What Should French Fashion Do With Its Unsold Clothing?

Clothing at a flea market | Source: Shutterstock

PARIS, France — Two years ago, France was the first country to pass a law preventing supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food. Under the country’s circular economy roadmap, lawmakers are planning to do the same for clothing.

Spearheaded by prime minister Édouard Philippe, by 2019 new regulations or incentives could prohibit brands from discarding unsold clothing into landfills or through incineration, instead requiring sustainable measures like recycling or donating to charity shops.

The initiative forms part of the proposed Circular Economy Roadmap, which outlines 50 measures for France to become a circular, sustainable economy — one that moves away from a linear “take, make, dispose” model towards a model of restoration and regeneration.

Europeans consumed over 6.4 million tonnes of clothing in 2017, according to the European Clothing Action Plan. France alone discards 600,000 tonnes of clothing and accessories per year, says a case study by the Ellen MacArthur foundation, of which only a quarter is collected in recycling bins or charity shops.

While the detailed terms of the proposal have not been outlined, legislators say it may include potential tax breaks for companies that re-use or recycle clothing, rather than dump them in a landfill, thereby linking sustainable practices with profit. Regardless, it is not likely to be a fully-fledged law, but rather an incentivised proposal.

It may include potential tax breaks for companies that re-use or recycle clothing.

“Now is the time for the fashion industry to ensure their products are used more,” says Francois Souchet, lead of the Circular Fibres Initiative at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “Whether it’s through pressure from legislators or consumers, a lot of signals say the time is right for the industry to rethink their business model.”

The country’s circular economy roadmap offers a direct incentive for brands to rethink their supply chain model from the ground up. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which worked with the French government on the scheme, outlines three areas of action that brands can take. First, set up new business models that move away from a classic retail model. Second, innovate and use recyclable materials. Third, make clothes to be made again by incorporating recycling into the design process.

“We avoid [the practice of disposing of unsold clothing] and do everything we can to eradicate it,” said French luxury house Chanel in a statement. “Chanel’s strategy of [producing] collections only when we receive orders from our buyers cuts down considerably on unsold stock. We are also currently thinking about the best way of recycling unsold items.”

But other companies may find it tougher to implement the new measures. Last year, H&M was accused by Danish television programme Operation X of burning 12 tonnes of new, unsold clothing per year (although the fast fashion chain denied the claims). Meanwhile, Louis Vuitton has long been rumoured to burn all unsold bags to avoid lowering brand cachet by selling discounted items in outlet stores. The company was not available for comment.

While the new circular economy incentive only addresses textiles, it’s likely that luxury brands will consider alternative recycling methods, rather than donating unsold clothing, to avoid brand dilution.

“The opportunity is to disconnect revenues from resource consumption and satisfy changing customer needs,” said Souchet. “Brands need to align the design and business model.”


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