Last week, anti-waste activist Anna Sacks posted a now viral TikTok video showing piles of slashed Coach merchandise found outside of a Dallas mall. In her “haul,” she reveals dozens of bags and shoes that had been cut up and thrown into a dumpster. The product was allegedly part of Coach’s policy which instructs retail workers to destroy unsold product instead of marking it down or donating it. While it may be shocking, if you found yourself watching her video with the feeling that you’ve been here before, that’s because you have. In fashion, destroying unsold products is common and has been happening for years.
In 2018, Burberry was under fire when an internal report admitted the brand had burned $36.8 million worth of its own merchandise. The year before that, a Swedish waste facility accused H&M of destroying over 15 tons of merchandise. The brand later denied the accusations, saying the product had to be incinerated because of mold. In luxury, this unbelievable practice is often done because scarcity is key to maintaining the value of the product. In fast fashion, brands destroy products because they are turning over the seasons so quickly that they need to move it off the shelves. In both instances, thousands of leftover garments and accessories are burned or shredded.
Why is that bad? For starters, textiles in landfills break down slowly filling water and air with microplastics and chemicals. Adding more waste to them without even attempting to sell or donate is purposefully aiding the problem. Also, flippantly destroying garments disrespects the labor that went into those products from farm to factory.
What makes the practice more sinister is that many of these brands tout sustainability and circularity. Coach, as Sacks points out in her video, promises they will repair your bags, to keep their products lasting longer. “If your bag is broken or worn, don’t chuck it, repair it! We offer a one-year warranty on our leather goods for all quality defects,” the site reads. Other brands that participate in clothing destruction also promote sustainability through repair of purchased items or the use of recycled materials in their products. If the goal was actually to lower emissions and waste, none of these brands would be making the amount of clothing they are now.
Of course, at the root of this problem is money and overproduction. Rethinking how clothing gets to the market is costly. Even with the best trend forecasting, it’s hard to predict what will sell so often brands are creating products that their customers don’t even want. In some cases, they are also over ordering. When brands don’t own their own factories, minimum requirements from third party sources often force brands to order more than they need. Preselling made-to-order, where items are sold before they are actually manufactured, would solve both of these problems if the fashion industry would just pull back on needing to sell new styles as often as it does.
For what it’s worth, public call outs can work. In 2018, Burberry made a plan to stop the destruction of unsold products and implement recycling. And this week, Coach responded to the backlash from Sacks’ video with a promise to stop the practice. “We have now ceased destroying in-store returns of damaged and unsalable goods, and are dedicated to maximizing such products in our Coach (Re)Loved and other circularity programs,” the brand said in a statement. They know that customers are more aware than ever before and they have to respond accordingly. At the end of the day though, it shouldn’t all be on us. There should be regulations in place that hold brands accountable for the waste they create.
If you found those videos upsetting, here are a few upcycled brands to follow.
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