Recently, a viral Tik Tok sent shockwaves through the fashion world. In it, Anna Sacks accuses Coach of destroying its unsold stock. She shows off the slashed bags and shoes she bought from Dumpster-Diving Mama. The response? Absolute outrage. And It’s not hard to see why. The post highlights the fallacy in the fashion world’s claims of increased sustainability. It holds up a magnifying glass to an often overlooked topic: overproduction. After all, unsold goods come from excess manufacturing.
We often see discourse surrounding how clothes are produced and from which materials. But what about questioning production size? What about questioning production itself? It is all linked. The fashion industry is not a major contributor to the destruction of our environment for nothing. Producing too much is an issue, and it might be the biggest one. Here is everything you need to know about fashion overproduction.
What Is It About Destroying?
In 2018, news of Burberry burning unsold products scandalized media outlets. In the same year, Richemont was accused of destroying their most expensive watches. Only last year Louis Vuitton was—perhaps unjustifiably—blamed for incinerating their leftover bags.
A pattern seems to emerge. Claims of the horrible practices of luxury companies plague the internet. Some fail to provide proof but, as evidenced by the Coach incident, it’s not so far from the truth. And it is all tied to the very building blocks of such brands.
The luxury fashion industry is built on an illusion of exclusivity. Luxury items are desirable because of their rarity, because of their limited access. They are status symbols, and companies are very much aware of that. They seek to keep their products out of “the wrong people’s hands’‘. In other words, they seek to keep them out of charities and second-hand stores.
While this might seem terribly cruel (because it is), it is not for nothing. The high fashion industry is currently undergoing great transformations. Whereas its customer-base used to be the top 10%, this has changed with time. The not-so-rich are now able to purchase some luxury items. Thus, brands struggle to find ways to keep those looking for rarity interested. It’s a delicate balance. Unfortunately, destroying surplus has become high fashion’s way of keeping it.
Puzzlingly, however, rendering unsold products unusable is not exclusive to high fashion brands. H&M, Urban Outfitters and Nike are also known for their unethical ways of getting rid of excess merchandise. And unsurprisingly, it’s all about the money. Recycling requires sorting through and separating the garments, which requires more labour, which requires more money. If a company’s ultimate goal is to earn and not spend, it’s no wonder destruction has become such a popular method.
But Why Is There a Surplus In the First Place?
Though necessary, talking about destruction means circling around the issue rather than tackling it directly. Yes, companies need to deal with their surplus, but why is there excess in the first place? It’s overproduction. Plain and simple.
Overproduction means that companies produce more than they can sell. But the reasons are a little more complex. Excess production is not exactly a product of miscalculation. On the contrary, it’s about precise calculation of profits and losses.
Paradoxically, it is both cheaper and logistically easier for retailers to order too much and deal with the excess later. It’s a question of convenience as well as financial gain. Additionally, manufacturers have a minimum threshold in terms of orders. Hence, brands might be forced to resort to overproduction if they want to produce at all.
However, big companies should not take all the blame. Supply responds to demand. If consumers increase their consumption, companies will increase their production, and at least some excess will result. To put it into perspective, we currently consume more than 400% the amount of clothes we consumed two decades ago. We might not want to believe it, but we are somewhat responsible for overproduction.
This all paints a very grim picture. And the solutions are not so great either. Coach, for example, has vowed to stop destroying their unsold products, opting for recycling and reusing instead. Burberry has gone into partnership with Elvis & Kresse to transform leather offcuts into new products. In France, the government has banned companies from destroying unsold goods, spurring a great increase in donations.
This might seem very positive. And in a way, it is. If companies are going to overproduce, it would be nice if they did it sustainably. Donating, reselling and recycling is surely better for the planet and the people than just burning it all down. But there is little talk of avoiding overproduction.
While the COVID-19 pandemic and the losses it caused catalyzed conversations about reducing production, this didn’t translate into practice. There was talk about reducing the amount of fashion seasons and updating inventory systems to better understand demand. But brands are still churning out collection after collection, as New York and Paris Fashion Week have proven.
Nonetheless, not all is lost. On-demand production seems to be taking off. Slow fashion is becoming more and more prominent. The rise of Thredup and such companies have proven that the customer has a will to be more sustainable in their consumption.
Ultimately, what we really need is for people to buy less, to buy smarter. Next time you go to the mall, ask yourself: do I really need it?
Like this article? Check out the social and environmental impact of fast fashion.