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Image: Burberry

Burberry announced a new venture this week, one that will see it tackle a sweeping issue faced by apparel companies: deadstock fabrics. Two years after it vowed to stop destroying millions of dollars’ worth of unsold products, including beauty products and ready-to-wear, the Riccardo Tisci-helmed brand has unveiled the ReBurberry Fabric Initiative, in furtherance of which it will team up with the British Fashion Council (“BFC”) to donate leftover fabrics to fashion students in the United Kingdom. 

A sizable roadblock in the industry’s quest to clean up its act, deadstock fabrics consist of “leftover textiles with no plan for future use.” From excess materials from the creation of garments to “rejected fabrics that are unable to be sold due to minor defects or design changes,” London-based supply chain platform Supply Compass clams that “$120 billion a year of unused material is thrown into landfills, burned or [left to pile up] in warehouses.” 

By way of its new initiative, Burberry is planning to put its leftover materials to good use to support “the next generation of diverse voices across the country,” the stalwart fashion brand stated this week, with Pam Betty, Burberry’s VP of Corporate Responsibility, saying that “providing resources for these communities in a sustainable way will enable them to bring their creativity to life, and continue through their programs with the tools they need.”

At the same time, the BFC’s chief executive Caroline Rush says that one of the primary goals of the initiative as a whole – which the fashion trade group hopes to roll out to all British brands following its pilot with Burberry – is to “to move toward a circular fashion economy while supporting excellence in fashion design.”

A Larger Industry Effort

Burberry’s newly-announced ReBurberry Fabric Initiative is part of a larger effort by the fashion industry to remedy the pollution-inducing and the largely unsustainable nature of the high-volume, novelty-based system that is seasonal fashion. It mirrors some of the practices in place by a number of other brands, such as Alexander McQueen, which are in the habit of donating unused fabrics. Meanwhile, labels like Christy Dawn, Bode, and Christopher Raeburn are manufacture collections from deadstock fabrics. At the same time, it also comes amid pushes for legislation to tackle the rising amount of waste in industries across the board, with the French government, for example, announcing last year that it would enact legislation to “ensure that unsold materials” – including in the fashion sector – “are not thrown away or destroyed” but are recycled or reused instead. 

Thanks to the sweeping new legislation, called “Projet de loi relatif à la lutte contre le gaspillage et à l’économie circulaire.” or Bill on the fight against waste and the circular economy, French companies are slated to be subject to more than 100 new sustainability-centric provisions. These will require the systematic phasing out of automatic paper receipts and single use plastic in fast food restaurants, for instance; followed by the outright ban on all single-use plastics by 2040. 

Of particular interest for the fashion industry is, of course, the prohibition on the destruction of an array of different types of unsold goods, including garments and accessories. To be exact, the law – which was formally approved by the French Sénat on January 30, 2020 – aims to require “producers, importers and distributors, including e-commerce platforms donate unsold non-food goods, save for those that pose a health or safety risk.” 

The fashion industry is a particular target of the new legislation, as “apparel retailers, in particular, as they renew their products more frequently [than other industries] and often have surplus unsold stock,” according to French legislators. 

As we first noted in June 2019, there is expected to be potential exception to the ban on throwing away or destroying garments and accessories that have not been sold. While the French government will not elaborate, it has been reported by French media that there will be “concessions” made in connection with the budding legislation for high-fashion brands aimed at enabling them protect their intellectual property rights

This could mean luxury brands will be permitted to continue to destroy counterfeit or otherwise infringing products that come into their possession, which is generally in line with standard practices across the globe. In this context, however, such a concession may more likely enable companies to destroy authentic products from which their intellectual property – such as their trademarks, which include any word, name, symbol, or design (including logos, colors, sounds, product configurations, etc.), or any combination thereof that identifies the goods of one brand and distinguish them from another – cannot readily be removed.

This would allow luxury goods companies, in particular, to ensure that their trademark rights – and maybe even copyright and design patent-protected elements – remain intact in furtherance of their oft-aggressive quests to police their intellectual property and exercise the ability to carefully control their supply chains (and keep products out of the grey market) in order to maintain the aura of exclusivity and quality that is integral to their premium pricing, and more broadly, their sales success.

Unsurprisingly, the same controls appear to be in play in connection with Burberry’s newly-announced ReBurberry Fabric Initiative, and presumably, the post-pilot program as a whole. Specifically addressing the types of textiles will – or better yet, will not– be passed off to students, fashion critic Charlie Porter notes in an article for i-D that “crucially, the fabric is all non-IP, meaning that there is nothing to identify it as Burberry cloth: no checks, no logo,” and certainly, no word marks. 

As Porter puts it, this “means the students receiving the fabric won’t be making an identifiably Burberry garment, they’ll be making their own garment.” It also means that brands will likely be far more in favor of donating unsold textiles. 

With such brand protection and control concepts in mind, the ability of brands to strictly limit the use of trademark-bearing textiles by third-parties is critical to the success of such legislation, as France seems to well know (potentially as a result of lobby efforts by the French fashion industry), as well as to the prospects for widespread support for voluntary deadstock initiatives, such as the one being pioneered by Burberry and the BFC.