In early October, Tiktoker and waste reduction and diversion expert Anna Sacks (@thetrashwalker) posted a nontraditional “unboxing video” where she showed some Coach purses she took out of the garbage behind their store. Every bag (even new models) was slashed and destroyed, even as Coach preached circularity across their channels. And though they have since apologized, it doesn’t change the fact that it was done for who knows how long.
The sad thing is that this isn’t new or even a blimp, it’s something that happens regularly. Fashion brands know that they overproduce by around 40%, and count on it. In 2018, Burberry admitted to destroying $50 million worth of product. H&M burned 60 tons of new and unsold clothes over a four year period. Even Richemont (parent company of Cartier, Piaget and Vacheron) admitted that over a two year period they bought back and destroyed close to $560 million of top-end timepieces.
Many brands claim that the destruction has to do in terms of intellectual property (keeping products out of counterfeiters’ hands). Even Burberry had written in its 2018 annual report that destroying it’s products were a part of its strategy to preserve exclusivity. In general, luxury brands see discounts and donations as a devaluation of their image, but as we know retail price of luxury products has little to do with its actual value– just think of Balenciaga’s recent collections like that Ikea-knock off bag.
Now we can deep dive into how they go about destroying it but to make a long story short, burning and shredding are the main methods followed shortly by landfilling. As you can imagine, none of this is doing the environment any favors especially in terms of carbon emissions. Especially when polyester-based clothes are burned (which is about 60% of the total fabric market), since that material is oil based and releases a number of chemicals into the air. There’s actually an entire short film that documents the horrors behind a little Indian village that shreds excess clothing on behalf of these luxury brands. There’s also a number of reasons why they can’t be recycled: mixed materials (such as zippers) and general bad quality.
But if you thought that this, let’s call it, “phenomena” was limited to the clothing and accessories industry you would be wrong. The bedding industry is just as guilty of this excess waste as the luxury brands are. Burning excess sheets because of quick turnarounds, cheap fabrics, and lack of experienced staff.
To really delve into the hidden waste behind the bedding industry we spoke with 10 Grove’s founder Rana Argenio, a fifth generation textile worker who is changing the way we dress up our bedroom. 10 Grove offers good linens at an accessible price via their small batch and direct-to-consumer model. She’ll tell you more, let’s dive into it.
So, Coach recently had a social media nightmare: caught slashing and destroying their bags after preaching circularity. Can you talk about this practice in general?
It’s funny that this came out with Coach because in 2017 Burberry admitted to lighting their garments on fire, not wanting the excess product to diminish their brand and value. People were not okay with it.
It doesn’t make sense to me, yes they’ve built their brand on this exclusivity factor, but there are so many people who aspire to buy [luxury products] and if they put it on sale people would buy it, use it, cherish it and really love it. They don’t need to destroy it, I just don’t get it to be honest.
Unlike luxury brands that destroy (40% of) their inventory to maintain a level of logo scarcity, bedding brands do not have much visible logo or brand identity. So why are bedding brands also destroying excess products?
I think a lot of that, and again, this doesn’t apply to 10 Grove because our products are made on-demand, but for a lot of the other bedding brands, it’s not from a brand value perspective, or that they’re trying to maintain scarcity, it really originates from a logistics perspective.
[They say] we wove this much fabric to begin with, we made this much product, and at a certain point, they don’t have enough inventory to continue pushing that for another two years. And so, they end up discontinuing styles because they don’t want to weave the fabric again. So, I think it’s primarily from a logistics standpoint that they end up discontinuing and ultimately destroying leftovers. They don’t want to deal with it, they don’t have the space for it, and they don’t have a channel to sell it.
Let’s elaborate on this idea of waste: what is the process of actually creating the bedding and why from a logistics point-of-view is it just easier to destroy than to make again?
The norm of the industry is that a lot of these overseas factories are all about efficiency and producing. They want to produce as much product as quickly as possible. When they’re cutting the product, they’re just folding layers of fabric and then cutting a flat sheet out of the middle of it. Similar to how when you roll dough, you just use a cookie cutter and cut some shapes in the middle of it. That’s how they go about cutting it, allowing them to cut a lot of at once. But the end result is an excess of waste, because there’s all that extra fabric, and, unlike dough, you can’t roll it up and use it again. It’s waste now [to them].
Can you talk a bit more on what leads to the destruction of bedding? I know you’ve previously mentioned Bloomingdales, and how when sheets are taken out of their packaging, it’s hard to fold them back up and therefore said sheets just get disposed of.
Yes, it’s awful because Bloomingdales– when customers buy product, take it home and maybe try it out– has a very flexible return policy.
Sheets are hard to fold and put in their packaging, and these facilities don’t have someone on staff to iron and re-fold. I think [Bloomingdales has] this big facility in New Jersey where product goes to die basically and I remember asking them about it, asking why they don’t just hire someone and put [returned product] back in-store. Or why not have a discount version? Like how Nordstrom has Nordstrom Rack and Saks has Saks off Fifth.
[So, it’s just cheaper to throw away than to fix it themselves?]
I don’t even know if [destroying product is] cheaper, but unfortunately it’s one of those things where brands find it easier than finding a real, sustainable solution. Less worry. I don’t know if these other brands that outsource their distribution actually have someone there who can iron and fold the sheet to put it back in its packaging, because it’s actually quite complicated. Despite all the years I’ve spent in the factory, I don’t think I could properly fold a fitted sheet or flat sheet and get it into the packaging as perfectly as the seamstresses on our team could.
[I think anyone who’s tried to fold a fitted sheet before knows that struggle.]
Yes exactly, so that is probably another source of waste.
We live in such a fast-consumption world of always needing the newest and latest, and “sustainability” has become a bit of a buzzword. Can you talk about how fast fashion attitudes affect waste and purchasing behaviors?
Yes, sustainability has become, as you said, this buzzword, right? Back in 2017-18, when I started thinking about 10 Grove, the word was “curated.” And now in 2020-21, the word is “sustainability.”
I feel like that’s something interesting to think about, that people don’t talk about anymore; that clothing brands have pushed consumers to want new things every season. I think we’re beginning to see that same fast-fashion idea enter into the home, even Zara and H&M have a home collection and they’re so cheap that people aren’t conscious when buying, accepting that if it breaks they can just rid of it.
The younger generation especially feels that their home needs to constantly evolve and change over and over. I think a lot of that is attributed to brands being driving these “trends” and how consumers need that new pink velvet couch, or that mid century modern couch. Which is opposed to the idea of buying quality goods that will live for the next 30-40 years– which is probably more aligned to what our parent’s generation did.
That’s what I was thinking about when I was building 10 Grove, not being a fashion-forward brand, but instead I wanted these timeless classic basics that you can return to year after year. Maybe right now, you want to buy the cheap set, but two years later when you want the matching duvet, you won’t be able to find it. We’re not like that: turning over styles and collections and colors, making you feel this urgency to buy. Rather we want to be here this year, next year, 10 years from now. The same quality, the same styles are gonna be there, so you don’t feel that unnecessary capitalistic pressure to purchase.
Waste in the bedding industry is driven by how the pieces are cut, the inability to refold products, and the lack of interest in some styles. In a combination of these, we also have the issue of return policies nowadays and how they’re driving bedding destruction, right?
10 Grove makes everything on demand and based on what customers order, we cut and sew that. We’re minimizing that finished good’s waste at that point in time. [But with other brands] there is that “customer guarantee,” where somehow all of these bedding brands made it normal to say, ‘Oh, sleep on it for a hundred nights and if you don’t like it, return it!’ Which is ridiculous, imagine if you bought a pair of jeans and they told you, ‘Wear it for a hundred days and if you don’t like it, return it!’.
[Especially with how people sweat in their sleep? Yeah, no.]
I mean, for one, you don’t need a hundred days to determine if you like this stuff. These all became marketing gimmicks. But many customers end up taking advantage of it. Unfortunately the quality of a lot of these brands is not good enough, and so it gives people an outlet to return the product after sleeping on it even with wear and tear. I think the important thing to note is that when people are returning these sheets after they’ve slept on them, from a hygienic perspective, all you can do is dispose of them.
In the bedding world you’re not even allowed to resell it. That’s why, for example, if you look at your down comforter or your pillows, there’s always a tag on it that says: under the penalty of law, this tag cannot be removed except by the consumer and it has the license number, where it’s registered and information on it. Because bedding is not allowed to be used and resold. Basically the same thing from a hygienic perspective, you can’t resell these for-profit.
There are certain charities, resale places, et cetera, that will let you donate these. But again, at the rate that these direct-to-consumer brands are accepting returns or damaged sheets– they can’t do anything but throw the returned product away. A lot of waste is being generated.
I think I read recently that there’s about ten million tons of textile waste that ends up in U.S. landfills each year. About 50% of consumers are buying new sheets every year, and when asked even further of why they buy sheets every year, it’s because the quality wasn’t holding up beyond that. Which I think is the last point on this problem: if you’re delivering better quality and people don’t have to replace their stuff as often, there is less waste. So in [10 Grove’s] case, we really focused on that from the beginning– where we know our sheets last up to ten years, if you care for them correctly.
So, what can luxury brands do differently to avoid this waste, if not destroying?
[For us], to avoid [the returned waste] issue, what [10 Grove] did is we developed what we call the Blind Feel Test. Which is this risk-free option to try the fabrics before you buy. It’s thirty-five dollars and you get a pillowcase in both of our two signature fabrics: sateen and percale. Intended for you to be able to go beyond the retail experience: sleep on it, wash it, sleep on it again, see how you really feel. How does it evolve over time?
When I describe 10 Grove now, I say 10 Grove is a true, direct-to-consumer brand of sustainable, luxury bedding. It sounds like this mouthful, but the word “true” is really important because “direct-to-consumer” is now used to describe any product that’s sold online. It doesn’t say much anymore about their supply chain or the value that they’re delivering to customers. We use direct-to-consumer to really describe what our supply chain is and how we deliver that sustainable promise because we actually make every single product on demand at our local factory in Houston, Texas.