The current mass production of clothing and the flawed business model with which fashion brands, from small to big, are currently operating under, is creating an enormous amount of excess stock that is not being sold in the market but secretly burned in incinerators around the world, resulting in thousands of tons of perfectly good clothing going to waste. You don’t believe us? Then click here and read our article in which we show how pervasive and unethical this secret practice is and how brands are trying to cover themselves up. In that article we have focused our attention on the consequences that burning tons and tons of unsold clothing items has on the whole supply chain, on the ethical questions it poses and the catastrophic ecological footprint it has.
Now however, we at Dress Ecode have decided to dig further into this practice and sat down with Ariele Elia, Assistant Director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law and author of Fashion’s Destruction of Unsold Goods: Responsible Solutions for an Environmentally Conscious Future (link to Ariele’s research here), to discuss this practice and highlight possible multi-disciplinary solutions that could be implemented to reduce this practice and hopefully eliminate it once and for all.
Hello Ariele, first and foremost, how did you initially come to know about this issue?
“It all started when I was a student in the fashion law programme at Fordham law. We were in our Ethics, Sustainability and Development Course, and at the very beginning of one of our classes our professor had showed an article about H&M burning their unsold goods. And I, very ignorantly, raise my hand I said, ‘Of course they’re doing that, that doesn’t surprise me at all’ and he encouraged me to dig deeper and find a solution that would actually take my argument much further and I wouldn’t just be a person complaining. So, it motivated me to try to pose a solution and to try to figure it out and that ended up being the topic for my capstone in my last year. What really stuck with me is that my professor, an expert in ethics and sustainability, said that, at the core of people don’t necessarily want to do wrong. So you have to figure out what is wrong in their business structure and the pressures that is pushing them to do that.
It’s a very complex problem and that was something that I notice; it’s not black and white, it’s not clear cut, and it’s not just intellectual property or over production but it gets into so many different issues and I think that the solutions for it will not be black and white, and it’s going to vary country by country.
Starting with how people even view fashion in France, as how they view it is vastly different in Italy or how they view it especially in the US with respect to the design process, with respect to sales for example. In France there’s designated and sanctioned Holidays of when you can have sales, in the US every day is a sale which is another big issue”.
What have been the main facts that caught your attention while researching?
“I think probably just how widespread it was. I think people think it’s an H&M problem but it’s actually not, it’s a luxury brand problem, it’s a Nike problem, and I think for a lot of it it’s just traditional business practises that have gone on forever. If you have a sample and it doesn’t go into production, well… you don’t want somebody taking that sample out of the trash and then selling it, so you’re going to slash it. I think before sustainability wasn’t as much of a concern, but now the industry has grown so much. I think that’s where it’s interesting to see that the market has evolved but the sustainability practises haven’t evolved.
To me what’s shocking is looking at Burberry and them realising that with Brexit and the pandemic, all of a sudden, with the fluctuation in currency not as many of the Chinese consumers are going to the UK so as Burberry’s biggest client was China, if they’re not purchasing, all of a sudden, they have a tons of trench coats left over and that was something I don’t think anybody expected as a consequence of Brexit. Now they are dealing with a lot of tariff issues; there was an article recently discussing if you were let’s say a London-based company and somebody buys an eCommerce item, it doesn’t fit and they send it back, the tariffs and the taxes of getting it back into London for the company it’s actually more expensive with the tariffs to bring it back in then just to burn it”.
Where do you think the responsibility falls upon? As you also wrote in your paper there has to be a rethinking from the designer to the supply chain, and from the production to create a model that also fits demand and supply in a better way and with better predictions. I think every company is trying to get better goals and a larger market share by increasing demand. So, yes, there has to be responsibility there, but I think that’s a bit of a utopian conversation sometimes because at the end of the day these people get paid to produce and to create more.
“When I had originally started my research and then wrote the paper my thought processes shifted a little bit and I think a lot of other people’s initially thought it would be great for people to consult with fashion brands and find a way on how we reduce their waste. But for all the brands that are not sustainable and that have no intention of being sustainable those are the ones that I think we need to look at. What is the solution for that? And while I like to think that many brands will come around or do something I don’t think it’s going to be enough and it’s not going to be fast enough, so I do think that legislation is necessary alongside education and implementation… For example, there’s laws in New York right now where if 10% of your waste is textile, then it must be recycled. Well, there’s no enforcement. The infrastructure behind it needed for this type of implementation isn’t there, so it’s kind of a law that is not enforced. I think that while there has to be legislation, there has to be integration but then there also has to be education. Because if you’re going to sit there and all of a sudden create a lot taxes, then these fashion brands are not going to have an investment and try to find a solution. They’re just going to be annoyed and they’ll find a loophole that works around it.
[…] iI we could say “hey we’d like to bring in a sustainability consultant, let’s look at what is your design process”. When I was working with fashion design students at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology), I was really pushing the 3D design. So that when they’re working with their manufacturers, they’re not necessarily physically sampling but first they are digitally sampling and that reduces the waste and also reduces the carbon footprint. And then when you’re in that final phase then, by all means, you do a physical fitting but at least it starts to reduce the waste there.
Then if we look at overstock for example, what do we do with this overstock? I think it’s harder for a luxury brand as obviously you can’t donate it and give it away. if you could have some artisans to redesign all of this extra items and convert a bag into something else and so on, I think that would be a nice solution but it has to come also with an economic benefit as I think the main reason as to why brands don’t go into this, is because it involves a lot of added costs. We need to find a way for them to have economic benefit but to do so then it’s really going to be hard to implement in on a large scale.
We have to figure out how much waste is there within traditional fashion brands when they’re producing, identify those, and then identify what can we pull back on, how can we reduce it and then we need some business and data scientists to show them how much they would be saving. If there could be one case study with one fashion brand who’s onboard, I think a lot more people will say “Excellent let me do it as well”.
What, in your opinion, could be the solution from a consumer standpoint?
“I think that it is still very confusing for the consumer what exactly is sustainable. What aspect of it is. Because it’s such a muddled term now. Is it the packaging sustainable? Is it the human actually creating it? Is it the fabric? I think for the consumer it is important to educate themselves because the consumers are the ones who’s going to force the brands to be more sustainable.
Some other responsibilities are: One, just stop buying as much! If people want to be more sustainable in regard to fashion, then stop buying as much and really consider what you’re buying. Do you do you need it? Is it an emotional impulse? Does it fit you? Stop buying things that you think you’re going to fit you in five years they’re probably not going to. Elizabeth Klein had some wonderful guidelines on clear purchasing and looking at things in your closet. Take inventory; do you have all black? Notice, if you buy everything black don’t buy anything colourful, maybe. Do you wear button up pattern shirts? If so, don’t wear something that is plain. And don’t think that because you’re donating it, you’re doing something good. There are so many scholars who said that in developing countries, especially in Africa and in India, they don’t need any more clothes. They have clothes for like the great great great great grandchildren. People don’t realise that these donations are hurting those developing nations because you have incredible designers now, they can’t develop because no one’s going to buy their items”.
In terms of alternative solutions, in your paper you’ve mentioned Artificial Intelligence. Could you please expand on that?
“One of the things with fashion is that it is so unpredictable. Who knew that there was going to be a pandemic and people are going to stop buying suits and things like that, but where is predictable is Instagram. I was just monitoring a conversation with the CEO of Modern Mirror whose company takes a 3D scan of your body and it will show you brands that will fit you so that it can also reduce the returns. It can also reduce what people are purchasing and then, with all that data is helping the brands. I think with that it will help a lot and actually seeing what we need to produce and what do we not need to produce. I think that there’s somewhere to draw a line have the physical and the digital and marry them together.
I would say that the biggest takeaway from all my research over the years about technology and fashion is that it has to be seamless. Even if you are a fashionista you don’t want to know about the algorithms, you just want things to work”.
How widespread is the practice of burning unsold clothing?
“It’s hard because it’s kind of like uncovering counterfeits. It’s this weird black market that no fashion brand wants to talk about, no one wants to be accused of it, so it’s hard to actually find the data of who’s doing this, why are they doing that. That’s why I feel like it’s a bit hard to find the solution. It almost has to be undercover. Like, this is a problem, here’s your solution. No names, just implement the solution. I think it’s going to be very hard to talk to a luxury brand and shame them publicly as there will be less likely to actually implement it because it’s an ego thing, it’s a reputational thing. There’s a very fine line between legislation and implementation of not bullying those brands but saying “we want to help and show the economic benefits to it beyond saving the environment”. I feel like there has to be a very delicate balance between implementing law and enforcing it.
It’s also important to have cooperation between countries too, because obviously I think a lot of brands, especially the fast and the big brands don’t even know exactly where all their supply chain comes from.
We want transparent supply chains. It’s one of those things that we all want, but I don’t think we’re ever going to achieve it, to be honest. I think we can get close to it but first you have to have the consumer on board with actually paying what the garments are supposed to be.
A lot of that manufacturing where you think it’s being produced in this factory in China it’s actually being produced by a third party of a third party of a third party and so that’s where we actually can’t fully track it.
I think that through education and through blockchain maybe people can understand the supply chain […] but most people don’t even want to think about that, or they don’t know about that”.
What could be a solution to find enough funding to tackle this issue?
“I mean what I think would be incredible is that Amazon is starting to, once again, dive into the fashion market as they are desperate to be the fashion empire. I don’t think that they will channel in the luxury brands but if we look at where can Amazon help is the logistics and infrastructure. So, if they want to take their surplus money and figure out a way to have take-back programmes, they could help the fashion industry automate, for example, the stripping of the buttons or the breakdown of fibres. If they can do things like that and help out brands with the logistical side that would be excellent, that would be a great solution. They could become sustainable as they know how “to do”, but they don’t know “how to make something look sexy and marketable”, that’s what the luxury brands do. If they take their data, if they take their logistics and shipping and collaborate with fashion brands on a sustainable level that could be a bold solution”.
Photos: Nick de Partee; Duy Hoang; Marcus Loke; The Creative Exchange; Ryoji Hayasaka; Caleb Lucas.