person holding black crossbody bag

Coach and Other Brands Admit that They Damage Unsold Bags and Items. Is It What We Call Sustainability?

person holding black crossbody bag

Recently, the luxury brand came under fire for cutting and discarding unsold products — a practice well-known in fashion.

Tiktoker Anna Sacks, also known as The Trash Walker, says she is so excited to show all the Coach purses she bought. She then presents bag after bag to her audience. As we can see, they are all slashed. This is Coach’s policy. This is how they deal with unwanted merchandise. An employee is ordered to intentionally slash the merchandise so that nobody can use it.

After purchasing products from Tiffany She’ree, a Texas-based influencer and dumpster diver, the New York City-based environmental activist posted now-viral TikTok on October 10, which has amassed some 2.9million views. The news was quickly amplified via Diet Prada’s Instagram account fashion watchdog. Widespread online fury over the luxury fashion brand’s hypocrisy in supporting sustainability soon followed.

Coach responded on Instagram days later. The statement said that Coach was committed to sustainability. “We have ceased to destroy in-store returns damaged or unsalable goods. We are committed to maximising such products’ reuse through our Coach (Re?)Loved and other circularity programmes.”

Although it may have been too little too late for some, IG commenters called Coach performative, while others pledged to never buy from Coach again. Although Coach may have been left with the bag, it is not unusual for brands to throw out unsold merchandise.

“This has been going on for years and years,” Anika Kozlowski, Ryerson University assistant professor of Fashion Design, Ethics and Sustainability, says. “It’s an old fashion problem.”

Many retailers have been involved in similar scandals throughout fashion history. Burberry, a luxury fashion house based in London, was famous for burning unsold merchandise in 2018. The New York Times exposed H&M, a Swedish retailer that sold fast fashion clothing. In 2010, H&M cut up clothes that had not been bought. This happens also in Canada: Last year, bags of Carter’s apparel for children were found outside Dufferin Mall, Toronto.

So why is this happening? Kozlowski said there are usually two reasons. The first is the financial incentive. Companies are reimbursed on customs duties paid for unsold merchandise that has been destroyed. Luxury brands also participate in this practice to preserve the exclusivity and prestige of their products.

“It’s less about the money, or the economic value. It becomes more about the brand trying the to preserve the symbolic and cultural value of the products,” Taylor Brydges, a postdoctoral researcher fellow at the University of Toronto Centre for Urban Environments, a multidisciplinary research hub.

According to Coach’s website, the controversy over Coach damaging bags erupted because the brand was promoting its sustainability efforts like its in-house bag repair program, and Re(Loved), initiative. ReLoved is not currently available in Canada, which allows customers to trade in pre-owned bags for store credits, to be “recycled, or reimagined by Coach.” The redesigned and repaired bags can be purchased by customers as part of the Coach Re-Loved collection.

Joon Silverstein is the global head for sustainability and digital at Coach. He told that the number of products being destroyed by stores accounts for less than 1% of global sales. Additionally, over 40% of Coach’s retail outlets have stopped damaging products. Tapestry Inc., which owns Kate Spade as well as Stuart Weitzman, is Coach’s parent company. It recently committed to achieving net-zero global carbon emissions by 2050. Tapestry Inc. did not respond to the request to comment at the time of publication.

Kozlowski adds that large companies who claim to be eco-friendly are often greenwashing. They pretend to be environmentally conscious but use harmful techniques behind closed doors. She says that brands need to reduce the product production, pay a living wage, remove synthetics from product lines, as well as scale down and implement “degrowth”, which reduces the energy and resources required across the operation.

Brydges says that the fashion industry is producing more than ever. Companies have tried to encourage customers to shop more frequently since the introduction of “first generation” fast fashion in 1990s. This has resulted in a continuous cycle of production. She says, “We have gone from clothing being available in stores every week for four seasons to clothing arriving in stores every other day. Now, with ultra-fast fashion brands we’re getting daily drops of clothing.” In response to industry changes, our relationship with clothing has fundamentally changed. We have more clothing at ever-lower prices.

Kozlowski was a part of Fashion Takes Action’s 2021 study, which found that textile waste in Canada is not often tracked and is often marked as “other”. This further magnifies the problem. Brydges states that we don’t have enough data to determine how to divert this waste from landfills because we only have a limited view of the amount we produce.

“We pay for municipal solid waste systems. It’s also very costly to maintain sanitary landfills. This is what North America has most of. Indirectly, North American taxpayers pay for products to be disposed off, while the companies get refunds for doing so.” The issue of waste in the fashion industry is a systemic one, and Ryerson University’s Kozlowski believes that politicians can make meaningful changes. “Governments must ensure that this does not happen with products that can still be used.”

Brydges and Kozlowski agree that retailers should take responsibility for the fate of an item throughout its life cycle. Brydges says, “Brands should think before an item is made. What do we want the garment’s life to look like?” “But this is a totally different mindset from what the industry is currently defined.”

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