Culture

Clothing companies are trashing unsold merchandise instead of donating it

Retail’s cruelest policy

Culture

26 billion
The number of pounds of clothing that end up in U.S. landfills each year.
Culture

Clothing companies are trashing unsold merchandise instead of donating it

Retail’s cruelest policy

In New York City, it’s not uncommon to find piles of discarded items on the sidewalk, sometimes accompanied by a sign that reads “FREE” or “take what you need.” At first glance, a heap of abandoned coats and blankets left outside the Eddie Bauer store in Union Square on December 10th could have seemed like a donation — but according to the woman who found them, each item was cut up, leaving the coats unwearable and the blankets unusable. “This happens while thousands in NYC will sleep on the streets tonight,” she wrote on Twitter.

In a statement to The Outline, an Eddie Bauer spokesperson said that particular store hadn’t adhered to the company’s policy of shipping unsellable items to the “main distribution center where they are sorted,” adding that “any products that can be donated or salvaged are done so.” It’s not clear why that shop chose to cut up the coats, some of which retail for upwards of $200, instead of donating them to a homeless shelter or second-hand store — but it’s not an unusual practice, either.

THE CHI – ONLY ON SHOWTIME

During my brief tenure as an Urban Outfitters sales associate in 2013, employees were required to destroy “dime-outs,” the company’s term for merchandise that didn’t sell. My then-boyfriend, who also worked at Urban Outfitters at the time, told me he was regularly instructed to drill holes in unsold vinyl records, pour green paint on unsold Toms shoes, and that he once destroyed a couch that was deemed unsellable. Alexis P., a former coworker who asked The Outline not to use her full name because she now works a different retail job and fears blowback from her employer, said she destroyed “hundreds of cosmetic supplies, scarves, gloves, [and] socks in the time she worked for the company. Unsold clothing was sent back to the company’s distribution center in Pennsylvania.

“I would occasionally bring up the fact that we could take this to women’s shelters as a donation,” she told me via Facebook message. “They would always make up some excuse about how it costs too much money to get it picked up and dropped off, so they destroy it. They don’t want anyone to get it for free.” Urban Outfitters did not respond to The Outline’s request for comment.

Plenty of retailers have similar policies. In January, The New York Times reported that a Nike store in Soho threw out several bags of unworn shoes, all of which had been slashed with box cutters so no one could wear them. In 2011, Victoria’s Secret came under fire after a salesperson at a Tampa, Florida store cut up a brand new pair of sweatpants after a customer returned them. A year earlier, the Times reported that fast-fashion retailer H&M was destroying and discarding dozens of bags of unworn clothing each night, though the company has since changed its policy. That same year, an outraged employee at a Pittsburgh JCPenney told local media that the company was requiring them to destroy specific Ralph Lauren merchandise. “We’ve destroyed blankets. We’ve destroyed shirts, sweatshirts. I mean, you name it,” the employee said. In a statement to WTAE, a JCPenney spokesperson said destroying these products was a way of “protecting” the brand.

We talked about this story on our daily podcast, The Outline World Dispatch. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

D., who also wanted to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from former employers, has worked in retail for several years at stores including Michael Kors, Henri Bendel, and Juicy Couture. She told The Outline she’s had to destroy merchandise at each of her retail jobs. She described smashing watch faces, tearing up silk dresses, and cutting up tracksuits that were deemed unsellable. At Michael Kors, “if the watches didn’t keep time correctly, they would damage them and just call it as a loss,” she said. The only clothing items deemed salvageable were “leather jackets and fur, which were “sent back to the company where they got those items from.” At Juicy Couture, she was often instructed to rip up sweatsuits that couldn’t be sold to the company’s outlet store. “They didn’t want people to just be able to take it out of the trash can and have it,” she said. “They wanted it to be unwearable for everyone.”

There are a few reasons retailers — high-end clothing companies in particular — would rather destroy unsold merchandise than attempt to donate it. In a 2010 Slate post, fashion journalist Erika Kawalek claimed she knew of a “VERY high-up and profitable” fashion label that “sent two million dollars worth of clothing and purses to the shredder” rather than donating the goods, lest its wares end up on the unwashed masses “or in some unsightly discount bin.” Even fast-fashion retailers like H&M were worried that donating unsold clothing would undercut their business — why pay full price for an H&M shirt if you can just get one at a thrift store? Other brands were concerned that people would buy clothing at steep discounts at thrift stores and then attempt to return them for full-price in the store.

They wanted it to be unwearable for everyone.
D., a former employee at Juicy Couture, Michael Kors, and Henri Bendel

All of these reasons for destroying perfectly fine clothing are, to put it bluntly, incredibly stupid — not to mention wasteful. According to statistics from the World Resources Institute, it takes 2,700 liters of water, or the amount of water a single person drinks in two and a half years, to make a single cotton shirt. Synthetic materials like polyester may require less water and land than their organic counterparts, but they’re even worse for the environment. In 2015, polyester production for textiles released 1.5 trillion pounds of greenhouse gases in 2015. HuffPost reported that 26 billion pounds of clothing — from consumers and corporations — ends up in landfills every year.

Some fast-fashion retailers have attempted to correct for this by implementing more sustainable practices. In 2013, H&M announced its “Close the Loop” initiative to prevent discarded clothing from ending up in landfills. H&M stores across the country are now outfitted with disposal bins where shoppers can drop off unwanted clothing, and the company has begun making clothing out of the recycled materials. In Sweden, power plants burn discarded H&M clothing instead of coal, which sounds like a bad joke about the marvels of Scandinavian socialism. Companies like Reformation and Everlane have pledged to only make clothing out of sustainable, organic materials — but, as mentioned above, even sustainable, organic cotton places a huge burden on the environment.

And ordering employees, many of whom are making just over minimum wage, to destroy apparel that could be given to people who need it is incredibly cruel, especially when you consider the dire financial circumstances of poor and working-class households. According to a 2016 study by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, nearly half of American families have trouble paying their bills every month. There were nearly 63,000 homeless people in New York City as of October, including 15,689 homeless families with children, many of whom could have benefited from a warm Eddie Bauer coat.