A month ago, DEW Mighty went viral on Instagram for our response to a video of an Ulta employee destroying products that had been returned to her store. We were horrified, and so were many of you. You may be amazed to learn that for many companies, this is not only normal behavior—it’s a part of their policy. Employees are required to trash perfectly good products. Sounds insane, right? Why would any brand purposefully damage its returns?
We did some digging to get to the bottom of these wasteful return practices.
DUMPSTER DIVING – STEALING OR SALVAGING?
One huge reason brands cite for destroying their products is to prevent people from dumpster diving and passing off products as full-priced returns or reselling them online. By law, nothing explicitly outlaws dumpster diving, yet many store policies still require workers to mutilate products they plan to discard. That’s right: big brands would rather trash perfectly good items (that they already planned on wasting) than allow them to be collected, used, and/or repurposed.
How is this the best outcome? If they’re so worried about other people profiting from these items, why destroy them rather than donate them?
While clothing and uneaten food may reach shelters and donation bins, skincare products are rarely lucky to get a second life. Companies like Product Beauty Share (which redistributes gently used makeup to struggling populations) and Beauty Bus (which sends unused products to terminally ill patients) are doing their part to limit waste and empower people who may not have easy access to beauty care. Still, despite the work of these epic organizations, corporate greed will continue to destroy countless products straight from the shelf. If food has guidelines for donation, shouldn’t beauty products, too?
LIQUIDATOR VS. LUXURY
Another common reason stores wreck their returned products is to prevent luxury items from landing in liquidator shops. Liquidator stores, such as Big Lots and Tuesday Morning, sell open-box items or surplus inventory at a discounted rate. Unfortunately, many companies would rather see their products end up in landfills than liquidators, as they view discount shops as devaluing their curated “luxury” image. So, they choose to junk their products instead—to the tune of 5 billion pounds of landfill waste produced annually by returns.
Disturbed by this level of greed? That’s only the tip of the iceberg.
When products are blemished or go bad, brands can also perform what’s known as an inventory write-off. This is when they report damaged products, including returns, as unsaleable, removing them from their yearly ledger. With a lower reflected annual income, businesses can write off this inventory on their taxes. This means they profit from every act of wastefulness they commit—only incentivizing them to continue.
KEEPING CONSUMERS “SAFE” — ANOTHER EXCUSE FOR WASTE?
Many companies create narratives to justify this insane level of waste, including claims of product tampering. This argument is how many stores validate the destruction of returns—for the “safety” of their consumers. But how likely is it that strangers mass-buy beauty products to ruin and return? Why can’t stores develop systems to check products for signs of tampering before tossing them out? Is this just another excuse to trash inventory for a corporate tax break?
It’s also common for stores to scrap items marked as expired, again citing “safety.” However, the numbers on the box are not always the end of a product’s life. Expiry dates are not just determined by when a product goes “bad,” but by how much time a company dedicates to testing a product’s lifespan in its original packaging. Plus, it depends on the product, especially when unopened (referred to by the “period after opening” symbol on many big-name brands). While liquid-based formulas may require closer attention to expiration dates, powders take much longer to reach a state where they are nonusable.
Even if products are expired past the point of useability, why are companies asking their retail employees to handle the disposal of the formulas? Shouldn’t these products be dealt with by lab standards, with special disposal containers and hazmat gear? Aren’t these policies breaking the “safety” standards they claim to uphold?
If the contradictions of these companies' wasteful return habits trouble you, you’re not alone. At DEW Mighty, our solution is simple: a trial kit. Our trial-size deluxe samples allow you to test all the products you’re interested in, including:
- Our trio-pack of beauty bars
- Individual samples of BLOOM, NOVA, and OASIS
- Individual samples of our LUCID cleansing powder
- A combo of BLOOM + LUCID samples
We also recommend visiting your local retailer to test products in person before committing to an online buy. Lastly, if you have skincare products you aren’t planning to keep for yourself, consider donating to a local homeless or domestic violence shelter.
We can’t always count on faceless companies to cut down on waste. Still, you can dew the right thing by testing products in advance, minimizing your returns, and sticking to the brands that prioritize sustainability.
Great additional reads
“Ulta employee reveals what really happens to returned beauty products” via Today News
“I Still Use My Old Makeup — Here’s Why It’s Okay (Sometimes)” via Refinery29
“What Happens to All the Stuff We Return?” via The New Yorker
“Beauty has a waste problem, and it’s not packaging” via Vogue Business
“The unsustainable cost of free returns” via Vogue Business
“Why fashion brands destroy billions’ worth of their own merchandise every year” via Vox
“Inside the $644 billion business of reselling returned items” via CNBC
Collab with Piper Gourley