H&M's 'Brand Integrity': Destroying Surplus Winter Clothes in New York Instead of Donating Them to the Needy

This post originally appeared in PEEK.

In a story that should have us all railing against the cancer of capitalism, it recently came to the attention of many, thanks to the New York Times, that ubiquitous fashion retailer H&M has apparently been destroying perfectly usable unsold clothing, in the middle of winter, in a city where one third the population is poor.

"Gloves with the fingers cut off," "warm socks," "cute patent leather Mary Jane school shoes, maybe for fourth graders, with the instep cut up with a scissor," and "men’s jackets, slashed across the body and the arms" are among the items recently described by one New York resident to Times reporter Jim Dwyer as being among the countless pieces of merhandise purposely ruined and rendered unwearable, piled in trash bags behind the Herald Square location in Manhattan.

The article met with much outrage -- "H&M" topped the Trending Topics list on Twitter -- and shortly thereafter, H&M announced that that it would stop the practice and would "instead donate the garments to charities."

"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.”

Indeed, Christie said that it has always been standard practice to donate leftover clothing. Perhaps. But in fact, H&M is not alone in destroying unbought, unworn merchandise. In addition to mega-retailers like Wal-Mart (whose greedy corporate practices should come as no surprise to most consumers), numerous blogs tell stories of employees forced to trash expensive clothing -- even furniture -- at high-end stores once they've been marked as low as retailers are willing to go.

One such store is Anthropologie, purveyor of pretty, highly decorative, and almost aggressively feminine goods. Back in 2008, a couple of decor and fashion blogs picked up on Anthropologie and other retailers' policy of destroying leftover inventory.

A former seasonal employee wrote:

I was on stock and we were clearing out a bunch of sale items that hadn't sold. I asked the manager what I should do with the clothing and she said "destroy it." Destroy it? I asked. Shouldn't we donate it? 'No,' the manager replied, 'we are only allowed to donate certain items. Corporate policy is to destroy everything else.'
I didn't have a choice so I did it. Perfectly good shirts, sweaters and pants got ripped, torn and generally wrecked. It was really depressing! Another associate told me they destroy furniture too -- almost everything that doesn't sell. We couldn't figure out why. Later on another manager told me that Anthro does it to maintain their brand integrity. They don't want their brands at discount stores or anywhere that would cheapen the brand. Nothing is too common and they want to keep it that way.

As someone with an admitted weakness for Anthropologie's beautiful things (who has never to this day purchased anything there that was not on sale), this is pretty appalling. But it was not an isolated incident.

On a different blog a reader wrote the following about a former Anthropologie manager:

After the store had had furniture and accessories for a long time, and after they had been slightly marked down on sale and not sold, he had to take the merchandise and mark it down to "ten cents" (I'm assuming for bookkeeping purposes). After that, he had to take it in the back room and DESTROY it. He says: "I've literally taken a hammer to plates, thousand-dollar chandeliers and more." Even the vintage stuff. If he had taken it home without destroying it, he would have been fired. If he had given it to a co-worker, he would have been fired. Do you want to know why they have this outrageous policy? Two words (their words): "Brand Integrity." They couldn't mark it down so low that people could "expect to walk in to Anthropologie and find a deal."

Granted, this is anecdotal evidence, but there's enough of it that it seems unlikely to be made up.

From a marketing and business standpoint, "brand integrity" makes sense: It's about preserving the legitimacy of a brand in consumers' eyes, so that people continue to buy, say, that $278 hat (whether they should or not).

But by what sort of sick measure does preserving "brand integrity" mean that a warm winter jacket is worth more cut up and in the trash than when it is worn by someone who could never afford to buy it? Do designers so jealously guard their products that they can't bear the thought of a homeless person wearing them for warmth? Screw "brand integrity"; what what about human integrity? If a retailer cannot allow their clothing to end up at Goodwill, lest their image be tarnished, do we really want to shop there?


Adding to the whole destroying-perfectly-good-clothing controversy, this week Dwyer published a new article titled: "Closing Pipeline to Needy, City Shreds Clothes," revealing that the practice of destroying clothes rather than donating them goes beyond retailers.


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