‘We would slash the fabric’: Fashion’s harmful habit of destroying unsold clothes

Click to play video: 'Popular kids clothing retailer under fire for allegedly throwing out unsold items'
Popular kids clothing retailer under fire for allegedly throwing out unsold items
WATCH: A popular children's clothing brand in Toronto is under fire over allegations it engaged in a retail practice that sends unsold store clothing straight to landfill. – Jan 9, 2020

One woman’s recent discovery of garbage bags full of unused children’s clothes outside a Toronto mall is highlighting a serious problem in the fashion industry.

On Wednesday, Natasha McKenna said she was disappointed to find purposely damaged clothes, toys, shoes and other items outside a local Carter’s OshKosh.

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“They weren’t just thrown out, they were destroyed so they couldn’t be used by anyone,” McKenna wrote on a now-viral Facebook post.

McKenna saw everything from cut-up children’s gloves to shoes with cut-out triangles at the ankle and toys that had several pieces missing.

A pair of gloves cut up. Photo by Natasha McKenna.

In a statement to Global News, a spokesperson for Carter’s said their policy “is to dispose of damaged or unusable product to prevent any potential harm to our customers.”

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“We contacted our store in Canada and determined the items in question were damaged or unusable and disposed of properly for safety reasons,” the spokesperson said.

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The company added that in the last five years, it has donated products to children’s organizations in the U.S. in Canada.

The practice of destroying clothes

Unfortunately, the practice of destroying or disposing of clothes is not unique to one retailer. In fact, experts say it’s a practice that happens across the world.

Global News reached out to several retailers for their policy on discarding and donating unsold items. Many of the responses have been similar.

Kristina Lovesey, 28, worked at an Ottawa-based Winners in 2008. She remembers being instructed to destroy “damaged” goods.

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“We would slash the fabric or remove branding so that the item was either unusable or undesirable, shoes would lose the tongue or have the insoles cut up and bags we would cut straps off,” she said.

Other times she was asked to break patio dishes.

“If there were recalls or the item was damaged to the point of it being a safety issue, those products would go straight into the garbage,” Lovesey said.

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“But that wasn’t always the case.”

A spokesperson for Winners and Marshalls Canada told Global News “there is little undamaged merchandise that goes unsold and we typically donate that merchandise to charitable organizations.”

When asked if they ever destroy unsold items, the company declined to answer.

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Lovesey never got a clear explanation as to why employees would destroy unsold items. She heard everything from thrift shops and charities not accepting brand name clothing to policies around not allowing people to take items from dumpsters. Lovesey says the store would qualify this as “theft.”

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“Even as high school kids working part time, I think we were all aware of how wasteful these practices were.”

Warren Mabee, an environmental expert and professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at Queen’s University, says the issue is widespread.

“With planned obsolescence, [clothes] essentially wear out faster, so consumers are constantly motivated to buy new and keep up with the latest fashion,” he said.

This puts pressure on retailers to constantly clear the shelves to make room for the next thing, Mabee explained. What gets tossed away could be perfect quality, but it simply isn’t selling fast enough.

This is, in part, due to the shift from “producing clothes that were durable and long-lasting to clothes that are extremely fragile,” he said.

The carbon footprint of fashion

There aren’t robust statistics available on how much is being disposed of in this way, said Mabee, which makes it difficult to develop a “total footprint” caused by this practice.

However, the carbon footprint caused by clothing and the fashion industry more broadly is well-documented.

Fast-fashion giants like H&M, Zara and Nike have faced criticism for their environmentally harmful practices.

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A 2017 New York Times article found that a local Nike store was slashing up unsold sneakers and garments so they would be unwearable. In 2017, H&M was accused of burning 12 tonnes of unsold but usable clothes since 2013 by Danish journalists who produced a documentary on the Swedish retailer.

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In a statement to Global News, H&M Canada said “only when test results show that certain products do not fulfill our safety regulations” they are taken off shelves and not recycled.

In these cases, “they will therefore be sent to destruction in accordance with our global safety routines, and this is extremely rare,” the spokesperson said.

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Even more exclusive brands destroy clothes.

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Luxury brand Burberry burned unsold clothes, accessories and perfume worth nearly $49 million in 2017 to prevent them from being cheaply sold or stolen, the BBC reported.

When clothing ends up in landfills

When clothing is burned, it produces greenhouse gas emissions. When it’s simply thrown away, it often ends up in landfills.

According to nonprofit Remake, 80 per cent of discarded textiles end up in landfills or are burned across the globe. Only 20 per cent are reused or recycled.

But even when clothes aren’t discarded, there’s an environmental impact on production.

“Even clothes made of natural fibres have a steep carbon footprint because often cotton or other materials are grown in one place … shipped to another country for processing, and then shipped back for final sale,” Mabee said.

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“There’s a fairly hefty carbon footprint associated with that travel.”

The situation is made worse when the fibres are grown using pesticides, herbicides and artificial irrigation, which is increasingly common.

“To add to this, many clothing items incorporate dyes or chemical additives that can cause environmental problems, or synthetic fibres like polyester that don’t decompose in landfills and which are sourced from petroleum sources,” said Mabee.

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“Polyester and other plastics can also break down in the wash, leading to micro-plastic losses which can pass through water filtration plants, back into lakes, rivers and oceans.”

Even though clothing resellers like Value Village are increasing in popularity, Mabee is worried about textile waste, which continues to be a massive problem for the environment.

“As much as 80 per cent of textiles will end up in landfill,” he said. “It can take up to 200 years for [natural fibres] to break down, while synthetic fibre doesn’t decompose at all.”
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What can consumers do?

The best thing a consumer can do is to try and buy items “that last” rather than the latest fashion, Mabee said. This may mean investing in locally made brands or companies that have greener manufacturing practices.

He also encourages shopping at clothing resale stores.

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“One potentially beneficial trend happening now is the shift towards ‘uniform’ dress styles, where you pick a look and then replicate it on an ongoing basis — like Obama and his dark suits and red ties,” he said.

Mabee also says companies need to make longer-lasting products.

“At the very least, I think companies should be willing to recycle or donate things they cannot sell — rather than disposing of them.”

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