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The Environmental Impact Of Clothing Returns

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Although the overall impact of online shopping is lower than brick and mortar retail, the impact of clothing returns is a hidden and growing problem especially in fashion. Online shopping with home delivery is one of the few things that has boomed during the pandemic as we have been stuck indoors in front of our screens. Huge corporations such as Amazon with their infrastructure capable of moving goods all over the globe in a short space of time have made a fortune. This shift towards online purchasing was increasing every year anyway but has massively accelerated due to covid.  

 

%

of shoppers overbuy knowing they'll return unwanted items.

Free returns

There are many benefits to shopping online for most people, it’s quick and easy and saves us time which most of us have precious little of. However, the difficulty in buying clothes online is not knowing whether they will fit. How many of us have ordered two sizes to make sure or to meet the free shipping threshold? When we need to send something back it is often free to us and simple to do with a freepost returns label. Many of us will assume that as they are in a new condition they will be sold again by the retailer. The truth is rather shocking and has made me think twice about over ordering.

Retailers costs

Most large fashion brands offer free returns as an enticement to buy online. These costs not only include the freight, but middlemen, sorting and extra staffing and warehousing. Returned goods have to be hand evaluated for potential damage. Then dry cleaned or steamed before being restocked and often have to be sold at a discounted price too. They often end up on a warehouse shelf for years before their fate is decided upon. This all combines to make it cheaper and easier for retailers to dispose of returned stock rather than resell them.

%

of all clothing purchases are returned

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Environmental costs

The impact of clothing returns in the US alone is equivalent to the amount of waste produced by 5 million people in a year. While the logistics emissions is around 15 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually according to Optoro. That is added to the packaging waste created which in 2016 in the EU amounted to 87 million tonnes. The impact of making those goods in the first place as well as the pollution created from incineration has to be factored in too. 

Brexit

One of the outcomes of leaving the EU has been that many companies have been hit with duties on their goods making the cost of returns even more nonviable. Freight has also been stuck at borders or hauliers have not been able to guarantee delivery due to the uncertainty over the paperwork involved. Brands that are already struggling to survive through store closures during lockdown are likely to go for the easiest option of burning unwanted stock. Large volumes of stock are now returning to the UK as EU buyers refuse to pay the extra surcharges leaving couriers to take them away. One brand has stated it will cost almost £20,000 to get their goods back.

%

of returned garments end up in landfill or incinerator

The Future

Many retailers are now reconsidering their generous returns policies in light of costs and sustainability. Brexit will now also be a big deciding factor on this for big and small businesses alike. Return hubs in-store or at other locations are one way retailers are attempting to tackle this problem. New technology to analyse the data surrounding returns in order to deal with them more efficiently will be key. Some brands are looking into better fit analysis with software suggesting the size when shoppers input their height and weight.

 

Solutions

The solution to lowering the amount of  clothing returns created at the consumer end is to adopt slow fashion principles. This involves prolonging the life of clothes by choosing high quality clothing in trend-free styles and looking after them. This reduces the amount that need to buy in the first place but also encourages consumers to really think carefully before they buy. Is it a really necessary purchase? Can it be bought from a retailer that is reducing their environmental impact instead? Are sustainable packaging and low impact shipping being used? 

At Boy Wonder we promote slow fashion principles and have extra growth room built into our garments to make them last longer. They are made locally from high quality materials and in trend-free styles. 

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