Why your online returns could end up in landfill and what you can do about it

Fashion is notorious for its environmental impact, which can reach 10 %. Fast fashion is to blame for this, as it encourages frequent purchases of cheap and non-durable products.

Around 30% of online purchases are returned. Most of these items end up in landfills. This is how the US will dispose of an estimated 2,6 million tonnes in 2020. This problem is so widespread that Boohoo, an online retailer, recently began charging for returns to discourage customers.

What are the main reasons for such high returns? Why are so many items returned and not resold again?

The pandemic changed our shopping habits forever. The temporary closure of stores was a boon to online retailers. The rise of online retail is a result of long-standing marketing strategies for fast fashion. The premium placed on newness, low prices, and both free delivery and returns all encourage customers to purchase multiple options with the knowledge they can return items freely (known as “bracketing”).

It is especially true when a product is “wardrobing,” which involves wearing the item once and then returning it. Reprocessing can cause retailers to lose money, but they also risk having their reputation damaged if the items are worn.

ASOS announced previously that they would crack down on “wardrobing” by closing accounts of fraudulent returners. The threat of a negative review can often leave the retailer with no choice other than to refund.

Liquidators are often the ones who buy these returned goods from retailers and turn them into quick cash. eBay shows dozens of pallets labeled “Amazon returns.” The highest bidder can purchase them.

Retailers face many challenges

Retailers face a number of challenges, including the rising cost and volume of returns. For fast fashion, the reprocessing fees are so high that they can often be higher than potential sales. This is largely attributed to the high-cost reprocessing costs of labor-intensive returns.

Returns are often the best way to save money. ITV investigated the Dunfermline Amazon warehouse and found that the online retailer disposes of tens of thousands of returned goods every week. Amazon has said that none of its items are disposed of in landfills, but instead, they are donated, recycled, or burned for energy recovery.

The fashion industry generates over 92 million tonnes of textile waste each year. vocal/Shutterstock

In the fashion industry, we produce more than 92 million tonnes of textile waste each year. Clothing returns alone create more carbon dioxide annual emissions than 3,000,000 cars in the US.

Carbon dioxide emissions are initially generated by the collection of returned goods and then increase as they are incinerated or dumped in landfills. Fast fashion is awash in synthetic fibers, which can take up to 100 years for the returns to decompose.

What are the retailers doing to combat returns?

Fashion retailers have financial incentives to address the costly issue of returns management.

Fashion retailers increasingly outsource the reprocessing process to specialist firms such as ReBound Returns. They work with retailers to improve the sustainability of the returns process.

ReBound encourages retailers to donate returned goods to charity via their ReBound Regift service. So far, this has enabled charitable donations of PS190,000,000. ASOS reports that 97% (or more) of its returns are now resold and that no items are sent to landfill.

Boohoo’s recent decision shows that several online retailers are trying to pass on the cost of return to customers. The main reason for this is financial. However, it is known that similar policies can improve customers’ environmental awareness. Following the introduction of small charges, since 2015, the use of plastic bags has decreased by 97% at England’s major supermarkets.

Fast fashion is still thriving despite calls for more sustainability in the fashion industry. If marketing practices that encourage fuel and waste emissions continue, the fashion industry’s unwelcome reputation as a major contributor to climate change will remain. Retailers need to rethink the unintended consequences of their return policies. They must balance the need to retain customers with the environmental consciousness.

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