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H&M Speaks Out on Trash Controversy

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Vivian Manning-Schaffel: On Tuesday, there was much brouhaha about a poetic New York Times expose that portrayed a homeless man and woman pilfering through bags and bags of damaged, discarded clothing behind an H&M on 34th Street -- many with the tags still on.

Cynthia Magnus with mutilated clothing

Here's a passage:

"At the back entrance on 35th Street, awaiting trash haulers, were bags of garments that appear to have never been worn. And to make sure that they never would be worn or sold, someone had slashed most of them with box cutters or razors, a familiar sight outside H&M's back door. The man and woman were there to salvage what had not been destroyed.

He worked quickly, never uttering a word. A bag was opened and eyed, and if it held something of promise, was tossed at the feet of the woman. She said her name was Pepa.

Were the clothes usually cut up before they were thrown out?

'A veces,' she said in Spanish. Sometimes."

Another woman, a college student named Cynthia Magnus, backed these statements, saying she saw about 20 bags filled with sliced H&M clothing in early December.

Magnus said among the remnants lay "Warm socks. Cute patent leather Mary Jane school shoes, maybe for fourth graders, with the instep cut up with a scissor. Men's jackets, slashed across the body and the arms. The puffy fiber fill was coming out in big white cotton balls."

The piece went on to wrist-slap H&M for irresponsible social practices, saying: "It is winter. A third of the city is poor. And unworn clothing is being destroyed nightly."

To get both sides of the story, we got H&M on the horn. Here's what their rep Nicole Christie had to say:

"We're absolutely committed to how our operations affect both people and the environment. We take what happened outside of our 34th Street store very seriously. After taking two whole days to thoroughly examine the situation, we've determined that these garments were damaged. The perception that we are in the habit of disposing of items that could be donated on the street was completely false. The garments didn't meet safety standards.

"We use many items for in-store display. Right now, there is an image in the media of a garbage bag with a shoe in it that had a hole cut in the bottom. The impression was that we had somehow done that purposely so the shoe couldn't be donated. Actually, we cut the hole in the shoe so we could use it on display mannequins. We use those shoes in-store, time and time again, with various outfits until we can't use them anymore. We can't donate clothes that don't meet our safety requirements or with extensive damage, so we throw them away.

"Out of almost 200 stores in this country, that store is one of our largest volume stores. That said, this was a very unusual situation because we are in a week where we are doing post-holiday cleanup and had more trash coming out of the store than normal. We have so many people coming in and out of the stores, and with such traffic, garments get damaged. We have a great return policy, but there are things that get returned that are so damaged, they can't be sold or even donated. They also can get damaged in our fitting room, or when they come in-transit from our distribution center. With a store of this volume, the perception of the volume just seems bigger because of the timing of the store clean-up.

"We're so sorry this perception is now brewing in the media, because people don't know what we do to be socially responsible. We are taking the time to personally speak to everyone we can -- our customers and the media -- to let them know what our initiatives are, that we are socially responsible and that we do care about giving back to people. Since we started in the U.S. in 2000, our aim and commitment is to donate as many items as possible to our aid organizations partners, like UNHCR and Red Cross, to name a few. In 2009, we donated over half a million garments. And we donate garments that don't meet our quality requirements but can still be used, and whenever possible, we donate garments that have been returned to our stores.

"There are some restrictions on what we can donate. It's our job to make the determination and, of course, we commit to reevaluating what we categorize as damaged, but not everything that is damaged that comes out of the store can be donated. We are not wasteful or purposely trying to destroy things so that people cannot wear them. That for us is the most hurtful thing to hear."

So there you all have it. Sounds like a fairly reasonable explanation too.

What do you guys think?

next: Feds Probe Cadmium in Kids' Jewelry From China
28 comments so far | Post a comment now
Christina January 10, 2010, 3:21 PM

So falls the paper of record into the realm of Murdoch-owned media. On its face, the reporter spoke to a total of 3 or 4 people, and then did not bother to wait until H&M corporate responded but simply went ahead and filed the story. This reporter and the editor responsible for this shoddy article should be fired.

Anonymous January 10, 2010, 9:32 PM

I don’t believe them.

maeby January 11, 2010, 12:36 PM

i dont believe em either

maeby January 11, 2010, 12:38 PM

we used to do this all the time when i worked at victorias secret. cut holes in the bras and panties, tear the tags off, deface the cardboard cutouts of the models, write on all the garments with markers. we were told too so no one would take them.

Christina January 11, 2010, 5:10 PM

Maeby, you’re talking about undergarments. You can’t donate undergarments. I’ve worked in retail clothing, and in my experience unsold clothing was not destroyed. Seasonal overstocks went to places like Loehmann’s or donated to Goodwill. We never cut up, tore, defaced or otherwise deliberately damaged clothing. I can’t speak to H&M since I don’t work there, but this “expose” is pretty weak from a journalistic standpoint.

nancy January 12, 2010, 9:35 AM

Christina, do you just not like what the article is saying, so you decided that it’s weak from a “journalistic standpoint”? Anyway, I noticed two things about the corporate response: (1) it cited a safety issue, which is not really an issue, (2) it only mentioned charities that send clothes overseas to poor countries. It did not mention any local charities. Sounds to me like there was a cost or logistical issue that made donating from this particular store difficult, and I know that H&M protects its brand fiercely (trademark leakage is a huge issue for chain stores, which is why I bet they don’t want to donate locally), so in all likelihood this store did destroy clothes on purpose and now the corporate office is in full PR damage control mode.

Christina January 12, 2010, 11:47 AM

Nancy, the reason I don’t like the article is because it is poorly written and highly questionable. I am not defending H&M, per se, since, thanks to the laziness of the reporter, I don’t really have any facts on which to base an opinion. I am merely pointing out that the original NYT story is weak. It is not a true expose. The “journalistic standards” to which I refer are not of my own making. They are clearly elucidated at the Society of Professional Journalists website

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