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H&M accused of burning 12 tonnes of new, unsold clothing per year

London - Swedish fashion retailer H&M stands accused of burning 12 tonnes of unsold garments per year in spite of its ongoing sustainability efforts to close the loop in fashion.

The fashion giant is said to have incinerated approximately 60 tonnes of usable, unsold clothing over the past few years, according to research from Danish tv-programme Operation X from TV2. H&M firmly denies these claims.

The Danish TV show first began investigating what H&M does with new apparel it does not sell this June and a number of inspections led them to the waste disposal company KARA/NOVEREN in Denmark. Journalists from Operation X are said to have seen first hand how garments from H&M were delivered to the processing company before being destroyed.

H&M accused of burning 12 tonnes of new, unsold clothing per year

H&M said to have incinerated 60 tonnes of new, usable clothing since 2013

Approximately 30,000 cowboy-themed trousers for children and dark blue ladies pants with the price-tags still intact were handed in, a total of 1,580 kilos. Further investigations found that the waste disposal firm had incinerated 60 tonnes of new apparel from H&M since 2013. Else Skjold, a professor of sustainable design at the Kolding Design School in Denmark stated that H&M is destroying clothing as a result of overproduction.

In the past fashion retailers only production four collections per year on average, But thanks to the rise of fast-fashion, companies like Zara an H&M have new product drops every week. "It's dramatic if we're talking about fashion because the trends in fashion are temporary. If something is not in fashion, then it can't be sold anymore," said Skjold to Operation X.

H&M has stepped forward and calls the claims false. "This is of course not true," said a spokesperson for H&M to FashionUnited. "The clothes featured in the program are stopped orders that have been sent to incineration because of mold or not complying with our strict chemical restrictions, which is according to our routines for stopped orders."

H&M denies claims it destroys safe, usable clothing

The Swedish fashion retailer has incorporated sustainability as one of its core values. Over the years it has invested in a number of recycling initiatives to encourage customers to recycle their unwanted clothing and launched collections made with post-consumer textile waste. H&M has also increased the percentage of organic cotton and sustainable materials used in its collections and aims to solely use sustainable cotton in all its collections by 2020. It also aims to move to a circular business model, minimise and reuse all its waste.

"Circularity is at the core of our sustainability strategy and we work hard to ensure that we maximize the use and the value of our products in line with the principles of the circular economy and waste hierarchy," added the spokesperson. "Incineration is, therefore, the very last option that we only allow under very special circumstances when re-use or recycling is not an option, such as when our products are contaminated by mold or not complying with our strict chemical restrictions."

However, Operation X maintains that H&M is destroying usable apparel. Following H&M's explanation, Operation X journalists took two different pairs of trousers sent to KARA/NOVEREN to be incinerated and sent them to an independent laboratory for testing. Journalists also purchased two similar pairs of trousers available for sale in an ordinary H&M store and sent them off to testing, to see if there was a difference in the chemicals and substances present in the trousers to be destroyed and those purchased.

H&M accused of burning 12 tonnes of new, unsold clothing per year

Operation X puts H&M's garments to the test

The four pairs of trousers were tested for a wide range of harmful chemicals that pose a health risk according to EU and Danish regulations as well as potentially hazardous bacteria, such as Ecoli. According to the tests, the trousers sent for incineration did not contain any harmful levels of chemicals and normal deposits of bacteria, similar to what one would expect to trousers sold in stores.

H&M has countered that cowboy trousers sent for incineration contained an "increased level of lead" in some of its metal detailing and that the dark blue women's trousers were found to be suspicious of carrying mould. Operation X claims that none of the trousers tested carried any traces of mold and the level of lead found on the cowboy trousers was only one-tenth of the permissible limit value, even less than the lead value on the trousers purchased in store. In spite of Operation X's accusations, H&M stresses the tests performed by Operation X differ from their own and it is following safety regulations to keep its customers safe. In order to prove its point, H&M has made the test results publicly available online.

"The products media refers to have been tested in external laboratories. The test results show that one of the products is mold infested and the other product contains too high levels of lead," added H&M in a statement shared with FashionUnited. "According to the test we have, the test for lead performed by the Danish program didn’t include the whole garment and not the part affected by too high levels of lead. The other test performed by the Danish program didn’t include tests for mold. This is the reason why our tests differ."

H&M accused of burning 12 tonnes of new, unsold clothing per year

H&M: 'We are puzzled why some media is suggesting that we would destroy other products than those required. There is absolutely no reason for us to do such a thing'

The Swedish fashion giant noted that when test results show that certain products do not fulfill their safety regulations they cannot be sold or recycled and are sent for destruction in accordance with their global safety routine. "H&M has one of the strictest Chemical Restrictions in the industry and we do regular testing, often in external laboratories. Accordingly, the restrictions often go further than the law demands as we want our customers to feel totally safe to use our products." H&M added that other products which cannot be sold due to other reasons are always donated to charity, re-used through recycling companies.

This is not the first time that H&M stands accused of destroying usable clothing. In early 2010 the Swedish fashion retailer was accused of cutting up and dumping unwanted garments at a store on 35th Street in New York in a New York Times expose. At the time H&M vowed that it would make sure these practices would never happen again.

Photos: Erdem x H&M, courtesy og H&M Group