The environmental impact of clothing returns


In recent years, offering a free and easy returns system has become conflated with good customer service. Surveys have shown that the majority of consumers are unlikely to shop with a company again if they have had a negative returns experience. For online retailers, providing free returns is a way to convince cautious buyers to purchase. But, returns are now getting out of hand becoming a thorn in the side for many businesses. So much so that some retailers, like ASOS have made efforts to clamp down on serial returners, monitoring accounts for suspicious return activity. While clothing returns are increasingly becoming a concern for businesses, there is also a huge environmental impact of sending clothes back.

There are lots of reasons why customers can be tempted to return items. The disparity in sizing between different brands means that knowing what size to select can be near impossible and inevitably leads to many garments being returned when they don’t fit. This problem is only exacerbated by the lack of transparency in online images. A photograph released on ASOS’ website of a dress secured with bulldog clips to alter its fit is proof that getting it right when shopping online is a difficult task.

In a 2019 survey, over half of those surveyed admitted to consciously overbuying and returning

A phenomenon which is now on the rise is bracketing. This is the term used to describe customers who buy several items with the intention of sending some of them back. This might be customers who buy the same item in multiple sizes or colours, or those who choose potential options for a special occasion. In a 2019 survey, over half of those surveyed admitted to consciously overbuying and returning.

Whilst the uncertainties attached to buying online can make it tempting to rely on returns services, the environment pays a huge price for this practice. One area of the fashion industry which contributes to pollution is the transportation of goods from place to place. Most retailers use heavy duty trucks to deliver garments and these vehicles contribute to Co2 emissions. When an item is returned it enters a reverse transportation chain, doubling the emissions. The sustainable returns company Optoro have estimated that returns generate 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere. Having made this journey, 50% of garments returned will not even be restocked. 

The rising popularity of bracketing as a kind of insurance when online shopping, also has a negative environmental impact

When items are returned, they need to be checked for faults before they can be cleaned and put back on sale. The huge variety in items returned means that different processes have to be employed for different items. This requires more warehouse space and more employees. To compound this, often by the time an item has been returned it has gone on sale and so can’t be restocked at its original price. So, for many companies it is simply not profitable to process returns. Items which don’t justify being restocked are either sold off to discounters, sent to landfill sites or incinerated. 

Another concern is that the rising popularity of bracketing as a kind of insurance when online shopping, also has a negative environmental impact. The perceived popularity of an item which is bought several times by the same customer leads companies to overproduce that item as a response to “high demand”. This leads to the production of more garments using harmful chemicals which will then end up as surplus and probably also end up in landfill. 

There are lots of ways to try and combat the returns problem. The obvious option is where possible to shop in store and make use of fitting rooms to avoid taking home the wrong size. Until bricks and mortar shopping is an option though, make use of sizing charts provided by retailers and read item reviews to see how the sizing runs. The various lockdowns have also seen a rise in individuals offering made to order clothing so you can be sure your garment will fit. If you still end up with an item that isn’t right, try re-selling it instead of returning.

Feature image by @maxim via Unsplash

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