Sustainability and the Fashion Industry

Described as the dirty secret of the fashion industry, the fate of many unsold luxury garments is rarely publicised. With no obligations to disclose any such information, many of the world’s biggest fashion houses burn, shred and landfill garments belonging to previous seasons. Not only does this neglect environmental responsibilities in the fashion industry, but it also undermines the creativity and design invested in the garments.


The case of Burberry in 2018, to some extent, catalysed an increased awareness of the nature of the fashion industry. It was reported that the FTSE 100 company had destroyed over £90 million worth of goods over the past 5 years. Yet, Burberry is not the only company that destroys products as a response to a surplus of stock. For many brands, burning surplus products is simply easier and cheaper than finding ways to effectively re-market them.


The fashion industry’s overall impact on the environment is insurmountable. It is the second-biggest industry for the consumption of water. On average, the cultivation of 1kg of raw cotton needs 10,000 litres of water; cotton being the material used in a third of globally produced textiles. In addition, global emissions from textile production are equivalent to 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2, a figure that outweighs the carbon footprint of international flights and shipping combined, and even so, it is estimated that 35% of those materials in the supply chain still go to waste.

Why does it happen?

There are two main reasons:

Firstly, from the industry perspective, the rise in fast fashion facilitated through online shopping has shortened fashion cycles, and induced a constant push for new content. As a consequence, clothes are constantly being overshadowed by the next fashion trend or social media phenomena.

Secondly, from the individual’s perspective, there is an element of brand image and exclusivity that brands harness through scarcity of product; brands need their high prices to seem justifiable, and exclusivity is a key part of that. Furthermore, brands have tried to justify the destructions of old stock by claiming it is protection against counterfeiting.

What is being done?

In terms of reaction to the state of the fashion industry and the environment, there are many campaigns and initiatives working to reduce the burden of the industry on the environment. To name a couple the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) and the UN’s Ethical Fashion Initiative are working towards a more sustainable industry built on the principles of a circular economy.

Fashion Revolution every year publish The Fashion Transparency Index containing a review of 250 of the world’s largest fashion brands and retailers that are ranked according to how much they disclose about their social and environmental policies, practices and impacts. Whilst transparency is not necessary a predicate of sustainability, it encourages consumers to make an informed discernment of how companies conduct their manufacturing and treat their excess stock.

As this isolation period eases and brands begin to reopen their shops and factories, it is imperative for any post-COVID-19 stimulus in the fashion industry to find a better solution to dealing with excess and unsold garments. There will be no better opportunity to continue the momentum of the environmental resurgence we have witnessed with the lockdown of industry, and no better opportunity to restructure society, reconsidering the environment at the forefront of the post-COVID-19 fashion industry.