Government Officials Stop Donating Unworn Clothes, Start Burning Them Instead

The City of New York has quietly been paying to shred and incinerate tons of unworn clothing seized in counterfeiting raids. Knockoffs used to be donated to charities; since last April, the charities kept calling, but city officials ignored them.

New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer — who seems to have the trash beat, ever since his exposé on the 34th Street H&M's practice of destroying bags full of unworn clothing, rather than letting not-for-profits that clothe the homeless take it, ignited a storm of criticism on Twitter and blogs — uncovered this latest example of the disconnect between those for whom protecting a trademark is paramount, and those who prioritize instead providing clothing to the neediest people.

Although H&M wouldn't respond to numerous requests for comment before Dwyer's first story was published, the retailer was forced to disavow its flagship's practice after the Times reported that bags of warm coats, gloves, and shoes were slashed with scissors; the store manager is said to have been subsequently fired, although the company wouldn't confirm that.

There are many organizations that do the work of removing labels from unsold clothing, covering up or defacing any logos, and then sending the goods to homeless shelters and aid groups. The New York Clothing Bank does just that, and helps 80,000 people a year. New York Cares holds an annual coat drive. The two organizations that had primarily benefited from the police and customs officials' counterfeit seizures were the New York Clothing Bank, and World Vision.

The truth is that lots of retailers — and not just those who sell apparel — have regularly disposed of unsold merchandise by destroying it. (Apparently, Urban Outfitters puts it out with the trash in boxes marked "Broken Glass.") The reasons are many: they want to combat employee theft, there are potential liability issues, and letting unsold items cycle down to Goodwill or other charity stores could "dilute" the company's brand. Also, storing clothes to be donated, and dealing with having someone come pick it up is apparently harder than getting employees to slash and break it before tossing the lot in a dumpster. Aid groups have tried to combat all of these: they work through established non-profit distribution channels (so you can't turn up to World Vision and ask for a bale of jeans "for the homeless," and then sell it in your eBay store), and as mentioned, they snip off labels at the trademark holders' request. (Dwyer explains that the New York Clothing Bank sometimes gets inmates on a work release program to do this: "Hard workers," director Luis Jimenez says.) And employees might be less likely to steal unsold merchandise if they are aware a charity is counting on receiving it. (Or at least I was, when I used to work a closing shift at a bakery. The knowledge that a guy from the Salvation Army was coming for our unsold bread made me think twice about even grabbing the one loaf my boss encouraged her employees to take home after our shifts.)

But what the problems boil down to is this: for a very long time, the retail economy in the first world has been flooded with product. Inventory was allowed to outstrip demand, because margins were so high that waste became tolerable. (Consumption was rising anyway, because of easy credit and planned obsolescence.) This is true both of disposable clothing chains whose business model counts on an endless cycle of new stuff, and high-end stores whose end-of-season 60% off "sales" don't even start to bite into wholesale, anyway. In a worthless economy like that, where products that are understood both by their sellers and their buyers to be fundamentally without value are moved around the world to make some already rich men even richer, epic levels of waste are not even an unintended consequence. They're a design feature.

The fact that protecting a trademark — "Everyone wants to feed and clothe the homeless," says a lawyer who represents Ed Hardy, Steve Madden, and Zac Posen, "But how are you going to spend all this money [fighting counterfeiters] and then put it back on the street?" — even enters consideration when people are freezing and homeless is just another aspect of the fucked-up system of consumption. When apparel sector sales fell as a result of the faltering economy, unsold merchandise rose: charities like World Vision and the New York Clothing Bank should be seeing record levels of donations. Homelessness is also rising, making the need for such donations ever more acute.

Instead, the city has been spending $150 a ton to incinerate dozens of tractor-trailer loads worth of knockoff clothing in Hempstead, Long Island.

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Closing Pipeline to Needy, City Shreds Clothes
[NYTimes]
Digging Into Urban Outfitters' Perfectly Good Trash [Treehugger]
Clothing The Poor In Unsold Garments — What Could Be Simpler? [NYTimes]
H&M Says It Will Stop Destroying Unworn Clothing [NYTimes]
Clothes Discarded By H&M In Manhattan Are First Destroyed [NYTimes]