H&M Takes Disposable Fashion to a New Low

9 years ago
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H&M, the Swedish retail giant who made "fast fashion" part of the shopping vernacular, is coming under fire for intentionally damaging unsold clothing -- and then dumping those pieces in the trash.

City University graduate student Cynthia Magnus noticed the bags of destroyed garments on her walk home; she contacted H&M about the practice, but didn't get any response -- so she went to the New York Times instead.

Writer Jim Dwyer, alerted by Magnus, took a trip to H&M's Herald Square store this week, to check out the dumpsters. "At the back entrance on 35th Street," he wrote in Wednesday's paper, "awaiting trash haulers, were bags of garments that appear to have never been worn. And to make sure that they never would be worn or sold, someone had slashed most of them with box cutters or razors, a familiar sight outside H & M’s back door." Dwyer also quotes Magnus' account of finding men's coats in the same dumpster, still with the tags on them, sliced so that the filling was spilling out of them, rendering them unwearable.

When Dwyer questioned store employees about the slashed and trashed clothing, he was told that "inquiries about its disposal practices had to be made to [H&M's] United States headquarters. However," he continued, "various officials did not respond to 10 inquiries made Tuesday by phone and e-mail."

"It is winter," Dwyer wrote. "A third of the city is poor. And unworn clothing is being destroyed nightly."

Eventually, H&M responded to the Times' request for a statement; Wednesday night, on the City Room blog, Dwyer quoted Nicole Christie, a spokeswoman for H&M in New York: "It won't happen again," Christie said. “We are committed 100 percent to make sure this practice is not happening anywhere else, as it is not our standard practice.” According to Christie, unworn clothing is donated to charity, not destroyed.

I found myself hoping, yesterday, that perhaps this one store in New York City was just breaking corporate policy -- maybe the employees were too lazy or too disorganized or too cranky to donate; maybe they thought it would just be more fun to slash up the clothes and put them in the dumpster. Anything to excuse the company for what is both a bad business practice and a bad social practice.

And that seemed to be H&M's take last night, when Nicole Christie expressed amazement that this one store was cutting up unsold garments. But then I heard from a former H&M employee who said that was indeed company policy, at least in her experience. The woman, who asked me not to use her name, worked in several H&M stores on the west coast, including a major flagship store.

"At each store I worked in up until I left in spring 09," she wrote in an email, "clothes/accessories/goods that were identified as 'damaged' would get pulled from the sales floor, intentionally destroyed by the staff (cut, ripped, etc) and then tossed in with the rest of our store's trash. This was part of our daily routine as stock personnel at each store, taking care of any 'damages' left hanging around at the end of the night."

So what constituted "damaged" at H&M? According to my source, "'damaged' goods were garments that showed up on the sales floor with some noticeable blemish. So garments with stains, small holes or tears, large snags, too many buttons missing, broken zippers, missing belts if the garment came with a belt attached, etc."

Were the damaged goods unwearable? Sometimes, she said, but not necessarily. "Obviously, a giant make-up stain doesn't make a shirt unwearable," she told me, "but it also looks bad to leave it out on the sales floor for customers. Some 'damages' would genuinely be unwearable of course, but I felt like most of them could have been salvaged or converted into another garment with only minor repair."

But, she added, "I never saw anything donated."

I understand the theory behind H&M's practice; in order to prevent fraudulent returns or resales, it is necessary to somehow mark discarded garments. Think about remaindered books, with their covers torn off, for example. They can be donated but not sold, and while they aren't as pretty as an intact book, they read just the same.

Of course, that leads to the larger question of why the H&M merchandise was left in a dumpster rather than at a donation center. "Directly around the corner from H&M," Jim Dwyer wrote, "is a big collection point for New York Cares, which conducts an annual coat drive." How hard would it have been to carry the unsold coats around the block? Dwyer also spoke to Mary Lanning, chair of the New York City Clothing Bank, who told him that her group uses a "method of ‘defacing’ each garment that does not impair its wearability, but does remove any potential street value in the underground market."

In other words, defacing the clothes -- but leaving them wearable -- takes all the cache out of the fact that they came from H&M. Maybe that's what the company fears the most.

As I watched this story unfold, I found myself thinking about brand loyalty, about what we will accept from the brands we love the most. I was skeptical of the fast fashion trend until I shopped at H&M; the company's merchandise -- well-made, well-priced pieces not imagined for a tween -- won me over. But if the price of that cute dress is the kind of social callousness that showed up in the 35th street dumpster, then I'll take my money elsewhere.

What about you: Does a story like this affect how you spend your money? Or can you separate a company's practices from its products?

More reaction from across the blogosphere:

Inhabitat is "boiling mad." (Although they've got their facts wrong; the other chain mentioned in Dwyer's story was WalMart, not KMart.)

Racked snarked, "But whatever: It's not like we're having the coldest winter in years smack in the middle of a national recession, right?"

And The Cut isn't buying the we-donate-stuff excuse: "Maybe they donated $5 to save the polar bears last year, too.

Susan Wagner writes about pragmatic fashion at The Working Closet and chic suburban living at Friday Playdate.

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