview published on Vox. As a world that has not done a great job with keeping our air clean, we are trying to work towards eliminating the Earth’s carbon footprint, and burning millions of dollars’ worth of inventory every year is counteracting that goal.
One could argue, though, that burning merchandise is an alternative to dumping clothes into a landfill. We don’t want non-biodegradable clothing sitting on the Earth, polluting the land. This is true, but we also don’t want it polluting our air. It’s kind of like choosing which electrical outlet to stick a fork into: the outcome will always be negative.
Let’s take a look into Burberry’s internal corporate culture. Burberry stands for many great policies within their company, including equal rights for women, diversity in the workplace, team-building, monitoring across their supply chain, HR management systems, as well as becoming a principle partner of the Living Wage Foundation. Employee reviews on Glassdoor and Indeed show a little over average, ranking a 3.8/5 on Indeed with 495 reviews, and a 3.5/5 on Glassdoor with 702 reviews. Burberry employees commented on the work environment, saying it is a great company to work for. Many comments noted the fast-paced environment, but they all revealed that management was supportive, and the work was rewarding. The company includes many employee perks, and makes an effort to keep workers happy within the Burberry work environment.
Overall, Burberry is a pretty transparent company, which is why when their 2017-2018 annual report became public, they did not hide the fact that they had burned millions of dollars’ worth of unsold merchandise. With millennial buyers becoming dominant in the fashion consumer industry, companies who don’t practice sustainable methods, such as Burberry burning merchandise, receive negative comments from younger consumers. Millennial consumers seek to purchase from companies that align with their personal believes, which is most likely a sustainable company. Critics called this burning practice wasteful, and wanted the British brand to change its heated ways.
Well, those critics got what they asked for. On September 6th, 2018, Burberry took to social media and stated that they were going to stop “the practice of destroying unsaleable products with immediate effect.” According to The New York Times, Burberry had originally outlined a five-year “responsibility agenda” in 2017, involving reusing unsold merchandise, and recycling garments. The company has also joined a partnership with sustainable luxury company Elvis & Kresse, with the efforts of repurposing 120 tons of leather off-cuts from the Burberry supply chain into new products within the next five years. On top of that, Burberry has pledged to stop using fur in any future runway shows, and phasing out of any existing Burberry fur merchandise.
Damn, Burberry. We see you making those changes.
As stated before, brands have to weigh much of what they are doing and practicing with what their consumers are seeking. In this instance, Burberry noticed that burning their merchandise wasn’t worth losing millennial consumers over. Sure, it was the cheapest way to get rid of their unsold merchandise, and it prevented a devalued brand perception that comes from having mark-downed prices, but having consumers speak publicly about unsustainable practices the brand practices was considered worse than the efforts of preventing a devalued brand perception. It’s ironic, though, because with the actions of stopping burning merchandise, which was used to help their brand perception, it actually elevated the brand even more. Consumers respect brands that take a stand for environmental issues, and would rather shop at a brand that has a voice and a cause.
After looking at the issue of burning merchandise, I have formed some personal opinions on the matter, the biggest opinion being this issue is much larger than just Burberry. If Burberry was the only brand burning merchandise, then the problem would be solved, because they pulled the plug on that practice. However, many high-end luxury brands, such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Richemont, also burn unsold merchandise. The fact that Burberry brought light to what they were doing, listened to their consumer’s opinions, and changed their practices to align with the values of their target market is a great example of where these fashion brands are heading. Burberry handled the situation perfectly, bringing change fast to please their consumers. Other brands that also burn merchandise will have to use Burberry as an example of what is to come.
The issue is much larger than Burberry, but it’s also much larger than just burning merchandise. The fashion industry is one of the largest contributing waste industry in the world. Just in the U.S., an average citizen throws away 70 pounds of clothing annually, according to The Counsel for Textile Recycling. Of those thrown away clothes, it’s said that 85% end up in landfills. Fashion already uses an extensive amount of resources, such as energy and water, and with the absurdly fast-fashion cycle, those resources are being wasted, thrown into a landfill, or burned into our air. Yes, the issue is much larger than Burberry.
Coming up with alternative routes can be difficult, especially while dealing with an issue as large as this one. A start is for brands to internally become more aware of the amount of inventory they are producing versus the amount they are selling. If every year brands are disposing thousands of garments, maybe cutting back on inventory could lead to less waste at the end of the season. Another solution could be simply reusing the materials. Luxury brands are using materials such as leather that can be reused pretty easily. Many other fibers can be broken down and woven into thread for making new garments. Taking steps similar to that to move toward reusing and recycling materials could put less waste into our landfills, or carbon into our air.
The fact of the matter is this issue is much larger than me, than you, than Burberry. It will take more than just one company to move society forward to a more sustainable way of living. It’s not just the fashion brand’s responsibility, it’s the consumers, being aware of what we buy, how frequently we buy, how we treat our products, and what we do with our products at the end of its lifecycle. Change starts with you, it starts with me, it starts with knowing what issues are taking place, and how we have much power we hold to bring change. It’s going to be an everyone-in kind of situation to see any real change in the fashion industry. Are you up for it?
P.s. If you are interested in the topic of sustainability in the fashion industry, please feel free to reach out if you wanna chat about it.