H&M Reportedly Destroys Unworn Clothing in a Time of Recession

The New York Times reported yesterday that massive clothing chain H&M is damaging perfectly good, unworn clothing before throwing it away. From the article:

This week, a manager in the H&M store on 34th Street said inquiries about its disposal practices had to be made to its United States headquarters. However, various officials did not respond to 10 inquiries made Tuesday by phone and e-mail.

My own research finds that H&M claims the following on its website:

What do you do with surplus clothes?
We donate clothes that do not meet H&M’s quality requirements to charity organisations like Oxfam, Caritas, the Red Cross and Terre des Hommes. Each store is itself responsible for clothes that are returned to it. Often there is an agreement that the clothes will be passed on to a suitable local charity organisation. Naturally we never give away clothing that does not comply with our safety requirements and Chemical Restrictions. Such items are destroyed.

Yet, sources told the New York Times that clothing that appears totally safe is throw away nightly, after being made unwearable. This, of course, at a time when–as the article notes–”It is winter. A third of the city is poor.”
Why, you might ask, is this a feminist issue? Because women and children are disproportionately vulnerable in times of recession and disproportionately targeted by advertising aimed to sell clothing from massive corporate conglomerates, because the class disparity in this country can not be cleaved from racism, sexism etc., because our interdependence is undeniable.
If you’re as disgusted with H&M’s behavior as I am, contact them at their New York headquarters: 212-564-9922.

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24 Comments

  1. TigerLily
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Thanks for posting about this. The Times reported today that H&M says that they are changing their policy. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/07/nyregion/07clothes.html
    I’m sure that this is standard operating procedure at all big stores though. The fashion industry is so unfriendly to the environment and for all the talk of “Green” companies, most stores are extremely wasteful.
    I also wanted to say thanks to Cynthia Magnus, the grad student who noticed the clothes being thrown out and, after H&M didn’t respond to her letters, contacted the Times about her observations. It just shows that asking questions about little things like the trash you see on the street can lead to social change.

  2. yostivanich.com
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    New York Times now reports that both H&M and the WalMart store singled out in the story have both reversed that policy and that their coporate policy is to donate clothing to charity. H&M is now donating the clothing to a local charity.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/07/nyregion/07clothes.html

  3. DeafBrownTrash
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    The article doesn’t say if it was just ONE H&M in New York City. what about all other H&M stores in other cities and states?
    yesterday I read some comments on this article (on a different news website). One person said that H&M have a right to do this, because poor people shouldn’t be allowed to wear nice clothes for free while he(she?) and other people had to pay for the clothes. Ugh.

  4. makesense.myopenid.com
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    “Why, you might ask, is this a feminist issue? Because women and children are disproportionately vulnerable in times of recession and disproportionately targeted by advertising aimed to sell clothing from massive corporate conglomerates, because the class disparity in this country can not be cleaved from racism, sexism etc., because our interdependence is undeniable.”
    That didn’t make much sense, except for the part about ‘interdependence’, which I assumed was a reference to the fact that we should all take care of each other. I can agree with that.
    H&M though, from a quick Wiki check, is a high end brand, right? So I am assuming that they don’t advertise to disadvantaged people in the first place. If so, I don’t see how this is a feminist issue considering that poor women would probably get their clothes somewhere cheaper and aren’t in H&M’s target demographic in the first place.
    It is simply an issue of corporate cruelty and lies.

  5. ashleigh
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    This isn’t limited to just H&M, unfortunately. Linens N Things and Homegoods destroy everything they throw out. Bedsheets are slashed, lamps are broken, those plastic jugs of snack food that they sell are dumped in the dumpster.
    Then look at items that are an actual necessity, like food. Most grocery stores put everything in a compactor. Trader Joes donates some, the rest goes into the dumpster, where, if you go to retrieve it and get caught, you face trespassing and theft charges.
    Big Box stores also tend to compact everything.
    The best thing you can do, and you can do this from your desk/couch/wherever you are is to call these stores and ask to talk to a manager about their disposal practices. We got our Trader Joes to donate A LOT of food that would normally be trashed by being persistent.

  6. analog
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    This is probably not going to be a popular opinion here, but. . . I don’t think the company is entirely wrong for doing this. It is “wasteful,” but a lot of things big corporations (and small companies, and individuals) do are wasteful, or use a lot of excess resources, or are in some way environmentally unfriendly. And this is an incredibly common practice in the retail industry.
    H&M is a for profit commercial enterprise. Their goal is to make money, period. They aren’t out to save the world, or even to try and make it better. There are legitimate business reasons for this practice. Off the top of my head, perhaps they believe that giving away the clothes lowers the perceived value of them in customers minds (if I can get free discarded clothing, why should I pay $40 for a t-shirt?). Perhaps H&M is trying to maintain an air of exclusivity to their products (if product is available to “the masses” -especially if those masses are poor or in some other way the wrong type of consumer in the retailers mind, there isn’t as much cache in owning that over-priced shirt). It might also be an anti-theft measure, if a company gives away damaged items, theoretically, an employee could slightly damage an item, declare it unfit for sale, and then just keep it. When I worked at a restaurant, this is why employees were not allowed to take leftover food home at the end of the night. The thinking was that if we were allowed to take food, it would encourage us to deliberately make more than was needed for sale, because we could have the extra. If the clothing was donated, a recipient of the donation might attempt to resell the items themselves, on-line or even on the street. A donation recipient could even try to return the item to the store for cash (that is why when you see seconds from big name retailers sold on e-bay, the tags have been removed, it prevents attempted store returns).
    I do not know what H&M’s actual reasons are for this practice, and I am sure there are a lot of other possibilities. And I don’t necessarily think these are good reasons, but I think they are possibilities that a lot of the store’s critics are not considering. I do understand that most people’s reaction to this type of waste is disgust when there is so much need and poverty in the world, and even right here in the US. But H&M isn’t in business to help people, they are not an altruistic enterprise. And I don’t think they should be expected to be.

  7. MM
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    This behavior seems intuitively gross, but it is important to consider that while H&M probably should be giving their clothes to charity in this particular case, the giving of massive amounts of a free product is NOT always in the best interest of low income people.
    In many of the places I have travelled overseas we were specifically told not to bring large amounts of clothing donations to leave because the constant influx of free charitable donations completely undercuts those who are trying to develop small businesses (in many places, it is worth noting, these are largely women). Just as nothing drives farmers out of business faster than a sudden influx of a cheaper version of their product into the market, a regular influx of any free product into a market will have immpacts that should be considered before assuming that giving leftover products away is clearly in the best interest of low income people.
    Again, not defending the H&M in this case in particular.

  8. daveNYC
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    There’s a fine line between trying to make a profit, and being a dick.
    Trashing stuff before you put it in the trash so that nobody will take it out of the trash, that’s being a dick.

  9. Kyra Cat Soul
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Maybe we should have a tax on this sort of thing: a garbage tax on any unsold products that businesses destroy before throwing out.
    A wastefulness tax when grocery stores deliberately overstock produce and keep it from people who can’t afford it while it spoils.
    The annoying thing is, they have the profit margins to do this! The whole justification anybody has for charging money for a product in the first place is that it costs money to produce and transport it and make it available to the consumer. But these? Throwing stuff away makes no more money than giving it to a thrift store, and much less than selling it to a discount store would, and I’m assuming that garbage is paid for by volume.
    So they’re deliberately accepting the biggest loss they could get for these items, so as to prevent any human from having them for less than they want to get for it. They’re deliberately eating costs so as to deny the needs of people who—through no fault of their own—cannot afford them.
    And those of us who buy at full price—we’re subsidizing this. They get from us the spare cash flow to be able to do this. They’ll accept OVERPAYMENT for their products, enough to fund this overprivileged temper tantrum, but they won’t accept underpayment? They’ll accept—nay, demand—profits, but refuse to do charity.
    Tax them on that refusal, tax them based on the value of the overproduced material—or better yet, tax them based on the value beyond what they paid the workers who made it, or based on the profits they demanded in their original price. Tax them on what they claimed for themselves in profit, that they made people pay above its value.
    Tax them based on what THEY decide is too much for them to give, but not too much for them to take.
    They can either start displaying some compassion, or start being less wasteful with how much stuff they order, or they can start working on the national debt for us.

  10. Alice
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    My, what a sense of entitlement you have.
    However antisocially and disturbingly uncharitable their practices may be, it is nonetheless true that they have not taken anything from anybody without also giving something that the other party valued even more than what they already had. It is necessarily so, for the other party would not have consented to the trade otherwise.
    You, on the other hand, have no qualms whatsoever about taking something without any pretense of compensation or even of mutual consent, and that is at a level even lower than simple uncharitably.

  11. TigerLily
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    I was thinking about some of the issues you mentioned when I read the Times article yesterday. And it’s also not really fair to single out H&M because, as others have mentioned here, lots of stores do this. There really doesn’t seem to be a good solution to this problem, does there?

  12. Athenia
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    If they got a surplus of clothes, then they need to lower their prices.
    Or send that crap to an outlet store.

  13. A female Marine
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think this is a big a deal as it sounds. According to the article it was just the one store, which wasn’t following company policy:
    “It will not happen again,” said Nicole Christie, a spokeswoman for H & M in New York. “We are committed 100 percent to make sure this practice is not happening anywhere else, as it is not our standard practice.”
    Ms. Christie said it was H & M’s policy to donate unworn clothing to charitable groups. She said that she did not know why the store on 34th Street was slashing the clothes, and that the company was checking to make sure that none of its other stores were doing so.

  14. Clarissa
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    This clothing belongs to this company. Hence, they have the right to do whatever they want with it. Nobody should be FORCED to give charitable donations. This is a perversion of the very idea of charity.

  15. Kathleen Hagerty
    Posted January 8, 2010 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Companies like H&M shouldn’t even be allowed to operate in the US. I can’t think of a single reason why non-fair-trade goods should be legal for sale. Everything they sell, along with stores like the GAP and Banana Republic, is made in a sweatshop because the owners of those companies don’t want to pay a living wage to their workers. It’s obvious just from looking at their labels that H&M has no scruples as a company. The question is, why do we spend our money at stores like this at all? And wouldn’t the ultimate irony be that a company that uses slave labor to produce it’s merchandise would then give that merchandise away to those in poverty? All you can do is buy local, buy fair-trade, recycle, reuse, and boycott stores like H&M. And that’s most of them, by the way. If we want jobs in this country and morally produced goods, there is no other way.

  16. PamelaVee
    Posted January 8, 2010 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    This is the same type of thing that goes on when grocery stores pour bleach or other chemicals over perfectly good but legally expired food so people who dumpster dive can’t get it. They also prosecute for trespassing. Sad :(

  17. bradley
    Posted January 9, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    > Slave labor
    Unless the people making the clothes for Gap, Banana Republic, etc. are chained to the sewing table, they can’t be called slaves. You have to ask yourself: why are they working there at all? Because the “sweatshop” is the best option available to them. Yes, the wages look small compared to what North Americans are accustomed to, but they’re probably still above average for the worker’s country and level of education.
    > Companies like H&M shouldn’t even be allowed to operate in the US. All you can do is buy local, buy fair-trade, recycle, reuse, and boycott stores like H&M.
    We’re lucky that not everyone follows your advice. By banning/taxing sweatshop goods, you’re depriving the workers of their their best option. Sometimes their next best option is dangerous and exhausting field labour, prostitution, and so on. How can you possibly think that helps them?
    Insisting on fair trade goods — particularly with commodities like coffee, for which the market price is already quite low — encourages overproduction, which further lowers prices and decimates farmers who don’t participate in fair trade. Artificially high prices for fair trade commodities reduce the incentive to diversify crops, which leaves fair trade farmers exposed to changes in demand, cost increases, etc.
    Fair trade certification tends to be based on certain assumptions about how labour should be organized (eg. small co-ops are OK, large plantations are not). Those assumptions don’t necessarily hold, and in any case exclude the majority of farm workers, who work on large plantations which are not eligible for certification.
    Furthermore, the percentage of the fair trade premium that actually makes it back to farm workers can vary. It’s often just a way for producers and retailers to identify consumers who are willing to pay higher prices, and charge them more.
    > If we want jobs in this country and morally produced goods, there is no other way.
    Jobs are a lousy metric for prosperity. But if jobs are what you care about, then producing everything locally means higher prices, which means higher costs, which means fewer jobs in this country. Instead we should allow different regions specialize in what they can produce most efficiently, which leads to the most effective overall allocation of scarce resources.
    Listen, you have the right to spend your money however you want. But you should at least be aware that your justification for the choices you make is completely bogus.

  18. Kathleen Hagerty
    Posted January 10, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Ha Ho Bradley!
    Thanks for the lesson is ethics! Unfortunately it’s bullsquat!
    I’m from Pittsburgh, bud. Do you know what happened to the Steel Industry? It went to China. Do you know that happened to my city when the Federal Government did nothing to protect domestic industry? We went into a serious economic spiral that we’re still trying resurrect ourselves from. Why don’t you come here are spout your wisdom to the people whose families worked in the mills for three, four generations. Good Luck!
    And thanks for your eye-opening opinions on non-fair trade goods! I love to buy extremely cheap crap too, but cheap crap has it’s price, Mister, and it’s a big one. Have you ever worked in a garden? It’s hard work. Pick a bushel of beans and tell me how much it’s worth. If the people who harvested that stuff were getting paid what it was worth, groceries wouldn’t cost what they do. Don’t tell me about the evils of fair trade!
    The price of cheap crap, again, is a landscape of wal-marts and targets and mcdonalds. That’s not a price I’m willing to pay!
    Yep you’ve struck a nerve Bradley!

  19. camdiggidy
    Posted January 10, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Actually, H&M isn’t a high price point at all. Their clothes are knockoffs of runway looks, but they’re extremely cheap and cheaply made.

  20. BackOfBusEleven
    Posted January 12, 2010 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    H&M does more than the GAP companies (Banana Republic & Old Navy) for their overseas workers. Workers must be at least 14 years old to work in an H&M factory, even if it’s legal for workers to be younger in the country they’re working in. If they find out that someone in one of their factories is under 14, they replace the child worker with a family member that is over age 14. Most of the time, the family is very cooperative. They employ inspectors from the country where the factory is in who do random and scheduled checks of the factory, providing more jobs for local people. They also provide sewing and tailoring classes for local people so that they can get a job in the factory.
    I’m not saying that H&M is fair trade or that they’re not responsible for what happens in the factories, but they do much more to ensure that their workers are in a hospitable working environment than any non-fair trade clothing company I can think of.

  21. BackOfBusEleven
    Posted January 12, 2010 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    In this case, they should recycle the unused clothing instead of throwing it away. New York City must have a fabric recycling plant or a place to drop off unused clothes to be recycled elsewhere.

  22. Alice
    Posted January 12, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    Protectionism is nothing more than special interest welfare with an illusion of productivity to let the recipients feel as though they’re earning an honest living, rather than benefiting from the use of state force to stop steel consumers from choosing their own suppliers in order to artificially raise the prices a minority can get for their uncompetitive services, violating the rights of both domestic steel consumers and foreign steel produces (whose own income is implicitly dismissed as unimportant for nationalistic/racist reasons).
    Nobody has the right to make anyone buy American rather than Chinese any more than they have the right to make someone hire white rather than chinese workers, for they are ultimately the same thing.

  23. Alice
    Posted January 12, 2010 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    I fail to see how refusing to hire someone constitutes helping them. The fact that people under 14 try to work for H&M in the first place shows that whatever the alternative is must be worse, and H&M actually takes credit for turning them away? I wonder how many such children end up in farm labor or prostitution.

  24. bradley
    Posted January 12, 2010 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    Changing global markets can certainly throw people out of work. I agree with you that this should not be ignored, especially when it happens in regions where there’s only one dominant industry.
    But the steelworkers who lose their jobs are only part of the story. Their misfortune is out there in plain sight. The negative effects of a protectionist policy are less obvious.
    For example, suppose you enact a tariff against cheap foreign steel. The market price for steel rises, and you save some domestic steelworker jobs. What you can’t see are the manufacturers who don’t expand their factories because the tariff made steel too expensive. Or the construction firm that would’ve hired more employees if steel prices hadn’t gone up. Or the business lost to the restaurant that the additional construction crew would’ve visited every day. Or the extra staff that the restaurant owner would’ve hired, and the new uniforms the extra staff would’ve purchased from the tailor, and so on. Everything that would have been purchased with the dollars saved on steel prices is now unavailable.
    When you look at the whole picture rather than just a small part, protectionism is a net loss. Any endorsement of it either disregards the hidden costs, or implicitly assumes that a steelworker is inherently more deserving than a construction worker, or restaurant employee, or anyone else.

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