Fashion has always been labelled as superficial. It is fundamentally about how one looks, and capitalizes on how people view themselves and others from an aesthetic perspective. Its ephemerality and transient nature mean that trends come and go in the blink of an eye and we always seem to be moving on to the next big thing, especially in today’s world.
When news emerged recently that Burberry had destroyed more than £90m worth of its product in the last five years, and £28.6m worth of clothes and cosmetics in the last year alone, in a bid to “protect its upmarket brand and guard against counterfeiting” and stop its products getting into “the wrong hands”, I was shocked, but ultimately not all that surprised. These staggering figures and the reasons behind them made me think about the current state of our fashion industry, why it is the way it is, and what we can do to change this. Though Burberry is not alone in its incineration of surplus products, in ranks alongside the likes of H&M and jewellery giant, Cartier, its actions and response to the outrage has only served to highlight inherently major issues in the fashion industry, including excessive wastage, prejudice and elitism.
I’ve always been interested in the fashion industry, as it is one which to me always felt (perhaps in my naivety) a bit special and different. From about the age of 15, I would livestream shows from Fashion Week in my bedroom, ogling at the beauteous designs I would see, longing to be able to see them in the flesh in the hopes of being able to pursue my love for writing and learning about this somewhat mysterious art and business. In contrast with other industries, which at their cores seemed to me to be impersonal, and instead concerned primarily with profit, numbers and data, fashion was something of an escape. Though it has its moments of superficiality, the artistic and creative side of fashion is there to be appreciated in its purest and simplest form, and even sometimes to make us feel good about ourselves in these creations at all levels, high-street to high-end.
That being said, in light of the Burberry scandal, it is important to realize that fashion, like other industries, is still a money-generating capitalistic business. In fashion’s case, to continue to generate this money and success, it is also pivotal for high-end brands such as Burberry to maintain the high-shine, glossy image they present of being an exclusive, luxury, aspirational label. Their products are reserved solely for those that can afford it, and those of a certain lifestyle that allows you to afford these things. It goes without saying that this is a small minority of the population. But going to the extremes of burning millions of pounds worth of produce to ensure this system stays in place is simply unacceptable.
What struck me is this talk of Burberry products being sold at knockoff prices and getting into the “wrong hands”, implying that Burberry is a brand that is definitely not for everyone, and that not all people have equal opportunities and rights to own its products. I can see, though not always sympathize with, why labels like Burberry are so concerned with brand image and exclusivity. Burberry notably underwent a huge evolution in the 20th century, going from being the underrated makers of outdoor attire to a global super-brand with hundreds of stores, selling women’s and menswear, accessories, cosmetics, fragrances and lifestyle products. In the early 2000s, however, Burberry suffered a damaging blow, becoming rapidly the victim of counterfeiting and, perhaps as a result, associated with “chav” culture. The word ‘chav’ tends to be used pejoratively to describe someone of a lower-class, anti-social background, and so this “chav” culture had particularly negative connotations and ramifications for Burberry, associating it perhaps with the kinds of “wrong hands” it is so eager to avoid today. Counterfeiting of designer products is no rarity though. All over the world, labels across the designer spectrum have experienced counterfeiting, and many of us will even admit to being assets to this. After all, who doesn’t love a good copy, and who can blame us? It goes without saying really that not all of us (read: 99% of us) can’t afford to spend upwards of £1000 on a coat…
It is interesting then that the fashion industry is a place of late where designers and brands are going to lengths to apparently be more inclusive, more politically active and aware, and more accessible; from catwalk ‘protests’ to t-shirts emblazoned with ‘feminist’ slogans, it seems that everyone wants to move away from the stereotype of high fashion sitting in its ivory tower. So, why does Burberry, among other clothing companies, feel it necessary to destroy millions worth of products that could be used, worn and loved? If fashion has the potential to be about looking and feeling good, then why discard the very tools which can make this happen? Designer items are expensive because, yes, they are made well and at times to a higher quality than other items, but also because they are exclusive and in-demand, often being displayed months before we can get our hands on them, contributing to the building of hype and fostering of demand. But, once the newest season has come and gone, demand for old products is lower and, therefore, so is the price tag. These garments are made for far less than the original asking price we see in stores, so why can it not be sold for less later on to those who are not fortunate enough to be watching from the front row?
Of course, there are regular sales, sample sales and other mechanisms within the industry made specifically for filtering designer products down so that a wider demographic is able to use and enjoy them, without it going to waste. But it’s simply not enough. Clothes can be recycled and their fabrics reused, to name but a few of the many options that can stop the mass incineration of excess products. It is wrong to call it waste, and wrong to go to this extreme to maintain a somewhat outdated and elitist ideal. While we may not have the perfect answer just yet, looking at the facts and deconstructing the story makes it easier to see just how urgently things need to change. It’s time to put the fire out.
Written by Robyn Schaffer