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The EU is taking on fashion’s open secret: Destroying unsold goods

Photo: Martin Bernetti via Getty Images

This article originally appeared on Vogue Business by writer Bella Webb on December 7, 2023.


It’s an open secret in fashion. Unsold inventory goes to the incinerator; excess handbags are slashed so they can’t be resold; perfectly usable products are sent to the landfill to avoid discounts and flash sales. The European Union wants to put an end to these unsustainable practices. On Monday, it banned the destruction of unsold textiles and footwear.

“It is time to end the model of ‘take, make, dispose’ that is so harmful to our planet, our health and our economy,” Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Alessandra Moretti said in a statement. “Banning the destruction of unsold textiles and footwear will contribute to a shift in the way fast fashion manufacturers produce their goods.”

This comes as part of a broader push to tighten sustainable fashion legislation, with new policies around ecodesign, greenwashing and textile waste phasing in over the next few years. The ban on destroying unsold goods will be among the longer lead times: large businesses have two years to comply, and SMEs have been granted up to six years. It’s not yet clear on whether the ban applies to companies headquartered in the EU, or any that operate there, as well as how this ban might impact regions outside of Europe.

For many, this is a welcome decision that indirectly tackles the controversial topics of overproduction and degrowth. Policymakers may not be directly telling brands to produce less, or placing limits on how many units they can make each year, but they are penalising those overproducing, which is a step in the right direction, says Eco-Age sustainability consultant Philippa Grogan. “This has been a dirty secret of the fashion industry for so long. The ban won’t end overproduction on its own, but hopefully it will compel brands to be better organised, more responsible and less greedy.”

Clarifications to come

There are some kinks to iron out, says Scott Lipinski, CEO of Fashion Council Germany and the European Fashion Alliance (EFA). The EFA is calling on the EU to clarify what it means by both “unsold goods” and “destruction”. Unsold goods, to the EFA, mean they are fit for consumption or sale (excluding counterfeits, samples or prototypes). “Our industry is also firmly committed to the development of new practices such as remanufacturing and upcycling, which give a second life to unsold products while allowing creative freedom to thrive, and we strongly oppose any ban that would put an end to these practices.”

The question of what happens to these unsold goods if they are not destroyed is yet to be answered. “Will they be shipped around the world? Will they be reused as deadstock or shredded and downcycled? Will outlet stores have an abundance of stock to sell?” asks Grogan.

Large companies will also have to disclose how many unsold consumer products they discard each year and why, a rule the EU is hoping will curb overproduction and destruction. The EFA, which lobbies the EU on behalf of the fashion industry and its various European fashion councils, has some concerns about the knock-on effects for brands’ reputations. “Considering the risk of such disclosure from a business and competition point of view, we request that it should be exclusively provided to the Commission or a competent national authority,” says Lipinski.

Could this shift supply chains?

For Dio Kurazawa, founder of sustainable fashion consultancy The Bear Scouts, this is an opportunity for brands to increase supply chain agility and wean themselves off the wholesale model so many rely on. “This is the time to get behind innovations like pre-order and on-demand manufacturing,” he says. “It’s a chance for brands to play with AI to understand the future of forecasting. Technology can help brands be more intentional with what they make, so they have less unsold goods in the first place.”

Grogan is equally optimistic about what this could mean for sustainable fashion in general. “It’s great to see that this is more ambitious than the EU’s original proposal and that it specifically calls out textiles. It demonstrates a willingness from policymakers to create a more robust system,” she says. “Banning the destruction of unsold goods might make brands rethink their production models and possibly better forecast their collections.”

One of the outstanding questions is over enforcement. Time and again, brands have used the lack of supply chain transparency in fashion as an excuse for bad behaviour. Part of the challenge with the EU’s new ban will be proving that brands are destroying unsold goods, not to mention how they’re doing it and to what extent, says Kurazawa. “Someone obviously knows what is happening and where, but will the EU?”

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