Fashion may be second-largest polluting industry worldwide, and fast-fashion brands are among the most egregious perpetrators. Beyond producing mass amounts of product on the cheap, several are routinely accused of burning and destroying excess product in an attempt to prevent brand dilution.
While many brands sell overstock clothing to resale stores or donate to charities, others reportedly shred, burn or dump product in landfills. Though each practice is detrimental to the environment, burning is particularly harmful due to the resulting release of dangerous toxins into the atmosphere from dyes and other materials. It doesn’t help that on the consumer end, 84 percent of unwanted clothing is thrown away, rather than donated or sold, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Americans collectively dispose of a total of 14 millions tons of clothing a year on average, or 80 pounds per person.
We took a look at the allegations made against fast-fashion companies regarding harmful disposal practices, and what (if anything) they are doing to address the claims and make changes.
Last week, H&M responded to claims that the company regularly burns clothing, following years of speculation. The first major allegation appeared in a 2010 New York Times article, after bags of never-worn clothing were discovered slashed with box cutters outside a Manhattan store location. Attempts to contact the company to inquire about the practice went unanswered.
Now, after a Danish news organization released a report claiming H&M has burned a total of 60 tons of clothing since 2013, H&M has finally denied tarnishing clothing. It claimed the footage the news organization shared was the destruction of inventory damaged by mold or that featured unsafe lead levels. H&M has come under particular fire for hypocrisy, given its public declarations of environmentally friendly practices, including a drop-off program for old clothing in stores and the launch of Conscious Collection, a line of more sustainably produced garments. (H&M’s claims that it uses unsold clothing as a resource for the Conscious Collection are also dubious: 0.1 percent of all clothing collected by such programs is recycled.)
Unlike H&M, Forever 21 does not report or address sustainability issues, nor does it share goals involving environmentalism for improving work conditions. According to Project Just, it also fails to use independent third-party vendors to examine manufacturing processes. This has led to issues including unfair labor practices at the brand’s California factories, where, in 2016, it was uncovered workers were being paid as little as $4 an hour. Due to its lack of disclosure, there is little known about Forever 21’s overstock distribution method, though it is often speculated to engage in burning practices similar to H&M.
Another catalyst to destroying clothing is the ubiquitous copycatting that’s become commonplace within fast fashion. While brands often get away with appropriating high-end designs — the turnover of fast fashion is quick, and a lawsuit can be lengthy and expensive — intellectual property infringement often requires that brands remove the product from their shelves and destroy it. This is what happened when Chloé successfully sued Topshop in 2007 for copying a dress, and it continues to be a common problem in the industry.
Zara has received similar criticism to Forever 21 and Topshop for repeatedly copying designs that are often forced off the shelf, as well as implementing minimal public sustainability initiatives. Like H&M, Zara created an environmentally friendly line of its own, called Join Life, which uses sustainable materials like organic cotton and recycled polyester. Parent company Inditex has worked to improve manufacturing processes to reduce water waste and regularly monitors existing infrastructure. As part of the effort, Zara has also begun adding recycling bins for discarded clothing in its stores, though little information has been shared about the success of the recycling program.
Abercrombie & Fitch
Former Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries was known for insulting statements and body shaming, but he faced particularly hot water for a 2013 incident involving belittling homeless individuals. At the time, a reporter uncovered an interview with a store manager from years before, claiming the company refuses to give overstock product to poor people because it “doesn’t want to create the image that just anybody” can wear it. They insinuated that excess clothing is, in turn, destroyed.
The employee echoed sentiments from Jeffries, who had previously stated his vision for a company based on limited access. “In every school, there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. We go after the cool kids,” said Jeffries, in a statement. “A lot of people don’t belong, and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”
Abercrombie & Fitch has since ditched Jeffries and embarked upon an extensive rebranding strategy to make the company more wholesome and inclusive. While the company has a sustainability strategy listed on its website, it’s sparse and doesn’t address the issue of overstock disposal.