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