When I first arrived in the Middle East I was struck by the number of men who were using tooth cleaning twigs called miswaks. These twigs are from a specific tree sometimes called the mustard tree or bush and are known to contain health benefits such as helping avoid kidney stones. In many developing countries today, people are being influenced by global oral health care brands to use a toothbrush and obviously the paste these companies produce. The trend towards using a toothbrush is seen as a sign of sophistication but unfortunately many poorer people are having to share one toothbrush with other members of their family. At the other end of the market the big brand owners are focused on moving consumers towards using electric brushes where there are more profits.
I share this story from a healthy twig to an electric toothbrush to help me with what is really concerning to me and it is about fashion, especially upmarket brands who appear to be particularly wasteful. Latest accounts from the Burberry company include the fact that $37 million of unwanted products were destroyed over the past year. It seems their ability to read the consumer demands is worsening with the value of their waste up by 50 per cent in two years. Almost $12m of perfectly good Burberry products have been destroyed over the last five years.
Industry insiders have confirmed that Burberry is not alone when it comes to destroying perfectly good products. Luxury brand owners destroy products to protect their brand values and destroying products means that their products will not be worn by the “wrong people” if products emerged onto “grey markets” at knock down prices. Environmentalists are not surprisingly outraged by this industry practice as the facts start to become more transparent.
H&M last year provided the Swedish city of Vasteras with 15 tonnes of discarded products to be used in place of burning coal in the electricity generating station. Richemont the owner of the Cartier and Mont Blanc brands destroyed more than $500m of watches in two years after buying back unsold stock from retailers. This ensured that none of their watch brands would be sold at discounted prices. Nike has admitted that one of its New York stores slashed unsold trainers before dumping them in the garbage.
The big luxury brand owners are not the only source of the problem of waste. Consumers need to wake up to their behaviours and some are questioning the growth of companies such as Primark that have made it fashionable to see clothing as something you only wear once or twice before binning. Last year in the UK people binned almost $17 billion of clothes, sending 300,000 tonnes of clothes to landfill.
Is this the world we feel comfortable living in? Does this story not make you, just once, step back and think again about what we consumers are indirectly causing? Apart from the environmental issues, is what is taking place morally the right thing to do?