Fast Fashion: To Burn or Not to Burn?

Last Friday I was stunned to read a BBC article detailing how retailers were threatening to burn returned items stuck in the EU because of Brexit. I was even more shocked to find that burning fashion items isn’t a new thing, and that brands are simply threatening a return to previous destructive behaviour and taking the easy way out of waste management. But who’s fault is it? Should governments impose stricter policies or should producers just be expected to take responsibility for their products?

Why did fast fashion brands burn their products before?

The simple answer: it’s the easiest way to get rid of unwanted stock despite advice to reduce, reuse and recycle before even considering burning. Burning unwanted stock also means that clothes won’t be continuously reduced in price to shift them and preserves the exclusivity of the brand; something that is nothing more than snobbery. Companies like Burberry tried to defend themselves by calling the process “energy recovery” and arguing that instead of being tossed into landfill, the materials become a source of energy that can be used to create electricity. This argument completely disregards the environmental impact of greenhouse gas emissions from burning the unwanted stock in the first place as well as several other factors that the Guardian put perfectly:

…there are 101 processes that go into making a garment, from harvesting plants for raw fibre, to the processing and finishing of textile yarns involving thousands of litres of water. There are hundreds of hours of human labour too. Similarly, high-end cosmetics are a drain on resources in terms of both raw ingredients from the natural world and processing. To input all of these resources and then to squander them by burning (recovering only a tiny proportion of that energy) is pure madness given the backdrop of ecological emergency that we face.

Burberry’s bonfire of the vanities is brazen and ecologically reckless, The Guardian, July 2018

Even “luxury brands” are part of the fast fashion business model with three key pillars that all need to be dismantled if we want to see real progress:

  1. Low production costs
  2. High production volume
  3. Consequence free production

All of the above lead to irresponsible disposal of waste stock, and similar immoral actions lead to a government inquiry which included and dive into waste produced by the textile industry.

Government Inquiry: Sustainability of the Fashion Industry

Held in December 2018, the inquiry led by the UK government’s Environmental Audit Committee produced a lengthy report that the government responded to. Waste from the fashion industry was discussed at length and included discussions about the irresponsible burning of waste clothing from luxury brands. It was interesting to see that the only reason Burberry got caught out for burning off-trend goods was because they declared it in their annual accounts. If they hadn’t made that mistake, they might have got away with it and we would be non the wiser.

In their final report, the Environmental Audit Committee made 18 recommendations for the government to act on with 13 of those focusing solely on environmental impact. The fashion waste highlights include:

  • Enforcing all retailers to meet the requirements for waste reduction in the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP). The scheme is purely voluntary and at the time, only 11 retailers had signed up to take part!
  • The immediate introduction of a government policy where producers in the fashion industry are made responsible for the disposal of all products that they put on the market (Extended Producer Responsibility). France has been doing this since 2007 and the committee highlighted that promises to simply look at textile waste streams by 2025 is not enough.
  • A ban on both burning and landfilling unsold fashion items that could be reused or recycled.
  • The incorporation of the EU’s Ecodesign principals that focus on creating energy-efficient products that are designed to be repaired, recycled and last for many years. These principals include a new clothes labelling system that informs the consumer how sustainable their purchases are.
Government Response to the Enquiry

As usual the government’s response was filled with cautious statements that ignored the failings of current schemes and the need to re-vamp them and introduce new initiatives.

  • Apparently adequate environment progress has been made with SCAP, but they are considering adding policy measures to the scheme after 2020 and simply “aim to encourage” more retailers to participate. Since the report was published a further 19 retailers have signed up, bringing the total to 30 retailers, but it’s still not enough!
  • The government ignored claims that reviewing textile waste streams by 2025 was too little too late, claimed they were investigating EPR schemes, but couldn’t confirm when exactly they would be looking into it. Clearly this task is laborious with other waste streams to consider other than textiles, but five years is a long time and there needs to be more urgency if any positive impact is to be made on the environment!
  • Responding to the need for a ban on burning and landfilling unsold stock, the government said:

The Government agrees that the priority for dealing with unsold stock should be reuse and recycling, ahead of incineration and landfilling. This priority is embedded in the waste hierarchy and legislation is in place to support this. We believe that positive approaches are required to find outlets for waste textiles rather than simply imposing a landfill ban and, as set out in the Resources and Waste Strategy, we are developing a mix of policy measures to support reuse and closed loop recycling.

Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability: Government Response to the Committee’s Sixteenth Report, June 2019
  • The government responded to the EU Eco-design principals with a statement that they would approach the issue in a similar way and envisaged that they would slowly remove unsustainable fashion products from the market while “demanding a certain level of resource efficiency for durability, repairability and recyclability”. This non-committal statement was followed up by a more enthusiastic approach to developing labelling that would provide consumers with more information about what they are buying. Approaching consumers is obviously easier than approaching producers.
Why are brands burning their products now?

Clearly, none of this had an impact as luxury and highstreet brands are threatening to revisit their match boxes and burn their clothes again. This time it’s because they can’t afford to pay the customs charges to bring returned items back to the UK and instead, some retailers are accumulating these products in Belgium, Ireland and Germany.

This time, the UK government has to act. For the same reasons retailers shouldn’t have been burning their stock before, they shouldn’t be burning it now and the government needs to do something to stop an imminent environmental disaster. This time there can be no excuse for recovering energy from the stock, and there is no place for uninvolved Government statements. This situation has evolved since the new post-Brexit trade deal moved the customs charges onto the consumer and is now threatening to reverse any progress that was made in sustainable fashion.

What will happen next?

If you’re going to burn the stock, why not donate it to people who struggle to afford clothing in Europe instead? Why should the environment and the population come last every single time?

I’d love to give more insight as to what can be done, but I simply don’t have the industry expertise to predict the outcome or provide solutions. At the time of writing, there have been no updates from anyone as to the fate of the unwanted clothing, but I will continue to look for news on the subject.

As with the Brexit customs charges, the onus is always being put onto the consumer to act sustainably while big companies and government get away with doing less than expected. The flimsy policy initiative to make clothing labels containing sustainability information is a great example of this, and many might argue that the clothing waiting to be returned from the EU is the fault of the consumer for refusing to pay the extra charges.

If sustainable fashion is to really take off, brands need to take responsibility to provide consumers with long lasting, sustainably produced clothing that doesn’t cost more than the average salary. Furthermore, the government needs to assist and support these sustainable endeavours and provide real incentives to act responsibly.

Have you heard anything more about the returns waiting at customs? Comment below if you have and let me know what your thoughts are on this situation or tweet me @InMyStrideBlog.

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