The Hidden Environmental Cost Of Online Returns

The pandemic led to the exposure of many unsavoury and unethical practices in the fashion industry. Who could forget the headlines surrounding the Leicester factory scandal in the Summer of 2020, or the heartbreaking stories of garment workers being plunged into poverty as brands withheld payment? Yet, one issue remained largely overlooked. This problem was greatly exacerbated by the pandemic, causing mayhem for some of your favourite brands, yet the general public remained largely unaware of its disastrous environmental impacts. So what exactly was this hidden problem? 

Online returns. Yes, that t-shirt that you bought in the January sales that was just a tad too small may not be on its way to a new home as you would expect, but instead tossed straight to the landfill. According to the Business of Fashion, brands usually expect between 20-30% of clothing they sell to be returned. This of course may be due to customers buying multiple sizes to ensure the correct fit, or being unsatisfied with the quality or appearance of the item in person. Despite the reason for return, the same damaging process is usually followed.

Returns must be assessed and repackaged at a cost to the retailer before they can be sent out to a new customer. This means that in some cases it’s cheaper for the retailer to simply throw away returned products instead of selling them on to a new customer. This is particularly true for returned electrical items that must be fully tested before being resold and inexpensive fast fashion items. So perfectly good products may be sent to the landfill or even incinerated, contributing to a hugely wasteful and damaging process. If retailers do spare the time and expense on repackaging returned items, it unfortunately still does little to solve the negative environmental impacts of online returns.

Posting a return back to the brand’s warehouse, only to have it sent out to another part of the world (with this process likely being repeated several times), contributes to the releasing of an estimated 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, wreaking havoc on the health of the planet and ourselves. It’s clear that the solution is to limit returns in general. Unfortunately, the lure of free shipping/returns is a common tactic used by brands to generate sales and I’m sure we’ve all been persuaded to purchase at some point for this very reason. With the topic being overlooked by government legislation and brands failing to offer their customers transparency on the subject, consumers are yet to realise the full extent of the issue.

Luckily advancements in technology are beginning to offer solutions. Companies like Perfitly offer the ability to create a 3D avatar that allows you to try on clothes virtually, helping you find the perfect fit whilst shopping online and therefore slashing the risk of returns. Some e-commerce platforms are also beginning to put policies into place to limit or offset its negative impacts. Here at Wearth, we’re doing our bit by making sure all our deliveries are carbon-neutral to help reduce our brand’s impact on the planet. Want to know how we do this? Click here.

As consumers we can do our part by educating ourselves on the real impact of these policies, remembering that free delivery and returns still come at a high environmental cost. Taking that bit longer to consider if a purchase is really necessary can work to significantly limit the damage caused by shipping. Try also to avoid the temptation to add unwanted products to your basket to meet a company’s minimum for free shipping, knowing you’ll be repacking those items before the postman even leaves your driveway.

Our top tips to help reduce returns waste are:

Conscious Consumer Approach Really thinking of products you need is the best way to avoid unwanted returns. We suggest steering clear of flash sales and ridiculously low prices, if it seems too good to be true, it usually is. However, if you have a product in mind that’s caught your eye, save the link and wait a few weeks. After some time if you feel the product is still calling out to you and you love it as much as you did when you first saw it then go for it. It’s interesting how much our opinions can change in just a few weeks.

Buy In Person As the pandemic starts to ease, shops are opening their doors once again and the experience of purchasing in real life can really help reduce the waste created by online shopping. Firstly, you can actually get a feel of what the item is like, the material, quality, colours etc. Secondly, there is the option to try on the product before you buy and this can be a real life saver! It’s crazy how different some items of clothing look when you try them on and this also means you’re more likely to get a size that fits you well.

Made To Order Many of the fashion brands we stock at Wearth offer a ‘made-to-order’ service which means the items are only created at the customer’s request. This generates a much healthier production model, reducing stock and materials waste, sizing charts can be more specific and the workers who make the products are treated more ethically. Some of our favourite made-to-order brands to get you started are KOHR, Veryan and Zola Amour.