The British luxury brand Burberry brought in $3.6 billion in revenue last year — and destroyed $36.8 million worth of its own merchandise.

In July 2018, the brand admitted in its annual report that demolishing goods was just part of its strategy to preserve its reputation of exclusivity.

Shoppers did not react well to this news. People vowed to boycott Burberry over its wastefulness, while members of Parliament demanded the British government crack down on the practice. The outrage worked: Burberry announced two weeks ago it would no longer destroy its excess product, effective immediately.

Yet Burberry is hardly the only company to use this practice; it runs high to low, from Louis Vuitton to Nike. Brands destroy product as a way to maintain exclusivity through scarcity, but the precise details of who is doing it and why are not commonly publicized. Every now and then, though, bits of information will trickle out. Last year, for example, a Danish TV station revealed that the fast-fashion retailer H&M had burned 60 tons of new and unsold clothes since 2013.

In May 2018, Richemont, the owner of the jewelry and watch brands Cartier, Piaget, and Baume & Mercier, admitted that in an effort to keep its products out of the hands of unauthorized sellers, it had destroyed about $563 million worth of watches over the past two years. Whistleblowing sales associates and eagle-eyed shoppers have pointed out how this practice happens at Urban Outfitters, Walmart, Eddie Bauer, Michael Kors, Victoria’s Secret, and J.C. Penny.

The fashion industry is often cited as one of the world’s worst polluters — but destroying perfectly usable merchandise in an effort to maintain prestige is perhaps the dirtiest secret of them all. To find out why this practice is so widespread and what conservation-minded shoppers can do to fight back, I spoke with Timo Rissanen, an associate dean at Parsons School of Design and a professor of fashion design and sustainability at the school’s Tishman Environment and Design Center. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Chavie Lieber

Why do brands have to destroy perfectly good merchandise?

Timo Rissanen

The simplest answer across the board is that today, quantitatively, there’s more stuff than there ever has been before. Fashion cycles have also gotten shorter because of the internet and fast fashion, so there’s a push to constantly put new merchandise out on the market. So when you combine these two, we are now literally at a place where we no longer have anywhere for this stuff to go other than up a chimney.

The underlying business model now includes immense pressure to constantly replenish merchandise. When I was a fashion student 20 years ago, we had four seasons, as well as [specialty ones like] Resort and Cruise. Now the turnover is faster than ever. Global population has gone up too, and so has the number of garments that a person buys per year. A couple years ago, we were at 20 garments per person each year. Today, in the United States, an average person buys about 68 garments per year.

Chavie Lieber

Is it just clothing that gets destroyed?

Timo Rissanen

No, this is not limited to apparel. I saw a few months ago that Amazon was being called out in Germany for destroying tons of returned items, like mattresses, washing machines, dishwashers, and cellphones.

Chavie Lieber

What are the methods of destroying merch?

Timo Rissanen

Burning and shredding are the main ones. The third option is simply landfilling, but most companies do incineration so that they can claim the incinerators capture the energy. Burberry has insisted it’s recycling the clothing into energy, except the energy that is recouped from burning clothing doesn’t come anywhere near the energy that was used to create the garments.

Chavie Lieber

Where does the actual destroying happen?

Timo Rissanen

A lot of it is done in India. There’s one town in India, Panipat, that specializes in shredding, and there’s a horrendous short film that documents women shredding clothes that are brand new. The film shows the women speculating that water in the West must be so expensive, and that people can’t afford to do their laundry, and so that’s why it’s cheaper for them to throw stuff out. Hearing that is really uncomfortable. Incineration happens everywhere, from America to Sweden.

Chavie Lieber

What are some of the environmental impacts of destroying excess inventory?

Timo Rissanen

The most obvious one is the carbon emission from burning. We should be moving away from all forms of burning. Polyester now accounts for about 60 percent of the total fiber market, and it comes from oil. So you could make the case that when we burn polyester, we are burning oil. There is a contribution to CO2 that is happening there, and there’s also a ton of chemicals and finishings embedded in clothing and textiles through the dyeing. When this stuff is burned, it filters into the air.

But really, where it gets insane is thinking about clothes that were never worn in the first place. The fabric was made, the garments were made, the labor was put in, and then the stuff gets burned. It represents all kinds of different waste across the system.

Chavie Lieber

Do fashion brands have to disclose that they are doing this?

Timo Rissanen

No, although I know that the UK has been having quite active discussions about it right now. But on the whole, there is no requirement to report this. For Burberry, I think it was a number of shareholders who started making noise about it, and that’s how it got into a more broad discussion. I have no doubt that the brand would rather it not be out in the open.

Chavie Lieber

Why can’t excess inventory be recycled or reused?

Timo Rissanen

Some of it can be. Different kinds of garments are easier than others. One way to recycle clothing is to shred it and to turn it into insulation, and there are fabrics that are quite good at being turning into new fiber, spun into yarn, and then woven into clothes. But the minute you start mixing fibers, like polyester with cotton, the options for recycling become more limited. Then there’s the obstacles of buttons and zippers. Before a garment can be put through a shredder, all the buttons and zippers must be removed, and that takes manual labor. With any kind of waste management like this, there’s a cost attached to it, and it’s often cheaper just to destroy it.

Chavie Lieber

Why can’t the clothing be donated?

Timo Rissanen

Historically, a lot of the donations have gone to Africa, Latin America, South America, and to some countries in Asia. But in the last couple of years, a number of African countries, like Kenya and Uganda, have actually banned the importation of secondhand clothing from the West. It suppresses their own textile and apparel industry, since they can’t compete with the volume and the very low price of the secondhand goods.

Chavie Lieber

Why don’t brands sell off their extra merchandise at sample sales?

Timo Rissanen

Some brands do sample sales, but companies like Louis Vuitton and Chanel just incinerate their samples. I remember when Parsons was doing a student project in 2009, and Louis Vuitton supplied samples that were going to be incinerated. I watched students cut up perfect Louis Vuitton garments, which they used to make blankets that were auctioned off for charity, and I had a visceral reaction because they really should have remained as garments. It’s not a slight on the students, but there’s a huge investment that has gone into those garments, and all of that was lost.

Chavie Lieber

What is the theory for luxury brands destroying their extra merch?

Timo Rissanen

They see discounts and donating as a way to devalue their brand. They want to control how and where and at what price their goods are sold. You can go to a place like Century 21 in New York and you’ll find certain brands have their stock there that’s two or three seasons old and heavily discounted. Some brands are clearly fine with that, and others are not.

Chavie Lieber

Wouldn’t they rather earn a profit than nothing at all? Wouldn’t Chanel prefer to mark down its $3,500 bag by $300 and still make $3,000?

Timo Rissanen

This is where we get to the thing that nobody wants to talk about: The retail price of a luxury product has nothing to do with its actual value. When you buy something from Chanel or Gucci and you pay full retail, that money is actually paying for the massive advertising campaigns. If Chanel destroys a dress it tried to sell for $1,200, it hasn’t really lost $1,200. I don’t think Chanel even paid $100 [to make] that dress. And the money they’d lose would probably just be recouped through fragrances.

Chavie Lieber

As someone who is a part of the fashion world, can you understand the argument for destroying things in order to save a company’s prestige factor?

Timo Rissanen

No. I cannot. We have arrived at a point where I think we need to have some very honest conversations about what type of values this industry has.

Chavie Lieber

Do you think companies will follow in Burberry’s footsteps and stop destroying their merch?

Timo Rissanen

I think so. I do think it will take some time because we are talking about a whole system, and it will not come to a halt because of a little bit of bad publicity. But I do think that being called out forces brands to take a look at what’s happening and start to have conversations about what they can do about it.

Chavie Lieber

What can shoppers do?

Timo Rissanen

On a very simple level, figure out which things bring you the most satisfaction and then buy those things. We are all prone to impulse-buying, which is what I’d encourage to limit. I also recommend buying secondhand if you are interested in environmental impact.