Have you ever stopped to think about what happens to the unsold clothes in your favourite stores? Last month, the issue made headlines when hundreds of discarded bras were reportedly found in a bin in Colorado, close to a recently-closed branch of the lingerie giant Victoria's Secret. A spokesperson for the brand explained that the bras in question were damaged goods, but that the remaining products from the store were re-allocated to different shops so that they could be sold on.
But perhaps it's no surprise that some of the clothes you see on the rails while browsing for a bargain might ultimately end up in the bin. After all, we live in an era of disposable fashion, when more and more of us treat clothes as throwaway items, worn for one night out or one wedding or one selfie, before being tossed aside in favour of something brand new. And brands, in turn, respond and encourage this vast overconsumption, with many stores adding new stock each week to satisfy the demand for more, more, more.
But what happens to the leftovers? In 2018, the fashion industry faced a reckoning when it was revealed that Burberry had destroyed €32m in "dead stock" (products it couldn't sell), and a Danish TV investigation reported H&M had burned 60 tons of usable clothes since 2013 - a claim the company denied, stating the items in question were unsafe and had been damaged by mould.
They're not the only brands to have destroyed unsold merchandise: Nike and Urban Outfitters have both reportedly slashed or ruined products they couldn't convince people to buy, in order to preserve brand exclusivity and prevent discounted sales.
Now, however, the tide seems to be turning, as calls for sustainability gain traction across the globe. The outrage over the Burberry news prompted the company to pledge to stop incinerating unsold goods, instead moving to a policy of reusing, recycling or donating those products.
But on the high street, retailers have much higher stock levels than the luxury bands. How do they handle the excess? The Irish Independent reached out to 10 leading high-street retailers to ask about their practices for disposing of dead stock, six of which replied. Dunnes Stores, the only Irish-owned business on the list, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
H&M, which last year was struggling with a mounting pile of more than €3.6bn in unsold clothes, says it is working to keep its inventory at a "healthy level". The company says the majority of stock is sold in stores, sometimes at a reduced price outside of sale periods, and that it also ships garments to other markets where it sees greater demand. "The majority of any remaining stock is donated to charity, or for reuse by a reuse or recycling organisation," says a H&M spokesperson.
This is the most common approach among the high-street retailers surveyed. Penneys says that since 2010, it has donated all unsold products to Newlife, a charity for disabled and terminally-ill children in the UK, though it would not respond in detail or give information about how it handles faulty items.
Monsoon works with Newlife, too, through its Clothes for Life in-store recycling initiative, though its practices for handling unsold stock are largely centred on trading in clearance villages, its own clearance stores and third-party retailers such as TK Maxx. Monsoon also holds factory and staff sample sales a number of times a year, with profits donated to its charity, the Monsoon Accessorize Trust. The company says it does not send any leftover stock to landfill. Marks & Spencer also says it never sends clothes to landfill or incinerates unsold stock, and that all unsold items are donated to charity and recycling organisations, primarily Oxfam and its sorting centre Wastesaver in the UK.
Next was the only brand to acknowledge it occasionally destroys products, although the company says that as a rule it does not destroy unsold stock. "The only exception to this is the very rare situation where a product is found to be unsafe and in this situation we believe the only responsible action is to destroy it by sending to our 'energy from waste' route (this is the process of generating energy in the form of electricity and/or heat by burning waste)," a spokesperson says. "Next does not send unsold or returned products to landfill."
Otherwise, the retailer sells dead stock through Next's online discount sites and Clearance stores, or sells the goods to authorised third-party wholesalers. The spokesperson says Next also donates unwanted products to charity partners for sale or reuse. Faulty items, the company says, are either sold through its Clearance operation or donated to charity.
Inditex, the parent company of Zara, says it focuses on reducing stock levels to cut down excess inventory, through short production runs and its proximity manufacturing model. A company spokesperson says it handles unsold stock by donating to charities including the Red Cross, Caritas and World Vision, and hosts charity markets in the group's offices. Inditex also says it donates dead stock to one of 14 "for&from" stores in Spain, run by people with disabilities and operated by non-profit partner organisations. Any remaining merchandise is sold through third parties in markets where Inditex is not present.
Carrie Ann Moran is country coordinator for Fashion Revolution, which campaigns for greater transparency in the fashion supply chain, and she is also sustainability manager for charity retailer NCBI. She says charity donations are the most sustainable way of handling unsold clothes on the high street.
"It's a circular solution - waste becomes a resource for someone else in the charity sector. I think the mentality of retailers needs to change: let us be the solution to your problem. Let us offer you that, and you have a big CSR (corporate social responsibility) tick and a big environmental remit tick and it looks good for you. It's an all-around win, but my sense is that it's slow. I have yet to see that really happening in Ireland," she says.
No one knows the true scale of dead stock in our throwaway culture, but Moran advises consumers can play their part by directly asking retailers what they do with their waste.
"That's why we have the hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes. A massive element is the ethical perspective for workers, but it also moves into the extremely wasteful and inefficient supply chain. A lot of brands are probably working with distributors and don't really know their practices. Brands need to offer full transparency on where the cotton is grown, where the fabric is made, who is producing it, who is distributing it, how it's being distributed, and how it's being disposed."
But for now, uncertainty reigns, with many retailers throwing around worthy terms like "ethical", "sustainable" or "eco-friendly" while providing scant information on what any of it actually means. In the UK, the British Retail Consortium has introduced new guidelines for producing vegan fashion, something environmental campaigners hope will become widespread in the ethical retail sector.
"High street retailers need to look at their business overall, and maybe part of that is, why do you have unsold goods? Are you over-forecasting? Are you delivering trends that the consumer doesn't actually like?" says Moran.
"If you have a tight business plan and forecast well, make goods that are made to last, not very trend-driven and more specific to human needs, you shouldn't have this vast amount of unsold goods.
"The fast fashion model is overconsumption. To be sustainable is to consume less, use what we have already in circulation, extract as much as we can out of that, and then put it back into the system somehow. With these levels of production and consumption, this model is just not fit for its purpose and for our current environment."