Eckhaus Latta investigate New York’s garment-shredding industry

Photography by Thomas McCarty

Photography by Thomas McCarty
Words by Blake Abbie

This article originally appeared in A Magazine N°17 Curated By Eckhaus Latta, 2017.

Press go, and the heavy humming of the engines begins to rumble. The truck nondescript, save for a steel chute attached to the body behind the passenger’s window – sits roadside waiting for the day’s job. A black plastic garbage bin is wheeled to the curb and set into the truck’s chute. Hoisted by the fork- lift, the bin filled to the brim with plastic bags lifts up into the truck, tipping its contents into the machine. Bags tumble out, swallowed up by churning hydraulic metal blades. In a mere two seconds, thou- sands of dollars of fashion are torn into bits and shreds, piling up in the back of a truck. ‘That day, we had to destroy 150 items,’ recalls my source, a CEO of the shredding business. On that occasion, the agenda included a shipment of silk blouses to be ground to dust. And if that sounds alarming, it’s a drop in the ocean. For an industry often accused of frivolity and exorbitant spending, why, you might ask, do fashion companies destroy their designs?

On behalf of A Magazine, I visited a key facility in New Jersey, USA to investigate.

Our case study CEO is a former Wall Street staffer, freed from the confines of a desk working in executive recruitment. Spending years pushing paper downtown, he now rips it apart at the helm of a company that destroys documents, textiles, technology – anything confidential that requires shredding into innumerable pieces, never to be put together again. A Tom Cruise doppelgänger, you’d sooner expect him to grace the silver screen than to run a company whose MO is to pulverise anything and everything in its path. Willingly collaborative, he invited A Magazine to rendezvous at an on-site shredding operation, and spoke candidly about his fleet of new-age warrior trucks combatting security loss. The only catch? Full anonymity for both himself and the company. A firm believer in client confidentiality, the CEO gives no notion that he would sway from his commitment to keeping their information and business practices a well-kept secret. A noble consideration for privacy and property (both physical and intellectual) seems ingrained in his practice and persona. After just a short trip out of New York City, we met in the backend of the logistics facility where most of these jobs take place, far from the glamour of the runway and the flashing bulbs of the red carpet.

The shredding business has grown monumentally over the past decade with calls from small businesses, public corporations and even private individuals. Amid fears of identity theft and personal data hacking, privacy is of the utmost importance, ensuring the secrecy and untraceability of a plethora of assets. If you pay attention, shredding trucks could be found driving through the 1st arrondissement in Paris, near Bank in the City of London and on the Main Street of any town in America. Even in the age of the great digital migration shredding remains crucial, due to the ongoing need to eliminate physical evidence of private documents. ‘It’s ironic that people care that the world doesn’t know what they are up to,’ laments the CEO about our social media era. Most requests the company’s receives are to destroy paper documents which could include taxes, receipts and archival holdings. ‘I mainly work with companies, but residential shredding is also a huge part of my business. People call when they want their tax returns shredded – but I would never shred Donald’s!’ he jokes.

Here are some depressing numbers for you: we can shred 200 pounds of bags, 15 times an hour. That’s 3,000 pounds of leather handbags an hour!

Handling the most sensitive material is of the utmost importance and carried out under immense security and scrutiny. ‘Anything with a magnetic strip, like all smart cards: a $10 or $15 card – that’s currency,’ our host explains. ‘When that card expires, with good technology you can read the black strip on the back and reverse-engineer to create cards.’ His company shreds items without discrimination: train cards and government secrets all face the same fate. ‘I’m bidding on a project for a military base where they’re developing 3D-printed prototypes of grenades. Now, what do you do with the prototype? It’s all 3D printing, so they’re safe to destroy – it’s a weird part of the business.’ And what does destroying plastic grenades have to do with fashion? Well, it seems that all man-made solids are fair game for disintegration, with the CEO admitting, ‘I just had this cashmere clothing pull of 8,000 items that had to be destroyed. The clothing industry is becoming more and more of a key part of my business.’ It would seem the high fashion industry requires the same discretion as military R&D.

The CEO’s company carries out a good share of the shredding for the luxury industry based in and around New York City. ‘Here are some depressing numbers for you,’ he confessed about a recent client, ‘we can shred 200 pounds of bags, 15 times an hour. That’s 3,000 pounds of leather and metal handbags in an hour.’ And those light-as-air silk blouses? ‘They needed to be destroyed because they were highly flammable; otherwise the company would have been fined heavily,’ explained our source. A legal liability. Under American law, the fashion house needed to provide a certificate of destruction proving the ‘dangerous’ garments in question were gone without a trace and wouldn’t make it onto the market.

Even more common than government intervention is when unsold or damaged garments are destroyed at the end of a season. The practice of burning or shredding clothing into fabric scraps destined for the landfill protects brands from criminals who scour dumpsters for untouched and intact dead inventory who then return their finds to stores for cash or store credit. Shredding clothing defends retailers against profit loss, but can also preserve a brand’s cache. Certain luxury brands, including labels in both the LVMH and Kering portfolios, Burberry, and Chanel have been wrought with rumours that they shred their products to retain exclusivity. If you can’t buy full price, don’t expect to shop it later from the bottom of the bargain bin. Similar in their resistance to the evolution of the retail landscape, many of these luxury brands retain apprehension about e-commerce and vehemently oppose discounts to move product off shelves and off racks. Rather than keeping unsold stock for a future sale, destroying product retains the brand’s elite image. ‘It should matter to a designer what happens to their items. Not only when they sell, but how they manage what isn’t sold,’ says our source.

It’s a mindset he takes to heart: ‘I want to tell you this story: I had the luxury of travelling to Thailand in 1991 when Bangkok was the theft capital of the world. I bought this drop-dead-gorgeous leather briefcase from an Italian manufacturer; the tag said “Made in Milan”. But no, it wasn’t. It was made in Bangkok. It cost me $40 for something that if I saw on Madison Avenue it would be at least $1,000.’ When one considers the inexplicable speed and precision at which manufacturers are now able to produce – and reproduce – designs shown on the major fashion runways, in many instances the ‘inspired by’ product lands on store shelves far faster than the original and at a huge price disparity. These low-end manufacturers cut corners, not only by using lower quality materials but by eliminating the need to invest time and money in genuine research and development. Counterfeit goods and cheap knock-offs are an enormous problem for the fashion industry.

‘Theft is easy. There are companies – in fashion, technology, every industry – that steal designs. They would say it’s all fair game, but when designers are creating clothing with a certain quality of material, a certain design, a certain stitch, a certain t – if something’s counterfeited, it ruins the value that designer put into it,’ he reflects. It’s why fashion’s innovators turns to shredding companies to protect their intellectual property. By destroying their product, they hope to fend off potential copycats stealing designs, which tend to be difficult to trademark or copyright. Empathising, the CEO vents his frustration: ‘When my kids were younger, they would download songs from Napster – it used to drive me nuts. They were stealing music! “Guys! Don’t steal!” I eventually told them, “If people stole from me, I couldn’t afford this house.”’ And it is the same approach with fashion. He maligns, ‘When someone steals something from you, how angry would you get? Like, “Fuck you! This is my value! This is my brains! This is my dream! This is my passion!” You just don’t think about it until it’s too late. We don’t think about it until we see someone stealing it. Then it’s gone.’ Moreover, if a fashion brand defines a product as seasonal or limited edition, they can control its lifecycle by shredding it – assured that it won’t be stolen, sent to China and reproduced ten-fold. Shredding has become yet another line of defence in the fight against the phenomenon of finding this or last season’s runway ‘look’ for sale on Canal Street.

We destroyed eight small cartons of watches which represented 15,000 returns. They couldn’t be repaired, so it might be cheaper to throw them out than to fix them.

As one of the largest polluters in the world, the fashion industry depends on a heavily polluting development and manufacturing process. One could hope that corporate social responsibility departments would find a more sustainable solution to the shredded fashion waste than just purchasing carbon offsets. Fortunately while all this destruction sounds harmful, in recent years there has been progress in repurposing much of this post-consumer textile waste. Through many international initiatives, there is a movement to reintegrate and restore the 150 million tonnes of clothing and shoes sold each year back into the textile lifecycle. In this cyclical economy, rather than sending shredded materials to landfills, the fibres can be repurposed into new products. ‘Companies who want to be green, and those who already are, want to recycle as much as possible,’ the CEO tells us. ‘There are now firms who specialise in recycling hard-to-recycle products; everything from espresso cups to ink cartridges are now recyclable. They have also developed ways in which to further recycle shredded textiles from fashion companies like turning shredded cotton into an organic fertiliser.’ This is then used on agricultural plots where they grow cotton, thereby completing the cycle. The industry’s next issue to tackle is mixed-textile garments as these complicated chemical recycling methods can only be applied to ‘single stream’ fibres; so for example, when a luxury cotton-leather shoe is thrown into the shredding truck, the detritus ends up in a county landfill. If a global brand professes to be environmentally friendly, sustainability should matter.

So why does the fashion industry choose to continue to eliminate of all these garments? As with all business, the reasoning is monetary. Markups in fashion can be astronomical, and the cost to produce something can be minuscule in comparison. In practice, it seems to be more economical to destroy old or broken products than it is to ship them back to their countries of origin or even repair them. During the last holiday season our CEO remembers, ‘A watch manufacturer had returns from Christmas, and we destroyed eight small cartons of watches which represented 15,000 returns. Whether bought on 42nd Street at a store or received as a gift for graduation, they were all the same. It was deemed they couldn’t be repaired, so it might be cheaper to throw them out than to fix them.’ Storing unsold stock for the next season can also be prohibitively expensive; Dead inventory is dead weight and an expense on which companies would rather avoid spending.

Intellectual property protection, brand value and the economics of fashion represent disparate causes of the same problem, and all have different solutions. ‘This isn’t any different than a sporting event, like the Stanley Cup,’ our source elaborates. ‘The Atlanta Thrashers hockey team had t-shirts made to celebrate their win, but obviously they didn’t win the Stanley Cup. So these t-shirts end up in Bangladesh. It’s the same, but different. It’s the same as protecting any brand, but here we don’t want the world populated with a losing team’s shirts. It’s also different because it doesn’t have the same economic impact as a thousand dollar blouse – it’s a five dollar t-shirt. People in Bangladesh appreciate it, and they don’t know who the Atlanta Thrashers are.’

After spending the day at the shredding truck, I couldn’t help to reminisce on Helmut Lang’s fashion swan song: Was it here that the German designer shred his archive, transforming a piece of fashion history into sombre sculpture? In hindsight, his was a bold testament to the hidden practices of an industry: one built on protecting ideals of ‘luxury’ through the storytelling of exclusivity, heritage and constructed prestige. Evidently, brands known for Italian craftsmanship and delicate French savoir faire are the first to destroy their own designs. With such murky questions posed at both ends of a garment’s life cycle, it can be said that consumer awareness remains decidedly low. What are you really wearing? There’s only one thing we can be totally sure of: The whole truth ain’t written on the hangtag.

A Magazine Curated By Eckhaus Latta, 2017.
Photography by Roe Ethridge, styling by Brian Molloy.

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