Burberry is perhaps the most iconic British brand in history. It is among the likes of James Bond, black cabs, and Harry Potter in terms of emblematically British pillars of culture. With their classic checkered print, Burberry is instantly recognizable. The fashion house is known for its trench coats, footwear, leather accessories, eyewear, and fragrances. Celebrities seen wearing and modelling for the brand include Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne, model and entrepreneur Cara Delevingne, activist and actress Emma Watson, and many other famous Brits. Burberry has an extensive list of goals and initiatives surrounding environmental health and workplace rights. However, is it even possible for a luxury fashion house, built on the principles of wealth inequality and chasing an image, to be sustainable?
Burberry has had its fair share of issues regarding its materials. Up until 2018, the fashion house used a myriad of furs, including rabbit, fox, mink, and Asiatic raccoon. However, in the wake of fur-free movements from other fashion giants such as Gucci, Versace, and Vivienne Westwood, Burberry officially went fur-free in September 2018. While this sounds like a move in the right direction, the alternative is not ideal. Their faux fur (as seen in the Faux Fur Reconstructed Duffle Coat) is made from modacrylic, polyester, and polyurethane. Modacrylic is inherently dangerous to manufacture: the processing is extremely volatile and workplace accidents aren’t a rarity. It is also non-recyclable and takes up to 200 years to biodegrade. Furthermore, manufacturing modacrylic is an energy-expensive process and the product itself releases microplastics into the ocean. Polyester is a famously environmentally toxic material, and polyurethane follows a similar trajectory.
Despite going fur-free in 2018, Burberry still uses some animal-derived materials such as shearling, leather, and buffalo-horn buttons. These buttons are made from animal byproducts, ultimately reducing waste. The British fashion giant has outlined a number of goals regarding the use of materials in its environmental responsibility section on its website. They want to source 100% certified wool and organic cotton by 2025, as well as 100% leather from certified tanneries by 2022. Furthermore, they want to use recyclable polyester and nylon (where these are the main product materials) by 2025. They also released the ECONYL® Capsule Collection in 2019, in which they released products made from Aquafil’s ECONYL® nylon yarn derived from recycled fishing nets, scraps, and industrial plastics.
Burberry has a number of initiatives in place to foster an increasingly sustainable process along its supply chain. They have set ambitious goals to reduce their emissions: Burberry aims for a 95% reduction of absolute scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2022, and a 30% reduction of scope 3 emissions by 2030. These targets are set against a 2016 base year and align with the Paris Agreement 1.5C pathway. In terms of progress towards these goals, Burberry has reduced scope 1 and 2 emissions by 84% compared to 2016/17. They also outline on their website that they have reduced scope 3 emissions from purchased goods and services by 8700 tons, but do not contextualize this reduction in the form of a percentage as was done with its scope 1/2 reductions. Burberry also claims to be mindful of water consumption throughout the production process; the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) rated them A- for water security in 2020. In terms of waste management, Burberry recycles, donates and repurposes products and parts. They launched ReBurberry Fabric in partnership with The British Fashion Council, donating leftover fabric to fashion students. Last year, they donated a total of 7,125 meters of fabric. All Burberry boxes and bags are certified by the FSC to be recycled. Their oak wrapping paper is made from >40% landfill coffee cups. 66 million cups have been upcycled since the inception of the program. This new sustainable company narrative strongly opposes Burberry’s past activities regarding the environment. For example, until 2018, Burberry burnt all unsold products to prevent them from being found by third-party salespeople. This released countless greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, wasted nearly 31 million euros of merchandise per year, and further contributed to the elitist ethos of the company. However, their attempts to move to a “greener” method of production are respectable. The company also has a goal to use 100% reusable and recyclable plastic by 2025 as a signatory of the 2025 New Plastics Economy Global Commitment.
Burberry aims to be a climate-positive and net-zero company by 2040. In order to do this, they have goals to improve energy efficiency and switch to renewable electricity sources before offsetting other emissions. As of 2019, all of their events have been certified carbon neutral. When balancing their emissions, Burberry has carbon insetting initiatives as well as offsetting projects through the Burberry Regeneration Fund. These store carbon, promote biodiversity, support local producers’ livelihoods, and facilitate the restoration of ecosystems. Their inaugural project involved partnering with PUR Project to design and install regenerative agricultural practices with wool producers in Australia. This improves carbon capture in soils, watershed and soil health, and biodiverse habitats. Burberry also prides itself on its promotion of renewable sources. As of 2020, Burberry sourced 93% of its energy from renewable sources and was recognized in the CDP A-List and Supplier Engagement Leaderboard for success in stimulating demand for renewable energy. Furthermore, they launched a platform for Italian manufacturers to work on impactful environmental programs with the Apparel Impact Institute (Aii). Burberry also provided online climate action training for the fashion industry supply chain. Burberry has partnered with UN Global Compact, Forum for the Future, The Circular Fashion Initiative, and the G7 Fashion Pact, pledging their dedication to the betterment of the climate crisis.
Burberry also has a listed dedication to its community. They are an accredited UK Living Wage Employer and Principal Partner of the Living Wage Foundation. They implemented an Infection Control Management Policy to provide safe working environments during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. They also have a key ambition to positively impact 1 million people by 2022. In hopes of reaching this nearly immeasurable goal, Burberry has a few programs in place. The Burberry Foundation (UK registered charity number 1154468), independent of The Burberry Group, aims to use creativity to support communities. The foundation also launched an emergency relief appeal for frontline workers of the pandemic. They launched branded face masks in August 2020 and donated the proceeds directly to a global relief fund. The Burberry Group itself donates 1% of Group-adjusted profits to charitable causes. They also donate clothes to employability programs in hopes of empowering clients re-entering the job market. The fashion house has partnerships with Teach First, The Careers & Enterprise Company, and MyKindaFuture in the hope of providing employment opportunities for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds in Yorkshire and London. Burberry also has a presence in schools: Burberry Inspire is a program connecting eminent arts organizations with educational institutions.
Burberry has a webpage dedicated to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For each goal, they outline an initiative that aligns with it. For example, in response to Goal 1 (No Poverty), they mention their COVID-19 Community Fund outlined above, as well as a foundation program in Afghanistan improving the livelihoods of cashmere goat herders. For Goal 2 (No Hunger), they share their donations to food security charities such as FareShare, The Felix Project, and the Trussell Trust. I won’t outline all initiatives here, but their commitment to fighting climate change with clear goals is refreshing, particularly in an era of vague promises and ambiguity from other luxury brands on the issue of the UN’s SDGs. However, I find it hypocritical that a luxury fashion brand is referring to an anti-poverty goal when the systems that keep people poor are the same systems that maintain their “unattainable” image.