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International retailer H&M could ignore The New York Times. But the company couldn't ignore an overwhelming groundswell of outrage on Twitter.

Last week, an outpost of the retail giant was caught shredding and discarding unsold clothes. When a New York Times reporter came calling for a comment, H&M didn't bother responding. But two days later, after readers expressed trending outrage on Twitter, H&M was ready to do something about it. And it all could have been avoided with a simple returned phone call.

When a CUNY student noticed clothes full of holes outside of a Herald Square H&M, she called the headquarters to complain. After failing to get a response, she went to The Times.

The New York Times found clothes "destroyed in garbage bags outside the H&M store on 34th Street east of Sixth Avenue, and in the nearby 35th Street Walmart." Walmart said it was a mistake and they're not sure why it happened. But H&M didn't respond. 

The damaged goods appeared to be an effort to defend the stores against a practice called dumpster diving, where people scavenge discarded food and goods from store receptacles. But with the economy in the doldrums and charities desperate for clothing donations, the finding was especially ill-timed.

H&M wasn't willing to speak to The Times for the article. But the news hit Twitter like wildfire. User outrage pushed the topic to number two on Twitter's list of trending topics. It took a day for the retailer to respond on Twitter, but the following day it started taking more direct action. 

Nicole Christie, a spokeswoman for H&M, decided it was time for a call to The Times and said:

“It will not happen again. We are committed 100 percent to make sure this practice is not happening anywhere else, as it is not our standard practice.”

The company also resonded on its Facebook  page:

 

“H&M is committed to taking responsibility for how our operations affect both people and the environment. Our policy is to donate any damaged usable garments to charity. We’re currently investigating an incident in a NY store that is not representative of our policy. We will follow with more information as soon as we are able. H&M’s US sales operation donates thousands of garments each year through Gifts In Kind Int.”

It used to be that businesses were terrified of a terrible writeup in The Times. They still are. But the real issue is consumer outrage, and services like Twitter and other social media make it easier than ever to close that feedback loop. 

The lesson? Address complaints. Especially if a part of your business is acting oustide of stated policies and someone with an audience the size of The New York Times is calling. This is especially important in a case like this. The article wasn't explicitly about H&M's practices, but the outrage was. What was the difference between what happened at Walmart and what happened at H&M?

A returned phone call. 

Image: NYTimes

Meghan Keane

Published 11 January, 2010 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

721 more posts from this author

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Hugh Fidgen

Unless they adopt perfect, 100% wholesome policies, every B2C company faces the possibility of "consumer outrage". I'd say there are 4 types of companies out there in this matter:

1) Companies who are golden
2) Companies who don't get found out
3) Companies who get found out and do something about it FAST
4) Companies who get found out and ignore it all hoping it'll go away

H&M deserve credit for fixing this as quickly as they could, turning a company of their size around in less than 24 hours is pretty good, to be honest. Woe betide companies in category 4.

over 6 years ago

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Jessica Smith

Not to nitpick, but there aren't any Walmarts in Manhattan.  The clothes were just dumped by Walmart in a lot on 35th St.

over 6 years ago

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Jeffry Pilcher

The lesson here isn't one about PR or social media. The bottom line is that you should do the right thing. Anyone with a conscience should know it is inherently immoral to destroy perfectly fine clothes. A shred of common sense (by H&M and Walmart) would have prevented this altogether.

If you don't like apologizing, then don't do anything you need to be sorry for.

Another lesson here is that when you do something as boneheaded as this, the story will ALWAYS get out, and the court of public opinion will find a venue to render their jugdment.

over 6 years ago

Meghan Keane

Meghan Keane, US Editor at Econsultancy

Thanks for the details Jessica. I wasn't sure what Walmart on 35th Street The Times article was talking about. Jeffry, A large corporation like H&M can't account for all of its employees acting correctly. The company's policy is to donate unsold clothing. This particular store was acting in violation of that policy. Whether upper management outside the store knew about this or not is a different story. But large corporations are going to continue having problems like this, because employees do not always follow the rules, even when they are managers of stores.

over 6 years ago

Andrew Lloyd Gordon

Andrew Lloyd Gordon, Digital Marketing Expert, Speaker and Trainer at New Terrain Limited

Whilst this is a powerful example of the impact of social media, I think it's a little more multi-layered.

What's interesting is that, according to this page:

http://bit.ly/6GNGJP

Cynthia first contacted the New York Times to report her outrage (by the way, has anyone discovered what Cynthia is studying - PR perhaps??).

Did she post to Twitter first to raise the alarm? Doesn't look like it.

Did she try and raise an army of protest via Facebook. Nope.

Did she produce revealing YouTube videos like an undercover reporter? I can't find any (I've checked).

Or did she blog consistently and passionately about it until H&M sat up and noticed her huge blog following?

Erm, no.

What did she do?

Well, she went and told an old media player who then started the moral crusade (which is what old media is very good at).

I find this a little ironic.

Because if you run a quick check across various social media platforms, the involvement of the NYT is mentioned time and time again. It's as though it was their involvement that made it a story. Which just shows, perhaps, the weight old media still carries.

Yet much of the 'social media' buzz is just a re-reporting and re-hashing what had already been said in the NYT. What you find on the social web adds little value and has a smug, 'we told you that social media is powerful etc etc' taste to it.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm a massive fan of 'social media' (like this blog for example). I tweet and Facebook like everyone else.

But we have to recognise when social media started the ball rolling or acted more like an echo chamber.

over 6 years ago

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TN

H&M donates unsold clothing? That is the final proof that fashion retailers have become disconnected from any real clothing needs.

Proof 1: Stuff that has remained unsold beyond the season has absolutely no value for the company. Donating it saves money on garbage haulage fees, and saves the company from the tweet criticism.

Proof 2: Company can donate the unsold clothing without the fear of cannibalizing future revenues, because donated clothes go to a group of American people who cannot afford even the cut-rate, reduced quality, sweatshop-sourced H&M clothing. Now, or never.

over 6 years ago

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Mike Scheiner

What stupidity. So much of this embarrassment could've been avoided, by simply donating the clothing (and writing it off tax wise) or by addressing the initial call in the first place.

over 6 years ago

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digdugmedia

I think this is a great example of how Internet and social media can affect our lives. Could you have imagined something like that even a few years ago? Of course this can't be called a control, but we definitely are having a very important share of voice and influence over even big corporations nowadays. VH

over 6 years ago

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digdugmedia search marketing

I think this is a great example of how Internet and social media can affect our lives. Could you have imagined something like that even a few years ago? Of course this can't be called a control, but we definitely are having a very important share of voice and influence over even big corporations nowadays. VH

about 6 years ago

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