A pile of Vans sneakers on the street is worth 20,600 TikTok comments.
Philadelphia content creator Sophia Schiaroli — better known @soso_swag across platforms — posted a now-viral TikTok on Tuesday alleging that employees at the Walnut Street Vans store were cutting and throwing away unsold sneakers, rendering them unwearable.
“Not only did they just throw out these shoes on the street in their boxes, they cut them so people could not use them,” Schiaroli said, superimposed over a photo of a pile of more than a dozen checkered, high-top, and standard-issue Vans in front of the store. “With the homeless population in this city, this is absolutely disgusting.”
The video has been viewed more than 2.5 millions times, with the comments section sparking a debate over the difference between corporate sustainability failures and the protocols rank-and-file retail employees must follow.
“I don’t even throw out my gently used shoes, this needs an explanation” one TikTok user commented, while another wrote that she would “never buy these shoes again.”
Other commenters who claimed to be employed by Vans said they’ve had to cut and discard new product shipments because of mold growing in the shoes, while others argued that slashing or burning defective or unsold inventory has long been standard fashion industry practice.
Vans did not respond to questions from The Inquirer regarding their standard protocol for discarded merchandise, but told Complex magazine that damaging wearable — albeit apparently unsellable — shoes before trashing them is not company policy, which includes designing and selling waste-free products at scale by 2030.
“The products [at the Walnut Street store] were deemed unsafe to donate due to organic growth caused by external and environmental factors,” a Vans spokesperson told Complex. “Vans will always prioritize the donation of usable products to those in need … That said, we are actively revisiting our retail protocols to ensure that products are properly recycled.”
Do fashion brands actually damage unsold goods before throwing them away?
The majority of fashion brands used to slash, shred, or burn leftover inventory before trashing it, but the practice “isn’t that common anymore,” according to Nioka Wyatt, the director of Jefferson University’s fashion merchandising program and an associate professor.
Brands do not want their products devalued by circulating among unverified or black-market sellers. Plus, said Jefferson fashion design program director Farai Simoyi, major companies don’t want to pay taxes on surplus stock.
“It’s this mentality of ‘If I can’t make money off it, no one can,’” said Simoyi, who regularly consults with companies on ethical design practices.
The fashion industry’s turning point happened after Burberry justified the burning of $38 million worth of leftover perfume, accessories, and clothes in 2018, when the fashion house was supposed to be doubling down on its sustainability commitments.
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In the years since, some retailers have partnered with clothing rental services like URBN’s Nuuly or Rent the Runway to give clothes that don’t sell extra shelf life, said Simoyi. Others, meanwhile, are upcycling leftover materials.
Still, Simoyi is careful to call these one-off initiatives progress, especially considering that the industry writ large has struggled to make a meaningful dent in its oversize carbon footprint, which accounts for 4 to 8% of overall worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.
“It’s greenwashing at its finest,” said Simoyi. Brands like Vans “act like they’re the face of circularity and sustainability when they haven’t even taken steps to claim that.”