Burberry destroyed £28.6m of clothing and cosmetics last year as part of efforts to protect its upmarket brand and guard against counterfeiting.
The luxury British label incinerated the equivalent of 81,000 of its signature plaid scarves, according to its latest annual accounts, in a practice said to be rife among fashion houses.
Industry insiders say high-end brands burn unwanted stock to prevent their clothes being sold at knockdown prices and worn by the “wrong people”.
But the fashion houses say surplus goods are incinerated to prevent them falling into the hands of counterfeiters.
Burberry destroyed more than £90m of products over the last five years, and the amount burnt annually has increased dramatically. In 2013, Burberry incinerated £5.5m of unwanted stock, less than a fifth of last year’s total.
“The stuff that Burberry is burning is not waste – it is surplus, which is a very different concept. It is perfectly useable stuff,” said Orsola de Castro, cofounder of Fashion Revolution, a not-for-profit group that campaigns for greater transparency in the supply chain.
The fashion designer told The Independent clothing brands destroying “vast quantities” of stock was a “massive, massive issue” that was “absolutely not unique to Burberry”.
“In the case of the big brands, it’s absolutely very negative for them to suddenly have the same product with slashed prices,” she said.
“Burberry, I can imagine, is particularly concerned about this because we all know that it went through a huge image change from sort of shabby to high gloss, high fashion. So they are probably worried about making things cheap and rolling back the clock.
“It is brand protection, in this case. They don’t want it to go to the wrong people.”
Burberry’s clothes are priced at the high end of fashion retail, with men’s polo shirts selling for as much as £250 and its famous trench coats priced at around £1,500.
The company also sells perfumes and cosmetics, which accounted for £10.4m of the products destroyed last year.
Destroying stock has become common practice for the industry, with retailers describing it as a measure to protect intellectual property and prevent illegal counterfeiting.
Burberry said it only destroyed items that carried its trademark and only worked with specialist companies who were able to harness the energy from the process.
A spokesman said: “Burberry has careful processes in place to minimise the amount of excess stock we produce. 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.”
Burberry recently joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular initiative to help prevent waste in the industry, he added.
Last year it emerged a Swedish power plant was burning unwanted H&M clothes instead of coal.
The plant in Vasteras, northwest of Stockholm, incinerated 15 tonnes of the retailer’s products in the first 11 months of the year.
H&M stressed it did not burn “any clothes that are safe to use” and said much of the destroyed stock was mouldy or contaminated with lead.
Ms De Castro called on the industry to be more open about the amount of clothing that was going to waste.
She added: “We need to slow down. It doesn’t need to be drastic but it does need to happen, because whatever Burberry does with this stuff is not going to be environmentally friendly. There is no way of disposing of this amount of clothing in a way that is not environmentally invasive.”
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