October 20, 2019

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Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – Fashion’s Environmental Footprint

A global fashion sustainability effort is kicking off in France, where fashion brands soon may find that they are barred from destroying or disposing of their unsold consumer products. According to recent press reports, the French government has announced its plans to consider, this summer, a measure that would require non-food products, such as clothing, electronics, and hygiene and cosmetic products, to be donated, reused, or recycled.

The precise contours and requirements of any ban will, of course, depend upon the law that is actually adopted. It remains to be seen when a ban would take effect, whether any goods will be exempt, and whether accommodations will be provided to luxury brands or others concerned about the protection of intellectual property. But the law likely would outlaw, or at least significantly curtail, the practice of incinerating or landfilling unsold consumer goods, a method that many see as wasteful and inconsistent with good environmental standards. Some retailers have employed this method to free up warehouse space, and some luxury brands have preferred burning or disposing of unused products to avoid their products being sold at discount or on the grey market and, thereby, maintaining the ‘exclusivity factor’ associated with such brands.

That practice gained attention last year when luxury brand Burberry revealed that it had burned tens of millions of dollars of unsold clothing and cosmetics. In response to public criticism, Burberry announced in September 2018 that it was ceasing destruction of unsold products. Concern for brand image will remain whether or not France adopts the plan, but the response to the Burberry revelation is a reminder that many factors, including environmental practices and sustainability efforts, can affect brand image.

It is unclear whether other countries will seek to develop similar bans, and how industry members comply with any ban France might adopt will, of course, depend in part on the particular requirements of that law. Nonetheless, there is at least some prospect that a prohibition on disposal or destruction of unused consumer goods in France could spur broader efforts in the fashion industry to implement practices both within and outside the country’s borders that reduce the industry’s overall environmental footprint.

And indeed, retailers have accelerated their “zero waste” efforts. From design and sourcing to production, marketing, and sales, fashion retailers are leveraging resources in each stage of the supply chain to reimagine ways to source and produce goods with recycled materials or to package goods using recyclable alternatives or less plastic.

A ban may further encourage investment in markets and technologies that convert textiles or other materials into new products, avoiding environmental impacts associated with developing products from virgin materials. Retailers and manufacturers also may see opportunities to couple programs intended to reduce or reuse their own unsold goods with take-back programs designed to recycle or reuse post-consumer products. Moreover, because some products contain materials that cannot be recycled or repurposed without imposing substantial costs or environmental impacts of their own, designers may have added incentive to look for ways to incorporate more sustainable materials into products from the outset.

The French proposal dovetails with a broader effort in that country to push the fashion industry to become more sustainable. In advance of the Group of Seven summit this summer, French President Macron enlisted Kering’s chief executive officer to lead an industry coalition to promote sustainability efforts in the fashion industry. The coalition is expected to set forth commitments designed to address issues such as climate change, ocean health, and biodiversity.

It remains to be seen what precise goals the coalition will develop, how extensive the industry commitment to them will be, and how the coalition will ensure that participating parties follow through on their commitments. But the prospect of industry-wide attention on sustainability and a public commitment of some kind might help quicken the pace of efforts to reduce the fashion industry’s environmental footprint. Like the disposal ban under consideration in France, the industry coalition could support the scaling up of measures that some industry segments or members already have adopted to reduce their own environmental footprint.

Copyright © by Ballard Spahr LLP

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About this Author

 Ronald M. Varnum Ballard Spahr Of Counsel Philadelphia Litigation, Climate Change and Sustainability, Environment and Natural Resources
Of Counsel

Ronald M. Varnum assists clients in a variety of environmental litigation matters and provides counsel on regulatory and transactional matters. He has represented clients in litigation concerning the adoption of regulations under the Clean Air Act, cleanup and responsibility for contaminated sites and waterbodies, permit appeals, enforcement matters, and wastewater management. Ron also advises clients on permitting and regulatory matters, including the National Environmental Policy Act, air and water pollution, wetlands, storm water management, waste management, and remediation of...

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