The fashion industry has been long overdue for a style change when it comes to practices that harm the environment. A 2020 review paper in the scientific journal “Nature Reviews Earth and Environment” painted a troubling picture: It contributes to about 20% of industrial water pollution, 30% of microplastic pollution in the ocean, and to anywhere from 3% to 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also contributing to the earth’s growing waste problem, producing more than 92 million tons per year, with only 1% coming back as new clothing.
In response, forward-thinking and attractive solutions have cropped up. Shirts recycled from plastic bottles. Biodegradable textiles derived from mushrooms, bacteria or banana leaves.
But while these solutions could have some effect on the problem, they can’t keep up with a much bigger factor: There’s still too much stuff. From 2000 to 2015 the production of clothes doubled to more than 100 billion garments, according to a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The World Economic Forum estimated in 2016 the number of garments produced annually had reached 150 billion.
“That’s quite the opposite of what is needed to lower the environmental impact,” said Ingun Grimstad Klepp, professor of clothing and sustainability at Consumption Research Norway at Oslo Metropolitan University. “The most important thing for the environmental burden is that less is produced and each item is used more. And that is very simple.”
While switching to more environmentally friendly materials sounds promising, fiber production only accounts for about 12% to 15% of a piece of clothing’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2020 report by the United Nations and a 2018 report by Quantis. If this is reduced by half by changing materials, that only reduces the overall impact by 6%.
“That’s too little. It hasn’t the potential,” Klepp said. “But if you produced half the amount of clothes today? That’s possible, without any impact on our access to clothes.”
A clear sign that too much clothing is being produced is that luxury companies have routinely burned or destroyed unsold stock. For example, Burberry burned $38 million in 2017. Richemont, which owns Cartier and Montblanc, among others, destroyed $572 million in watches the same year.
In the case of brands like Burberry, “it was seen as a strategy to protect the brand, in a sense, it’s kind of perverse, but to maintain the exclusivity, so making sure that the unsold goods didn’t end up in outlets that might be seen as being damaging to the brand,” said Timo Rissanen, associate professor in fashion and textiles researcher at the University of Technology Sydney. He is also co-founder of the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion and co-authored the 2020 “Nature” paper. “But particularly in the last two decades, the practice has become quite common across the board.”
In 2018, H&M made headlines for sitting on $4.3 billion in unsold goods. At least 60 metric tons of it made its way to a power plant to be incinerated from 2013 to 2017, according to the Danish investigative news show “Operation X,” although H&M released a statement saying those products were mold infested or contained high levels of lead and it does not burn functional clothes.
After a flurry of news stories and criticism from investors and consumers, Burberry publicly announced in 2018 it would stop burning unsold goods immediately.
It’s hard to know just how much gets incinerated or destroyed each year because companies are not required to report it. One study commissioned by the sustainability organization MVO Nederland reported that about 21 million garments, or 6.5% of inventories in Dutch stores, were left unsold, and about 33% were only sold after they were put on sale. While the study found much of that unsold stock was donated or recycled, 600,000 garments were destroyed before they were ever worn.
Financial incentives to destroying clothing
Counterintuitive as it may seem, destroying unsold clothing in perfect condition has come to make financial sense.
“It’s just so cheap to create these fast fashion products,” said Elizabeth Napier, assistant professor of marketing and international business at the University of Toledo in Ohio, who has studied the practice of destroying unsold goods.
Napier explains that fast fashion attracts customers and spurs frequent buying by constantly bringing runway designs quickly to retail stores at a cheap price. But demand is impossible to estimate perfectly, especially when production is overseas and goods take time to arrive.
For a large company, goods themselves are so cheap that destroying them does not mean much of a loss. Clothing production is usually outsourced to countries with far lower wages, and often where environmental and labor practices are less regulated and human rights violations can go unpunished. In huge volumes, the cost per product goes down, and the goods aren’t made to last, either.
“That means consumers have to purchase again and again,” Napier said.
“In conventional business thinking, growth is generally seen as good, and the means to growing don’t matter as much as the growth itself does. It’s like this collective belief in the lie that there are no limits, and the thing is that there are.”
Associate professor, University of Technology Sydney
There are also some financial incentives to destroy clothing. In the U.S., if imported goods are unused and then exported or destroyed, a company can claim 99% of the duties on those products. In Italy, companies can also claim tax credits for unsold goods if they destroy them.
In the race to sell more, destroying unsold goods are a cost-effective sacrifice, although they require natural resources, atmospheric and water pollution, and human labor.
One key factor in overproduction is the rise of polyester, said Rissanen. Rissanen and colleagues wrote that while natural fiber production has remained relatively stable since the 1970s, polyester production exploded. The same fossil fuel economy that made possible these cheap and hard-to-recycle polyester-based clothes “has created the illusion that there are no limits, that we can just keep pumping,” Rissanen said.
“In conventional business thinking, growth is generally seen as good, and the means to growing don’t matter as much as the growth itself does,” he said. “It’s like this collective belief in the lie that there are no limits, and the thing is that there are.”
Is progress actually being made?
Following the controversy over its clothes burning practices, Burberry said it would begin working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to work on transitioning to a circular economy. Burberry, however, is not currently on the foundation’s list of partnerships. The nonprofit declined to comment when asked if they were still working with the fashion brand.
Burberry has also publicized some of its other practices. In its “Code of Conduct” from 2022, a document published on its website, the company vows, “Where we have excess materials or unsaleable finished goods, we reuse, recycle or donate them. We never destroy unsaleable finished goods.”
The company also reported in its 2022 annual report that it donates raw materials and finished goods to charities, design schools and colleges and partnered with a British resale and rental company My Wardrobe HQ to sell and rent new and used items.
“I’ve been laughed out of rooms when I ask [executives] about sustainability.”
Assistant professor, University of Toledo
H&M also joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2016 and announced its ambition to become a circular business by 2040. Since then, it has developed several initiatives to try to reduce its carbon footprint, including creating a repair and recycle program, launching its branded resale platform H&M Pre-Loved and releasing kidswear collections that aim to use sustainable materials.
When the Norwegian Consumer Authority called out H&M in early 2023 for not divulging the quantity of unsold clothing in Norway, a company spokesperson told Sourcing Journal this amounted to 75 tons from stores worldwide, but that all of it was donated, resold or recycled — none of their unsold clothing was sent to a landfill or incinerator.
A brand’s collaboration with a nonprofit, however, doesn’t necessarily mean the problems are getting resolved, said Napier, who has studied such partnerships.
“It’s difficult to tease apart what’s actually being done and what’s just lip service or trying to greenwash,” she said. “I’ve never been able to find the tangible output.” Results are even fewer for short-lived partnerships, which are the norm.”
She offered two examples, including when H&M partnered with the World Wildlife Foundation in 2015 to launch a sustainable cotton initiative, but the nonprofit dropped the fast fashion brand in 2019, citing a failure to take certain sustainability measures. Burberry was also working with Oxfam to donate unsold clothing. But then the clothes burning scandal arose, and Oxfam promptly ended the partnership.
Companies may argue that overproduction, even a lot of it, is inevitable because consumer demand is hard to predict. But Napier points out that sophisticated algorithms abound for targeted advertising. “You’re so able to read the information on my web browser right now and throw these products at me, why is there still this issue of overproduction?” she said. “Why can’t you accurately forecast what consumers are going to buy or not buy?”
If companies haven’t stopped growing and overproducing, Napier said, it’s because they haven’t been held accountable.
“Good business needs good regulation,” Klepp said. Otherwise, smaller brands that may have more ethical practices won’t be able to compete. “They need a level playing field. They need the fast fashion system to be less economically strong because we need the good guys to have an easier life.”
There has been some progress on the regulatory front. In 2020, France passed a law banning the destruction of unsold goods. In a description of the new law available in English, the Ministry of the Ecological Transition quantified the current problem: 630 million euros of products in general, and between 10,000 and 20,000 metric tons of textile products are destroyed in France each year. “This is equivalent to the weight of one to two Eiffel Towers,” the statement reads. The law went into effect at the end of January 2021, and the Ministry’s message was clear: “Over the medium and long term, the whole industrial sector will have to rethink stock management in order to reduce overproduction.” As of Dec. 31, 2024, the destruction of unsold textiles will be illegal in Spain as well.
Now the European Union is working on passing similar measures. In 2022 it launched a Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles, which includes a publicity campaign against fast fashion. And regulation on Ecodesign for Sustainable Products is in the midst of negotiations. It may be ready for a vote in the environmental committee in June, with a plenary vote in July, which could mean that negotiations with EU governments would begin in the fall. A current draft lays the groundwork for future bans, beginning with requiring companies to report the destruction of unsold goods. Meanwhile, the European Parliament Committee on the Environment, Public Health, and Food Safety, in a draft report on its position, has named banning the destruction of unsold textiles as a priority.
Klepp worries banning destruction might not be effective if it’s difficult to donate or recycle the unsold goods. She and her colleagues have proposed that, rather than banning destruction altogether, it should be tightly tracked and made extremely costly — thus making overproduction as expensive for companies as it is for the environment.
Whatever the approach, without regulation, Napier doesn’t believe it’s likely companies will quit their habit of overproduction on their own unless an individual CEO has strong environmental values and imposes those on the company. And from her experience speaking with executives so far, she is not optimistic. “I’ve been laughed out of rooms when I ask them about sustainability.”
Clarification: This story was updated with details regarding clothing's impact on greenhouse gas emissions.
Article top image credit: Spencer Platt/Getty via Getty Images