Burberry’s destruction of £28m of leftover clothing shows fashion is still all about class

Designer fashion is still, undoubtedly, all about class.

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Ever wonder how luxury designers stay on-brand? By burning millions of pounds worth of stock, it seems. According to a report in the Times, Burberry has admitted to incinerating £28m of its product over the past 12 months – equivalent to the cost of 20,000 of its famous trench coats.

Not only has the company, which is currently valued at around £9.6bn, burned over £90m worth of excess stock in the last five years: the overall value of its net waste is up 50 per cent in two years and almost six times greater than in 2013. In other words, it is burning more than ever before. This has been attributed in part to price inflation in Asian markets leading to a fall in the number of items sold.

Naturally, it is easy to see this as outrageous from a primarily environmental perspective, especially if you believe Burberry's statement that this behaviour is an industry-wide norm. Indeed, the brand was careful to add the caveat that it burnt the clothes using a special method that allowed the energy produced to be harnessed. (International high-street brand H&M has also admitted to donating its own surplus stock to be used generate power as a fossil-fuel replacement in the Swedish city of Vasteras.) A Burberry spokesperson said: “Burberry has careful processes in place to minimise the amount of excess stock we produce.  On the occasions when disposal of products is necessary, we do so in a responsible manner and we continue to seek ways to reduce and revalue our waste.”

However, this is clearly not a question of disposing of the stock in the most ethical way possible. By eradicating the unsold clothing from the face of the earth, Burberry is working to keep it out of the hands of outlets that would sell it at lower prices, thus depreciating its brand value. Luxury brands are often involved in stunts like this: the owners of Cartier and Montblanc destroyed more than £400m worth of watches in two years after buying back unwanted stock from jewellers. A fashion insider told The Times that designer labels do not want their products to be worn by the “wrong” people taking advantage of knockdown prices. (The labels themselves maintain it is a case of protecting intellectual property). 

Burberry has a particularly rocky history of navigating the seas of prolificacy versus exclusivity. In one of the most famous cases of intellectual property licensing gone wrong, the company faced a crisis following the loosening of its rights in 2001, when their famous beige check became, as BBC news charmingly put it in 2005, “the uniform of a very different social group: the so-called Chav”. The brand, faced with plunging profits following the increase in popularity of its style amongst footballers, and consequently their fans, and the proliferation of knock-off produce across the world, appointed a new CEO – Angela Ahrendts – in 2006.

Arendhts brought back the old, aristocratic image of Burberry; beginning to shoot promotional material at country houses, and using photographers such as Mario Testino, the official photographer of the British Royal family. Ahrendts created a genius mixture of bringing the brand into the digital age (it became one of the first to live-stream its fashion shows), whilst still playing into the image of Burberry as a fundamentally elitist and Victorian institution. Thomas Burberry, the founder, set a nice precedent for this, making sure his coats were worn by upper class figures of celebrity like Ernest Shackleton and Robert Baden-Powell, 1st Baron, army officer and founder of the Boy Scouts Association.

These days, Burberry is of course as keen as any other brand to present an image of forward-looking inclusivity. A recent campaign involved filming fashion model Adwoa Aboah in London, New York and also Ghana, where her father lives – where intimate shots were taken of her with her extended family. Burberry made specially designed outfits, based on traditional Ghanaian designs, out of the classic on-brand vintage check for her relatives to wear. 

There is no doubt that a thriving counterfeit market would exploit any stock it got its hands on. Nevertheless, for those who cannot afford Burberry clothes, there is a bitter irony in the knowledge that rather than letting demand and supply play out, these products must be consigned to ash. It is hard for most families to engage with a brand that sells £950 coats for eight- to 14-year-olds. Designer fashion is still, undoubtedly, all about class – or, rather, about staying away from anyone not part of the elite.

This article was amended on 19 July 2018 to include a response from Burberry and to make the source of a quote clear.