COULD TIKTOK FORCE THE FASHION INDUSTRY TO FINALLY ACKNOWLEDGE ITS WASTEFULNESS?
Our culture glamorizes designer anything. Rappers namedrop Dior and Balencies, while fashion influencers unbox red-bottom Louboutins on IG. Like many second-gens, I grew up understanding these shiny, coveted items as signs of “making it” in America (which probably helps explain why I rarely saw my Filipina aunties without Louis Vuitton or other designer purses slung over their shoulders). But anti-waste activist Anna Sacks is forcing us to take an unflinching look at the aspirational aura that surrounds these products. In a TikTok she posted earlier this week, she claimed that Coach destroys its unsold yet totally functional bags, taking advantage of a tax loophole in the process.
Whether or not Coach admits to the practice (we reached out to the company for comment along with everyone else), other designer brands have been engaging in it for a while now as a means of upholding the scarcity of their products, according to The Wall Street Journal. Because it’s something they don’t really make public, many of us have remained blissfully ignorant of this wastefulness — but now that TikTok is shoving it in our faces, we have no choice but to confront it, in all its capitalistic ugliness.
In her TikTok, Sacks (a.k.a., @thetrashwalker) said she’d bought a number of slashed Coach bags from fellow TikToker Tiffany She’ree (@dumpsterdivingmama). “This is what they do with unwanted merchandise,” Sacks said. “They order an employee to deliberately slash it, so no one can use it.” She added that Coach exploits a tax loophole by claiming the same write-off they would have if the purses had been accidentally damaged. With every sliced-up bag she held up, I swore I felt my frugal soul fleeing my body.
The irony is that Coach has a repair program for its bags. “Don’t ditch it, repair it — it’s another small thing we can do to keep bags out of landfill and reduce our impact on the planet,” the brand said on its website.” It also allows customers to trade in their bags “to be recycled or reimagined.” Sacks said on TikTok that she planned to ask Coach to repair her bags. If her allegations hold up, though, these initiatives may amount to little more than yet another example of classic corporate greenwashing.
Coach clarified Sacks’s comments in an email statement to Mic. “We have now ceased destroying in-store returns of damaged, defective, worn and otherwise unsalable goods that are unable to be donated and are dedicated to maximizing such products’ reuse in our Coach (Re)Loved and other circularity programs,” the company wrote. “The damaged product that was being destroyed in stores represents less than 1% of global sales. The vast majority of our excess inventory is donated and, in FY21, we donated product valued at over $55 million to support low-income families, individuals in need, those re-entering the workforce and education programs.”
The fashion industry takes a huge toll on the planet, per the World Bank, accounting for 10% of global carbon emissions. With much of the world literally on fire in recent months, donating or discounting unwanted merchandise seems like the most sustainable solution. But, alas, it’s not the most profitable, and under capitalism, the bottom line usually wins.
According to the Wall Street Journal, donating or selling these products at a discount would undermine the very assumption upon which the luxury industry is built — that its products are more expensive because they’re more valuable. In reality, “the retail price of a luxury product has nothing to do with its actual value,” Timo Rissanen, an associate dean at Parsons School of Design, told Vox. When you buy, say, a Chanel dress at full price, you’re mainly helping to cover the cost of advertising. And if Chanel detroys an unsold dress priced at $1,200, “it hasn’t really lost $1,200,” Rissanen said. “I don’t think Chanel even paid $100 [to make] that dress.” Fragrance sales could probably make up for the loss, he explained. And, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, in many countries, luxury companies can claim a tax credit for ruining their unsold merch.
In short, these brands have little to no financial incentive to donate or discount unwanted products. In fact, if they don’t destroy them, their entire business model would collapse.
As Mic previously reported, Sacks is part of a growing movement among TikTokers to pull back the curtain on this all-too-common, wasteful practice. The fashion industry shows some signs that it’s listening to them and other sustainability-minded Gen Z-ers, according to the Wall Street Journal. In 2018, Burberry announced it would stop destroying its unsold products. In the meantime, I hope that Sacks continues to come out with more of these TikToks, even if they make us squirm. They’re supposed to.
Mic updated this story to include a response from Coach.