Clothing brands are burning or shredding their unsold stock
I had no idea brands did this. Did you? Fortunately, we can do something about this wasteful practice.
It’s not news we are a terribly wasteful lot. ABCTV’s War on Waste went to town on clothing and fashion during one segment, pointing out — among other things — that in Australia we discard 600 kilos of clothing every ten minutes and that, in the world of fast fashion, it’s not uncommon for shoppers to wear an outfit just the once!
Of course, fashion comes and goes and not just with the season either. What was all the rage one month is suddenly so passé the next. Clothing companies churn out volume to meet those changing trends and the crushing boredom of last week’s retail therapy. What spurs it all on? The catwalks of London, Paris and New York and Fashion Weeks the world over showcase the latest thing. And people want it or think they do or are told they do and so the brands knock out a knock off or three, get it run up in Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, Vietnam or even still in China on the ‘cheap’ and flog it as a fashion-affordable within weeks.
That volume has been catching up with the industry over the past few years, though. We are awash with inventory and have been for some time. Rather than have all that inventory clogging showrooms and warehouses, major brands have been destroying what hasn’t sold. Literally. Perfectly good clothes are either burnt or shredded. They don’t bother donating them to charities or recycling them. And if it’s a luxury brand, they don’t bother discounting them either. Why? Because it affects their status as luxury brands. In July 2018, British luxury brand Burberry admitted in its annual report that ‘demolishing’ goods was just part of its strategy to preserve its reputation of exclusivity. If they sell at a discount or donate excess stock, they devalue the brand.
Why don’t brands recycle?
In two words, it’s difficult. Clothes are not like what’s in your yellow bin. They’re not uniform like glass, paper and metal cans largely are. Even a seemingly simple garment may have blends such as cotton-polyester and cotton-elastane. Current recycling technologies typically require a steady and consistent source material to work well. Different fibres need to be recycled in different ways. Natural fibres such as wool can be recycled by mechanically shredding or breaking them down and then cleaning, processing and spinning into new yarn, from which new fabric can be woven or knitted. However, the shredding process produces shorter fibres, resulting in lower-quality yarn and cloth. Which is why recycled cotton is often mixed with virgin cotton to ensure a better quality.
More complex garments often consist of more than five different materials, as well as various trims plus buttons and zippers. To recycle them successfully, all components and fibres must be separated, which is labour-intensive and costly. And then there’s the different chemical dyes. If the original fabric is a mix of many colours, the new yarn or fabric will likely require bleaching. So, it’s just easier and cheaper to shred the garment and transform it into a lower-quality product, such as shoddy, which is commonly used for insulation.
Easier still is burning. Or, shipping it to landfill. If brands incinerate they can claim they’re generating energy in the form of heat or electricity. Although it’s nowhere near the energy that was used to create the garment in the first place. And there’s air pollution, too.
Perhaps not surprisingly when shoppers find out they’re less than impressed.
Research by UNSW Business School in collaboration with Monash Business School found people react negatively towards brands that destroy excess inventory. The study, Disposal-based scarcity: How overstock reduction methods influence consumer brand perceptions and evaluations, shows how the way companies handle excess inventory affects how consumers view them and their desire to shop for that brand.
While brands don’t usually disclose what they do with unsold stock, when news or social media report it, consumers see it as very wasteful. “Destroying products is seen as wasteful and damages brand perceptions,” the study confirms. “In contrast, recycling, donating and discounting methods — which are less destructive and indicate a lack of brand overstock — can enhance brand evaluations. Consumers view these methods more positively.”
Brands certainly can do so much better, including managing their inventories, especially early on before they become a problem in-store or at the warehouse. As more people want to shop more ethically, it might be wise for them to sit up and take notice.
Five possible solutions
It’s up to us consumers to vote with our dollars and reward retailers and outlets that trade ethically and responsibly.
We can start by researching the brands we buy and make sure they live up to our expectations. Tell them if they’re not. They are sensitive to brand reputation: It only takes a few complaints to go viral on social media to undo thousands of dollars of advertising. They will change if we show them we’re watching them and we’re prepared to not buy from them.
Adopt the 6 Rs of buying clothes:
1 Review or reconsider (Do I really need or want this item?)
2 Reduce (Rely on less. As the Buddhists say: “Have fewer clothes and launder often.”)
3 Re-wear (Shouldn’t really have to say that, but some people want to be seen in a new outfit every time they go out!)
5 Re-sell (or swap)
6 Recycle (If the fabric is entirely natural fibre and plant-based dyed, you can try composting or mulching. I am currently doing that in my garden with some worn-out clothes, sheets and other fabrics.)
We can also shop secondhand where possible, or consider renting for your next event.
We can also host and/or go to clothes swaps.
And, last but not least, to borrow from the world of decluttering: Other than uniforms for work or sport and the like, only wear what you like. That way everything in your wardrobe will get to be used; you won’t be rushing out to buy something new to feel good or better. In other words, wear what you like and like what you wear. Feel good in what you wear. In other words, please yourself. Forget about pleasing others. But that’s another story.