Burberry burning £28m of stock to 'protect its brand' could have the opposite effect

Romeo Beckham fronts a Burberry's advertising campaign

The fashion world’s not in a great place right now, reputation-wise. Influential millennials and Gen Y fashionistas are turning away from established brands, taking their inspiration from the street rather than the catwalk, and buying online instead of in swanky (expensive, increasingly useless) retail spaces. More importantly they’re also rethinking their attitudes to consumption with capsule wardrobes, shwopping, upcycling and vintage.

Fashion brands everywhere are struggling to stay relevant to an influential, connected audience that, for the first time in decades, feels way ahead of them.

So the latest headlines about Burberry burning millions of pounds worth of excess stock could hardly have come at a worse time. That’s because they play into two fundamental – and fundamentally uncomfortable – narratives that the fashion industry is struggling to get its collective head around.

The first is sustainability. Fashion’s always been an industry based around waste – around the idea that success looks like most of us ditching half of our wardrobes every year and buying new clothes, bags and shoes we’ll rarely wear. The cost to the environment in terms of materials like cotton and polyester is shocking. Not to mention the millions of tonnes of materials sent to landfill or clogging up the oceans. So the image of a trusted luxury brand like Burberry sending truckloads of perfectly good, unworn clothes up in flames couldn’t be more visceral – or more damaging.

And the second is exclusivity. Fashion’s always been about the idea that some people are better – richer, thinner, prettier, younger, cooler – than the rest of us. That assumption is increasingly out of step with a world that values difference and promotes equality. Where brands can’t afford to be seen to discriminate on the grounds of age, gender, race, body shape, ability, sexuality – or social class. Again, burning perfectly good clothes so that ‘normal people’ can’t get hold of them is Not. A. Good. Look.

Burberry’s already weathered one reputational storm, with the devaluation of its upmarket status (remember Daniella Westbrook’s Burberry bikini?). It’s taken years to recover, under the leadership of the recently departed Christopher Bailey.

So how will it survive this one, when reputations are even more fragile? When celebs can make or break a brand overnight, not just by refusing to appear in its ads, but mobilising armies of followers against it on social. A single tweet can knock millions off a brand’s share price, and fickle fashion is particularly vulnerable.

One thing’s for sure. Burberry won’t recover by pulling up the drawbridge and doing the same things it always has. The truth is, it already has an enviable reputation within the industry for sustainability, with one of the most progressive sourcing and supply chains around. But that doesn’t translate into the ranges, the shows, the advertising or the behaviours. Unlike Vetements, say, whose revolutionary display of discarded clothes in the windows of Harrods recently called attention to the problem rather than hiding it in a corporate report. Or Adidas, who’ve recently committed to using only recycled Polyester in its shoes by 2024 – literally weaving its credentials into the brand, the product and the advertising.

As for inclusivity, the public are ready. Maltesers recently ran its most successful campaign in 80 years featuring real disabled people and everyday scenarios. Not token models but actual people. The public embrace difference. Now brands can too. Nike has launched a ‘modest’ range to embrace Islamic fashion, while Tommy Hilfiger recently launched a whole range aimed at people with physical disabilities.

For Burberry that might mean rethinking the message that its clothes are only for certain kinds of people, even its unsold ones. How about thinking more creatively about its excess stock problem? What’s wrong with clothing refugees fleeing violence, or people leaving prison looking for a fresh start, or women in domestic violence refuges, who’ve left home with nothing? There are a whole range of positive brand associations to be found in solving oversupply and other supply chain problems.

Now’s not the time to think small, for Burberry or any of the other fashion brands finding themselves behind the social impact curve.

And that’s great news for fashion. Because if it’s ever been about anything, fashion has always been about revolution. Reinvention. Bravery.

Now it’s time for fashion brands to rethink some of the fundamental bad behaviours that are holding them back. And embrace a bold, brave, fearless new future. One where they’re, well… fashionable again.

Reuben Turner is creative partner at The Good Agency. He tweets at @reubenturner

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.