Burberry’s burning scandal: time for the iconic plaid to go circular

Burning goods for energy should be the very last stop on the road for materials.

The Guardian recently reported that in the past year, British luxury retailer Burberry burned over £28 million (about €31 million) of its unsold inventory. The story rippled across media outlets, and shareholders were apparently upset that they weren’t offered the opportunity to buy the doomed clothing and beauty items before the goods met their fiery fate.

The company’s shareholders have a right to be mad. Not only might they feel personally slighted, but the decision to jump straight to incineration cost Burberry a last-ditch opportunity to recoup some of the cost of the products that never made it off the shelf. That kind of myopia (or at least clear absence of forward-thinking leadership) may not inspire much confidence in the company’s management, or at least it wouldn’t if this kind of thing wasn’t so normal.

The practice of destroying unsold inventory isn’t new, nor is it unique to Burberry. But this particular story caught fire since the torching of luxury goods feels like a kind of capitalist sacrilege. Through sky-high pricing and sophisticated myth building, luxury brands seductively convey the idea that ownership of their products is the gateway to a rarefied position atop the socio-economic hierarchy. Companies burn their goods to avoid counterfeiting, or to put it more bluntly, to prevent people from lower social classes from “tarnishing” their brands. But burning these elite goods brings them down to the mere mortal status of other consumer stuff, so incineration might puncture the luxury mystique just as much as Burberry style falling into the “wrong” hands (which can happen even when people can afford to shop there).

Burberry defended the practice, saying they took the sustainable road and burned the goods for energy. But in a circular economy, which Burberry purportedly supports as a member of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular initiative, burning goods for energy should be the very last stop on the road for materials. Otherwise, the energy and natural resources that went into making the product are effectively wasted when usable products are trashed too soon. Materials can provide value over and over again, some admittedly more easily than others. This in turn should reduce the inputs of new raw materials to slow the consumption of the planet’s resources, which, according to another recent Guardian report, is desperately needed as we continue to consume in increasing volumes.

So assuming Burberry will want to avoid a similar public relations crisis in the future, what can it do differently? Along with offering their shareholders a pass at items on the way to the incinerator, here are a few other ideas to start it along a circular path:

Look critically at how it ended up with so many unsold goods in the first place. Avoiding waste in the first place is better than even the most ingenious solution for reusing or recycling it. In 2009, Burberry made efficiency improvements that led to a 36% reduction in inventory. The same year saw adjusted operating profits and sales both rise. What new efficiencies can further close the gap between inventory in stock and goods that will actually sell?

Consider a partnership with a luxury clothes-as-a-service company, like Rent the Runway. The nature of ownership is changing, and now is the time for companies to get into the service game. The sharing economy has become normalized enough to almost no longer need the moniker, as sharing strangers’ cars, homes and even clothes have made service providers hundreds of millions (or more) in revenues and/or investments. Partnering with a company like Rent the Runway, which has 9 million members and has grown to over $100 million in revenue, to give last season’s clothes new life can turn otherwise wasted merchandise into new revenue.

Recycle old fabrics into new ones. Aside from its iconic plaid, Burberry is best known for its trench coats. And its coats happen to be made in a way that makes them more conducive to spinning new textiles from the pieces. Take Burberry’s Kensington Heritage Trench Coat, for example. It is made from pieces that are either 100% cotton or 100% viscose. This bypasses one of the main challenges to respinning new threads from old fabrics: cotton/polyester blends. As of now, there is no reliable way to separate blended cotton and polyester at the molecular level, though research is underway to find a solution. Unblended fabrics, like the ones in this trench coat, are easier to break down and respin into yarn to make new textiles.

Experiment with designing for disassembly. One of the principles of a circular economy is to design products with components that can be easily replaced so that the whole product doesn’t need to be trashed when part of it breaks down. This may be difficult for clothes, as they need to be well-stitched to stay stable, but there may be ways to get creative with bags and other accessories. However, Burberry has given customers the option to customize their own trench coats in the past, so bespoke refurbishment could be a new variation on this idea. After all, how much do trench coats really change over time? If the point is for them to be timeless, as the name “Heritage Trench Coat” suggests, they could potentially be designed in a way where some design elements — like belts and detailing — could be switched out for their second lives.

In spite of Burberry’s burning scandal, the brand has one advantage that makes it well positioned to be a circular pioneer: its customers expect high price points. It’s still early days for circular technologies and business models in the fashion world, and the cost of innovating can be prohibitive for companies that need to keep their prices low. But a brand that sells £1450 jackets has no such constraint, and hopefully its shareholders will keep management’s feet to the trench coat fire to extinguish this unjustifiable practice once and for all.