The burning question: Can Burberry spark a resource revolution in the fashion industry?

EXCLUSIVE: In contrast to the public uproar over the burning of almost £30m worth of stock, luxury fashion brand Burberry is on a journey to "foster business models" that redefine waste and embed the circular economy into an industry riddled with "fast fashion" discrepancies.

In late July, luxury fashion brand Burberry made national headlines for all the wrong reasons. The company quietly revealed that it had burned more than £28m worth of stock over the past 12 months.

The “finished goods physically destroyed during the year” line was tucked away in an annual update and soon spread through the media like wildfire to highlight some of the notable, systemic issues plaguing the fashion industry.

Firstly, Burberry is by no means alone in the burning of its defective, unused stock. Industry giants such as H&M and Nike have reportedly been linked to similar practices as a means to protect brand prestige and intellectual property.

Counterfeiting is a huge risk to fashion companies and is reportedly worth $450bn, all while exacerbating exploitation and modern slavery. In fact, the UK’s Anti-Counterfeiting Group claims that counterfeiting and theft of intellectual property fuels drugs smuggling and cases of human trafficking.

That’s not to say that burning stock is the answer and Burberry’s use of this bonfire of stock as a form of “clean” energy is unlikely to silence to critics either. In fact, the practice is in danger of becoming business as usual for the industry.

A statement from the FTSE 100 company notes that the company has “careful processes in place to minimise the amount of excess stock produced”.

“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,” the Burberry statement reads.

Bonfire of the vanities

However, through Burberry’s open transparency on the matter, a fashion industry that has doubled production over the past 15 years could be scrutinised to the point of necessary and transformative change that promotes the circular economy.

Burberry – which has been included in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for three consecutive years – is keen to lead on this transformation. edie spoke to the company’s responsibility programme director Pauline Bohl before the revelations of burning stock became public knowledge.

As explained by Bohl, the luxury fashion brand is turning to collaboration and innovation to kickstart a journey that pushes Burberry and the industry towards a resource revolution that promotes closed-loop practices.

“One of the goals we have for 2022 is to revalue waste,” Bohl tells edie. “We recognise the need to address the issue of waste, which is a huge one for the industry and to invent new approaches that view waste as a resource.

“We want to foster business models that keep clothes in use. Luxury is quality, it is built to last and it’s the core of our products and customer expectations. The second area of work is creating renewable materials.”

In the UK, an estimated 300,000 tonnes of clothing and fashion waste ends up landfill each year. It is largely driven by the “fast fashion” phenomenon; the accelerated production of cheap clothing that encourages consumers to purchase more items more frequently.

For luxury brands like Burberry, it is of paramount importance that counterfeit products of items don’t end up in this high-turnover cycle.

But with a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation finding that the UK economy loses £82m through landfilling clothing and textiles annually, Burberry is keen to partner on solutions that make products more durable and reusable.

The company is a core partner of the Make Fashion Circular initiative from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a project to create business models which will keep garments in use, utilise materials which are renewable and find ways of recycling old clothes into new products. Aforementioned companies Nike and H&M are also signed up to the initiative.

Bohl noted that Burberry and the other core partners are at the “beginning of the journey” in realising the ambitions of the initiative, but steps are being made to drive circularity into the fashion industry.

Last year, the Burberry Foundation – set up as an independent charity by the firm in 2008 – awarded £3m to the Royal College of Art to establish the Burberry Material Futures Research Group – the first of its kind in the world according to Burberry – and expand the Burberry Design Scholarship Fund. The Research Group is one of the first to utilise Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics (STEAM) research to apply radical thinking to invent more sustainable materials.

More specifically, the Foundation has partnered with London-based accessories brand Elvis & Kresse to transform more than 120 tonnes of leather offcuts from Burberry factories into new products.

“It addresses a very small portion of the issue,” Bohl says. “But the ambition of the programme is to inspire and get the industry to think about the circularity issue and potential.”

The company’s CSR update also notes a partnership with Avena Environmental and the John Cotton Group to recycle damaged garments into insulation materials and use defective textile waste in the home furnishings industry.

Positive impacts

Burberry is keen for its products to not only drive circularity but also improve the sustainability of the supply chain. Another key pillar for the company’s 2022 goals is to ensure that 100% of Burberry products have at least one “positive attribute”. The attributes can range from using cotton sourced through the Better Cotton Initiative, leather from certified tanneries, or ensuring the person who made the garment is paid a living wage. To date, 14% of Burberry products have more than one positive attribute while 28% have one.

A goal to impact one million people positively is also in its infancy. So far, 23,000 people across the globe have benefitted from various Burberry programme.

But, Bohl is keen to reiterate that Burberry is just starting out on this journey to promote circularity. A target to “revalue waste” is vague in comparison to its other headline sustainability goal of becoming a carbon neutral company by 2022 – 43% of the firm’s total energy consumption comes from renewables – but this could well be a symptom of the industry’s lack of progress on waste to date.

“All consumers are becoming much more aware of the impacts of their purchasing decisions,” Bohl adds. “There is an expectation that being in luxury means we’re doing business in a responsible way. We don’t pretend to have it all sorted, but we’re committed to the positive impact. The ambition is to drive positive change, it’s really embedded in the way we run our business now.”

Matt Mace

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