War on fashion waste: The clothing destruction debate
The fashion industry’s dirty little secret - burning and destroying clothes - is out in the open. Find out what efforts have been done to solve the problem.

Devastatingly, the planet has to pay a hefty price when it comes to fashion. In 2018, luxury British fashion label Burberry was caught destroying more than $AU50 million worth of unsold clothes, accessories and perfume all in the name of “protecting its brand”. Perhaps the most disheartening fact of the matter is that Burberry isn’t the only brand doing it.

It is now public knowledge that luxury brands everywhere are destroying unwanted items to prevent them from being stolen or sold cheap and devaluing the company’s upmarket reputation. While it seems that this may be news to consumers, it has been happening in the fashion world for a very long time. According to fashion insiders, destroying clothing is “inevitable” for a system that churns out billions of items a year.

Fast fashion fails

While luxury brands have been under fire more recently, producers such as H&M, named the “environmentally friendly” leader of fast fashion, burned 19 tonnes of obsolete clothing in 2017. According to H&M, these items were unsellable due to safety reasons such as “damaged by mould” or “affected by unsafe chemicals”.

Unfortunately, the destruction doesn’t stop there. Fashion giant Nike was subject to a claim by the New York Times in 2017 that accused them of slashing clothing and shoes to render them unwearable before disposing of them.

A tidal movement

Interestingly, H&M, Nike and Burberry are global partners of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity aiming to inspire a generation to rethink, redesign and build a positive future circular economy. Together, along with other fashion labels, they’re searching for solutions to ensure clothes are made from safe and renewable materials and that old clothes are recycled and revived.

With the rise of ethical and sustainable fashion brands, clothing rental companies, recycling programmes, outlet stores, donations to charities and repair stations by the brands themselves, the industry is working towards change.

The fashion world has also experienced a growth in garments made from biodegradable fabrics such as organic cotton, silk, hemp and organic bamboo. These fabrics biodegrade back into nature’s cycle, reducing the need for destroying them.

However, an overproduction and over-consumerism problem still exists. Oxfam estimates that 70 per cent of used clothing donated to charities globally ends up in Africa, where mountains of cheap old clothes are killing local textile industries. Trade liberalisation in Africa has led to increased imports of used clothing from Western countries. These second-hand imports are sold at a very low price at local markets, enticing consumers to purchase these items and therefore reducing the demand for domestically produced goods. Several East African countries are currently pushing for a ban.

The knitted garments industry in West Africa’s Senegal, for example, has completely collapsed and is directly attributed to competition from cheap and fraudulent imports that mimic the look and feel of knitted items.

Government action

In 2019, France announced a proposed ban on the destruction of clothing. By the end of 2023, manufacturers and retailers must consider and take ownership of the end of life of their products. The law will require producers, importers and distributors to donate, reuse or recycle unsold goods.

France is the first country to adopt a policy to fight the waste and destruction of unsold products. Hopefully, other governments will follow suit.

What you can do

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australians buy an average of 27 kilograms of new textiles each year and discard approximately 23kg into landfill. Of that, two thirds are man-made synthetic fibres that may never breakdown. This horrifying statistic demonstrates just how much influence you, the consumer, has. Not sure where to start?

Look at your personal spending habits. Do you really need those extra clothes? If you do, choose wisely and spend your money supporting brands that are heavily invested in changing the impact fashion has on the environment.

Use apps such as Good On You. Good On You, an app that rates brands on their ethical and sustainability practises, makes it very easy to see what brands you should or shouldn’t be supporting.

Support rental companies. According to the LEGACY Responsible Fashion Summit, resale and rental companies are set to grow in the coming years. Before purchasing a one-time-wear dress (that will ultimately go to waste) for a friend’s wedding, search for it on dress retail companies such as GlamCorner or Your Closet.

Educate. Research brands you wish to support, educate across your social media platforms and choose brands that include radical transparency in their sustainability plans.

Tennille Ziegler is a wellness, sustainability and eco-travel writer who’s always daydreaming about her next adventure. A lover of health, mindfulness and crafting the perfect life balance, Tennille adores sharing her latest findings at @taiyo__space.