Brune Poirson and Stella McCartney

PARIS — Taking the lead on a thorny issue for the fashion industry, France is drafting a law to prevent companies from destroying unsold clothing, potentially setting new standards that could become a blueprint for the industry.

Junior ecology minister Brune Poirson, a young, American-educated government official spearheading the project, said she was prodded to action by an undercover television report that showed new merchandise, including brand new diapers and unopened Lego sets, flagged for destruction by Amazon.

Responding to the report, the Internet giant said in an e-mailed statement that only a small fraction of unsold products are destroyed while the majority is recycled, resold, returned or donated.

“I am shocked, outraged, but I am lucky, to be sitting in a place where I can do more than be shocked,” Poirson said on French television channel M6 in January.

“In the coming months there will be a law — in this law we will ban this sort of practice. Companies like, for example, Amazon, will not be able to throw away products that are still usable. And we will not destroy products that can still be used,” she said.

Asked what sanctions she had in mind, she cited financial fines up to criminal sanctions and even imprisonment.

While Poirson seized on public outrage at the M6 report on Amazon products as impetus for the project, it also fits into larger environmental plans drawn up by French officials.

Prime Minister Édouard Philippe last year set out a roadmap to steer the country toward the transition to a circular economy, promoting recyclable and reusable products, through measures such as adding ‘recyclable’ logos on qualifying household goods, which is programmed for implementation in 2021.

“The law on the circular economy that we have been working on for 1.5 years will prohibit the destruction of unsold produce form marketplaces like Amazon. Production for destruction is irresponsible and incomprehensible. Soon it will also be punishable,” said Poirson on Twitter in January.

While the government has pledged to put the law to a vote this summer, it hasn’t set the official timing for the measure, which will also take into account public input as part of French President Emmanuel Macron’s two-month ‘grand débat national,’ a countrywide discussion meant to ease frustration that fueled the “Yellow Vest” protest movement.

Further influence will also likely come from the Garot law, passed in early 2016 and aimed at curbing food waste, which some see as a model for the upcoming rules on banning unsold clothing.

“The Garot law has greatly accelerated the process, shining the spotlight on the food sector and adding to the general consciousness of both companies and the public at large…What’s going on in France is the media is now also paying more attention to textiles in the same way that the focus was on food before,” said François Vallée, a director at Comerso, a French start-up that works to help companies reduce waste and recycle. Vallée estimates that 630 million euros of non-food products are wasted on an annual basis in France. 

While it’s too early to know details of the law, Vallée said it needs to be clear.

“What will make it work or not is whether it incites action or provides constraints — if the wording is too loose or vague, which happens with some bills, there won’t be many repercussions,” he added. 

“It is important for businesses to protect the image of their brand — companies are very vigilant at how their unsold merchandise is reevaluated — the image of brands for luxury groups is paramount,” he also said. 

Charity organizations have already expressed concern that the law may not be strong enough, and hope that it includes a requirement for textile companies to forge a deal with associations to handle donations, as the Garot law does for food.

In the U.K., Burberry, which last year revealed it would stop its practice of burning unsold clothing, last month expanded a program with the British women’s charity Smart Works, adding styling advice to its practice of donating clothing to women in need who are trying to get back into the workforce.

“It is indeed irresponsible to destroy new, unsold clothing,” noted François-Marie Grau of the French Federation of Women’s Ready-to-Wear, adding the practice was uncommon as labels and retailers generally prefer to unload the clothing through sales. He suggested it would be appropriate to consider recycling possibilities, which remain limited today.

However, in certain instances, such as the case of counterfeit clothing, or garments that don’t meet necessary standards, “destruction might be necessary.”

“The future legislative measure needs to take this into account,” he said.