Behind the Headlines: The fashion industry’s sustainability problem undressed

Thursday 26th July

Burberry made headlines last week for burning millions of pounds worth of unwanted product every year. Alice Kennedy gives her take on what this means for brand reputation in an era of growing consumer consciousness and how fashion can take lessons from the food industry.

What happened?

Last week it emerged that luxury brands like Burberry have been burning unsold stock worth millions of pounds. It was reported that over the past five years, more than £90 million of the brands’ products have been destroyed in a practice described by Burberry as “common across the retail industry.”

This has thrown the spotlight on other fashion brands. Nike admitted that one of its stores instructed staff to slash unsold trainers before sending them off to landfill.

According to many of these brands the reason for this is to protect their intellectual property and brand values, and more crudely, to prevent the “wrong people” from wearing their brands. Luxury, high-end brands like Burberry do not want to be associated with ‘discount’ and ‘cut-price’ offers.

Why is this important?

Consumers are ever more concerned about their environmental footprint, with 73 percent of millennials reporting that they would pay more for sustainable products and are 95 percent more likely to recommend brands that match their ethics. Brands need to be more conscious of this change in opinion. It is imperative that brands better manage their environmental practices and how this is communicated to consumers. Luxury brands are in a unique position to lead in this space but they must learn the lessons of this latest furore and turn their sustainability efforts around.

The rise of conscious consumerism is concurrent with the rise of celebrity activism. Frequent face-of-Burberry, Cara Delevingne was amongst celebrities who boycotted popular music festival Coachella due to its links with an anti-LGBTQ and pro-gun Trump donor.

Rather than tapping into relationships with socially conscious A-Listers, brands like Burberry risk alienating influential brand-ambassadors like Delevingne, who has also been vocal on environmental issues. Brands should prepare themselves for serious backlash if they fail to make efforts to improve.

What can the fashion industry do?

The fashion industry is falling behind other industries. Retailers must invest in solutions now to avoid facing serious reputational challenges as campaign groups in this space pick up pace.

Back in 2013, major supermarkets faced serious criticism in the media for the amount of edible food they were throwing away. The likes of Tesco and Sainsbury’s have weathered this storm by investing in schemes that can make a difference and clearly communicating these initiatives.

This resulted in widespread innovation in schemes and initiatives to help reduce food waste with apps such as OLIO and Too Good To Go, which promote sharing unwanted food and selling food cheaply that would otherwise be thrown away. Many supermarkets have put reducing food waste at the heart of their CSR schemes, partnering with charities and food distribution apps and relaxing quality specifications on fruit and vegetables.

Whilst the fashion industry as a whole has been slow to act on this change in consumer opinion, some brands are getting it right.

At the beginning of this year, Stella McCartney launched its new World of Sustainability, a platform dedicated to communicating the brands’ use of sustainable products and wider environmental mission. It has committed to a sustainable future and is, amongst other things, using more ‘ethical’ materials such as non-leather. Despite the fact that 19 percent of 18-24 year olds are vegetarian for ethical reasons, it is still almost unheard of for designer brands to ditch real leather. This work has given Stella McCartney herself a unique platform to speak proactively about sustainability in the fashion industry and last year she shot an ad campaign at a landfill site to raise awareness of the extent of the issue.

Whilst investing in long-term solutions for making products sustainable, fashion brands should focus on communicating short-term, smaller scale wins. This could be specific ranges or products using sustainable or recycled materials, or focusing on ensuring that supply factories are ethical. Brands need the licence to talk about what they are doing right and their vision for a more sustainable future. If fashion brands want to stay en vogue in this increasingly ethically conscious society, they must not only act sustainably but convincingly show that they are doing so.

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