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Fashion Professor Says ‘Coach is Changing and Quickly So’

Coach says it will no longer destroy defective in-store returns after an environmental activist accused the luxury brand of intentionally damaging products in violation of its sustainability promises.

In a now-viral TikTok video that racked up more than 530,000 likes this week, Anna Sacks, a.k.a. @thetrashtalker, held up several Coach bags and shoes that appeared to have been cut up with a sharp blade. Sacks, whose videos document the usable goods she finds in New York City’s dumpsters, accused Coach of ordering employers to “deliberately slash” unwanted merchandise “so nobody can use it.”

“Welcome to my first unboxing video,” Sacks said as Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” tinkled in the background. “So excited to show you all the Coach purses that I’ve bought from @dumpsterdivingmama. As you can see, they’re all slashed, which is Coach’s policy.” According to Sacks, who has 297,000 followers, Coach does this as a “tax write-off under the same tax loophole as if it were accidentally destroyed.” She name-dropped Coach’s repair program, deadpanning that she would bring the ruined items to the company and ask it to fix them for her.

“Because according to their website, they really care about the circular economy and they really care about sustainability,” she said, before reading from one of Coach’s webpages. “‘Don’t ditch it, repair it,’ Coach says. ‘It’s another small thing we can do to keep bags out of the landfill and reduce our impact on the planet.’”

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Coach admitted that gutting products was a standard practice, conducted in part to prevent people from bringing in defective bags for a refund, though it denied that it did so for tax reasons.

“We do destroy products in stores but I want to clarify that it is product that is already damaged or non-repairable,” Joon Silverstein, global head of digital and sustainability at Coach, told Sourcing Journal, noting that each bag is assessed individually. She said that wrecked merchandise represented less than 1 percent of its global sales. “We have updated our policy to no longer destroy even this small amount of products in-store,” Silverstein added.

While Coach was already moving toward zero destruction, Sacks’ video has accelerated its schedule, Silverstein said. The majority of its excess inventory is donated through the nonprofit Delivering Good, which since 1985 has meted out $2 billion worth of merchandise to low-income families, individuals in need and people reentering the workforce.

“Our partners are serving people in need who have faced significant challenges and are making progress in their journeys,” Lisa Gurwitch, founder and CEO of Delivering Good, which previously counted Coach CEO as a board member, told Sourcing Journal. “Because the Coach product is so well-regarded, our community partners often use it as [a] special gift for their clients who have reached a milestone in their development process.”

The brand has donated $30 million of goods since 2012, Gurwitch said. “When they receive Coach merchandise, these folks feel like someone cares enough to give them a high-quality product that they can be proud to carry or wear,” she added. “In this way, their dignity is boosted, and the donation helps carry them forward.”

Coach has also offered repair services for the past few decades, mending more than 115,000 items in the past few years alone. This April, the Tapestry subsidiary launched Coach Re(Loved), a program that refurbishes, resells and recycles used bags.

“​​That [last] part is very hard as there is really no end-of-life recycling option for damaged or non-repairable product,” Silverstein said. Currently, Coach disassembles non-repairable products to craft something new, such as valet trays, bag charms and coffee-cup sleeves. “We are working very hard to [figure out] every option to prevent these products from going to landfill,” she added. “We want to be part of helping the industry find end-of-life recycling options, but it’s a tough problem for the [entire] fashion industry.”

Some 40 percent of Coach’s U.S. stores had already been sending their damaged, unsalable returns to the company’s repair workshops to be “assessed, renewed and reloved,” Silverstein said. The company was planning to expand the scheme to all outlets as it built up the capacity to manage the inflow. The attention that Sacks’ TikTok garnered pushed it to pull the trigger sooner rather than later.

“[Recycling] is a tough nut to crack,” she added. “[But] we have invested a lot of our people and resources to solving that problem.”

Coach isn’t the only brand that has been called out for mutilating merchandise it cannot sell. Luxury companies frequently do this to prevent goods from flooding the gray market, maintaining exclusivity. In 2018, Burberry incurred a wave of backlash after revealing that it had burned 28.6 million pounds ($38.9 million) of unsold stock in an effort to protect its “brand value.” The British luxury purveyor immediately walked back the policy, averring that “modern luxury means being socially and environmentally responsible.”

Coach says it will no longer destroy in-store returns after an environmental activist accused it of intentionally damaging products.
A refurbished pre-owned bag that Coach offers through its Re(Loved) initiative. Courtesy

But less rarified businesses have also been caught in flagrante. A decade ago, H&M came under scrutiny after a bag of destroyed clothing was discovered outside a Herald Square store in New York City. It, too, promised to make sure nothing like that happened again.

“The practice of destroying returned and unsold merchandise at the luxury level has historically occurred and continues by many brands to do so, [but] this also occurs at many large-brand retailers at price points lower than luxury as well,” Andrea Kennedy, sustainability professor at LIM College and founder of Fashiondex, told Sourcing Journal. “It’s a widespread and wicked problem.”

Kennedy said, however, that the TikTok video isn’t showing the whole story.

“I know this because I actually worked on a course project last spring with Coach, where circularity in their products and creating solutions for unsold or returned merchandise was the focus,” she said. ”Waste minimization was their key consideration in the project. So I know Coach is changing and quickly so. What they are doing now is truly exciting and future facing, and material and old product circularity is central to what they are doing now.”

Signs are mixed whether Coach has suffered a reputational blow from the kerfuffle or not. While retail analytics firm Edited on Thursday said that sales activity for the brand remains “healthy” with week-over-week bag sellouts up 17 percent across U.S. retailers, LovetheSales.com, a global shopping marketplace, found that demand for “Coach bags” plummeted by 49 percent over the last 24 hours as of Wednesday, while searches for “Coach” fell by 44 percent.

“Typically retailers and brands see a drop in consumer demand when they are the discussion of negative press stories; especially those that center on sustainability,” Hussain Ul-Haq, an analyst at the London-headquartered platform, told Sourcing Journal. “We saw this in 2018 when Burberry saw an 18 percent decrease in demand after it was discovered that they burnt millions of pounds worth of stock.”

Timo Rissanen, associate professor of fashion and textiles at the University of Technology Sydney, said fashion destruction is a widespread problem that has been “happening for a long time.” He’s spoken to major brands that incinerate “thousands of miles” of leftover fabric as a matter of course.

“The reason behind this insanity is what in 2018 with Burberry was referred to as ‘protecting the brand.’” Rissanen told Sourcing Journal. “Unless we change the underlying value system and ask deeper questions about what it is that we are actually protecting, I expect some form of this practice will continue.”