The Problem with "Free" Returns
Did you know that in the midst of the online shopping era, returns are at an all-time high? Back in 2019, pre-pandemic online shopping spike, the media became enlightened to the fact that around five billion pounds of returned goods end up in US landfills each year. Amazon, unsurprisingly, was a massive contributor to this environmental problem with researchers tracking Amazon marketplace returns travelling over several hundreds of kilometres before ending up in a landfill. This opened up an even bigger and necessary dialogue on what happens to the clothes that we return to fast fashion, and even luxury, stores.
Globally, at least 30% of all products ordered online are returned as compared to 8.89% in brick-and-mortar stores. This is major considering that in 2021 alone there were estimates of global unique online shoppers hitting around 2.14 billion people. Considering that only 60% of the world population has access to the internet, this means just under half the world population with an internet connection use it to shop online.
So how do we get back to that circular economy thing we’ve been talking about?
Well, it’s always been about limiting consumption. Shopping online for pleasure has always been in the consumers hands, but creating very tempting return policies in order to entice customers to BUY, SPEND, CONSUME, has always been in the hands of companies and corporations. As consumers we have been taught that we can buy four pairs of jeans in different sizes and can count on the companies’ free, “no questions asked”, return policies, but do we stop to consider the consequences? There are a couple things you can do as a conscious consumers and fashion lovers:
1. Hold brands accountable for their “no questions asked” returns policies.
Returned inventory in the US along creates over 15 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually which is more than what 3 million cars might put out in a year. So we can gather that these types of return policies are basically saying, “Hey, we do not care about the mass amounts of CO2 we are contributing by marketing free shipping and returns!” or, “Buy as many sizes as you want to try on! You might decide to not return anything and that’s a win for us!”. And are also saying, “You can send back the clothes you bought in unsellable condition for free, and we will deal with it by lowkey sending it to landfills!”.
Now of course, there are some brands doing cool things with their returns like Pottery Barn or Carhartt partnering with Renewal Workshop to resell returned garments. Look for brands that have pride in their return sustainability, because if they are doing it, they will likely want to inform us about it. But you can bet on most fast fashion brands not showing or telling where returned items go, even if they end up on the clearance racks.
2. Be conscious of the sizes you are ordering.
More often than not, clothing brands have specific size guides that allow you to measure yourself and compare to their standard sizing. (You can find our size and measurement guide here.) Take the time to know your general measurements, put them in a note for easy referencing so when you do decide to shop from your favourite slow fashion brands (see what we did there?), and you have an easily accessible guide for your specific measurements. And we get that different fits aren’t for every body type, but the best way to combat returns is to buy silhouettes you already know and love on you, online, and save the experimenting for trying on in-store!
3. Start your vision board of well thought-out purchasing.
Quit the late night, sad-times, purchases because 9 times out of 10, you’ll regret it financially and stylistically (based on personal and shared experiences). Matter of fact, companies actually constantly market this impulsiveness to us. Companies are known to literally bank on impulse buying because for example in Canada, 63% of Canadians admit to shopping impulsively, and that’s a large chunk to major retail company’s target audiences. The DAC Group even posted an article on how companies can take advantage of this human instinct to “grab and go” with their heading, “How to use impulse shopping to boost sales”. Big red flags, don’t feed into it. You’ll feel so much more rewarded when you finally decide to hit “buy” on something you’ve been thinking about for a long time.
In the end, these responsibilities also fall on the shoulders of companies that bankroll off marketing unsustainable consumer decisions. As conscious companies and customers bring these practices of the fashion and retail industry to light, more companies will want to fall in line with customers' new standards and values.
Written by Haylie Dittrich for Upcycled Aviary