Social Irresponsibility: H & M and Wal-mart mutilate unsold clothes

In times when people are in need, corporate waste becomes an even bigger example of corporate irresponsibility.  In January of 2010, the story broke that clothier H&M (a Swedish company) and Wal-Mart stores in New York City were mutilating unsold clothes then throwing them away.  The clothes were mutilated to prevent someone from finding the trash and reselling the items.  It also prevent those in need from receiving donations.  The discovery was made by graduate student Cynthia Magnus who was looking through the trash from an H&M and a nearby Wal-Mart on 35th street in New York City near Herald Square.  The bags were in plain site as she walked by on her way to a subway stop.  Here are the initial responses:

“A Wal-Mart spokeswoman, Melissa Hill, said the company normally donates all its unworn goods to charities, and would have to investigate why the items found on 35th Street were discarded.”

“This week, a manager in the H & M store on 34th Street said inquiries about its disposal practices had to be made to its United States headquarters. However, various officials did not respond to 10 inquiries made Tuesday by phone and e-mail.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/06/nyregion/06about.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

This post will focus on H&M because they make a point in their corporate social responsibility (CSR) writings about how they donate unused clothes to charity.  Oddly, just around the corner from the new York City store is a collection point for New York Cares which does collect clothes, especially coats, for those in need. The problem is intensified because of H&M’s supposed commitment to help others with unsold clothes.  Here are some of H&M’s statements about donating clothes:

“H&M donates clothes to charity

H&M is committed to taking responsibility for how our operations affect people and the environment. We donate garments that do not meet our quality requirements to organisations such as UNHCR, Caritas, the Red Cross and Helping Hands. When possible, we also donate faulty garments that have been returned to our stores. However, we do not donate clothes that do not meet our safety requirements, chemical restrictions or are damaged. We have agreements with reputable aid organisations in most of our sales countries. In total, more than 500,000 pieces of H&M garments were donated during 2009.

We are currently looking into if we can further improve our routines.”

http://www.hm.com/us/corporateresponsibility__responsability.nhtml

“Gifts in kind International

H&M’s US sales operation donates thousands of garments from its corporate facilities through Gifts In Kind International, a nonprofit organization that distributes products to community services groups that are improving the lives of people in need.

In order to be eligible to receive H&M product donations through Gifts In Kind, your organization must have 501(c) (3) status and offer programs or services that enhance education, promote healthy living, provide opportunities for women and children to reach their maximum potential or work to improve the environment.

If your organization meets these guidelines, the next step is to register with Gifts In Kind International — either directly or through a local Gifts In Kind® program located in any one of the more than 300 communities they serve around the United States.

For more information, please go to: www.giftsinkind.org/H&M

http://www.hm.com/us/corporateresponsibility/hmsupports/projectsandcooperation/hmdonatesclothestocharity__projectsarticle5.nhtml

So the idea that H&M donates clothes to charity is not a one-time statement, but an integral part of its CSR discourse.  People expressed their anger on blogs and at the company’s Facebook site.  Here are some comments from the Facebook site:

Eva Ramey Swontek Whoever
made the decision to destroy these clothes instead of donating should
be fired! Perhaps a few months of unemployment and knowing 1st hand the
need for chairitable organizations would be a good lesson.
Irresponsible at it’s definition H&M . . . I would expect better
from your company.

Sheryl Johnston So dissapointed in you. Couldn’t you guys donate the items? This is greed of the worst kind. How low can you go?!!!! will certainly not shop there again!!!!

Anja Gesell I find this an OUTRAGE!!! Considering that we have so many less fortunate persons in our worlds society. Those clothes could have been put to better use. I will boykott H&M in germany, period. EVEN I GIVE MY CLOTHES AWAY TO LESS FORTUNATE and I dont own a multimillion Store possibility, to make a difference –

http://www.facebook.com/hm?ref=mf&_fb_noscript=1

H&M became more responsive as the reactions reached corporate ears.  However, as the story broke, there was no statement at its US web site.  However, here is an example of their response as reported in the news media:

“H&M spokeswoman Nicole Christie said: ‘It will not happen again.’

She said company policy is to donate unworn clothes and did not know why this store was instead cutting them up and throwing them out.

The company said that it gave half a million pieces of clothes to charity last year, but that not all items qualified. ‘We do not donate clothes that do not meet our safety requirements, chemical restrictions or are damaged,’ it said in a statement. ‘We are currently looking into if we can further improve our routines.’”

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/6948920/HandM-destroying-and-discarding-clothes-it-cannot-sell-in-NY.html

The situation is not a crisis, it is more of a para-crisis.  A negative situation is developing that warrants a strategic response (para-crisis) but we would not need to assemble the crisis team.  Acting counter to one’s stated CSR values is a problem that cannot be ignored.

Questions to Consider

  1.  How would you recommend H&M respond to this para-crisis?
  2. What role is social media playing in the situation and how might H&M us it to their advantage?
  3. Why is it so troubling that H&M seems to be violating its own CSR practices?
  4. In general, what makes the actions taken by H&M and Wal-mart so upsetting to people?
  5. Will people react differently to Wal-mart’s actions?  Why or why not?
  6. Culturally, how do Sweden and the US differ in terms of valuing CSR?
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