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Wasting wares and trashing treasures

You’ve seen the videos: unsold Coach bags slashed and tossed in the trash, reusable Old Navy masks cut to pieces and thrown out at the height of the pandemic, perfectly good clothes purposely ruined with bleach and locked in a dumpster.

To prevent dumpster divers from finding usable products in the trash, retailers destroy goods by cutting them with scissors or pouring bleach on them.
To prevent dumpster divers from finding usable products in the trash, retailers destroy goods by cutting them with scissors or pouring bleach on them. Photo credit: Rebecca Gonzales

Anna Sacks, known as @thetrashwalker on Instagram and TikTok, shares videos to her hundreds of thousands of followers about her dumpster-diving finds, exposing the massive amounts of usable goods retail stores send to landfills.

Retail waste — especially in the apparel industry — is a major problem. In 2018, 17 million tons of textiles ended up in landfills, according to the EPA, a significant amount resulting from retailers themselves.

So why do companies destroy their merchandise? According to an article from Julie Zerbo, founder of The Fashion Law, there are two main reasons.

First, some brands, especially those that sell high-end luxury goods, want to protect their image and reputation by limiting the amount of product going to the “gray market,” which consists of resellers obtaining goods and distributing them through discount stores or outlets without the consent of the trademark owner.

Zerbo said this is a particularly important point for luxury brands because the resale of their goods is done so in outlets “that do not match the brand’s reputation” and threatens brand exclusivity, which are both important factors in maintaining the high value of luxury goods. By destroying unsold merchandise instead of donating it, brands prevent unauthorized distribution.

The second reason retailers destroy unwanted products is for tax benefits, Zerbo said. According to the U.S. Code, if imported merchandise is destroyed under Customs supervision, “99% of the duties, taxes or fees paid on the merchandise by reason of importation may be recovered as drawback.”

This means brands that can provide evidence to U.S. Customs that imported products have been exported or destroyed “may be able to claim sizable refunds for unsold products,” Zerbo said.

All of this waste takes its toll on the environment.

Retailers often get rid of unwanted products by throwing them away.
Retailers often get rid of unwanted products by throwing them away. Photo credit: Rebecca Gonzales

The majority of things thrown away are not biodegradable, meaning they will not break down in a landfill and often end up in oceans and waterways. Landfills also release significant greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change.

According to Sacks, widespread change won’t happen unless federal legislators get involved. She is an advocate for Donate Don’t Dump, a campaign that aims to keep usable products out of landfills by donating unwanted products to those in need. The Preserving Charitable Incentives Act was introduced to Congress in 2020 and would increase corporate charitable tax deductions, but it has yet to make much progress.

While consumer trends are hard to predict, one of the most effective solutions to retail waste is to produce less, especially for seasonal or holiday items that can only be sold within a specific time frame, like Halloween candy or Christmas decorations.

Of course, there’s the risk of the items going out of stock, but Sacks says there should be a shift in consumers’ attitude that everything they want should be available all the time.

Another option is to repair damaged items.

I worked part-time at a retail clothing store for my first three years of college. I’m lucky I didn’t have to destroy any merchandise. Corporate instructed employees to repair anything they could in-store, so I sewed many, many fallen buttons back on.

For damages we couldn’t fix with the corporate-issued sewing kit or super glue, my coworkers and I catalogued the items, packaged them up and sent them back to the warehouse. The items were either repaired and sent back or sold as-is at tent sales or clearance stores.

Clothing and other textiles that are too damaged to be fixed can be recycled into something new.

A more sustainable option is for retailers to donate, repair or recycle unwanted goods.
A more sustainable option is for retailers to donate, repair or recycle unwanted goods. Photo credit: Rebecca Gonzales

I’ve participated in Marine Layer’s Re-Spun program, where customers send in old t-shirts for the company to break back down into fibers which are then recycled into new clothing. Another option is Retold, a service in which you mail in any kind of unwanted textiles in any condition to be reused or recycled.

The infrastructure for textile recycling already exists for consumers; now it’s time for widespread use of similar services by large retailers.

Additionally, social media has been a force for good in affecting change in retail waste practices. Recently, Sacks’ video showing slashed bags found in the dumpster of a Coach store went viral, prompting social media users to call out the company for their blatantly hypocritical practices.

Tapestry, Coach’s parent company, announced an initiative in 2019 committing to better practices regarding, among other things, sustainability and “decreasing waste,” according to their website.

Upon seeing the video, social media users took matters into their own hands, demanding change in Coach’s comment section on TikTok. “How do you make your company sustainable by slashing and throwing perfect bags away?” one commenter asked.

“Stop using terms like ‘circular economy’ when you’re the ones putting your bags in landfills,” another commented.

On Oct. 12, Coach responded to the viral video with a post on Instagram. “We have now ceased destroying in-store returns of damaged and unsalable goods,” the post announced. Coach will now reuse unsold items as part of its “(Re)Loved” program.

Consumers are the driving force of the economy, and individuals working together can affect change in big ways. Make your voice be heard on social media, tell your legislators to support Donate Don’t Dump laws and shop at retailers that participate in a more sustainable supply chain.

Retail waste is a complicated issue, but an important one — after all, the future of our planet and our people depends on it.

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