Chances are, if you’ve ever bought clothing online, you’ve experienced the disappointment of receiving a garment that doesn’t match your expectations. Then starts the arduous — and, arguably, environmentally unsustainable — task of returning said clothing.
While it may be a quick and simple process for the customer, behind the scenes, returns are a logistical nightmare for brands. If you’ve been shopping under the impression that your returns end up back on a brand’s virtual (or actual) shop floor, what really happens to them may surprise you. With the pandemic pushing shopping online more than ever before, returns have skyrocketed, more than doubling from 2019 to 2020. Last year in the U.S., consumers returned $102 billion of online purchases, according to the National Retail Federation, with apparel the second largest category at 12.2%.
Returns are a huge headache for retailers, but it’s fair to say they’ve brought it on themselves. In the race to out-convenience their competitors, fashion brands have offered increasingly generous returns policies over the last few years — fast, free, and no-questions-asked — has become the industry standard.
Because returning unwanted clothes has never been easier, returns have become an intrinsic part of our online shopping experience, not just an occasional annoyance. About a decade ago clothing prices began dropping, ushering the practice of “bracketing,” the act of buying multiple sizes of the same item to find the best fit, then returning the rest, has become common practice. In fact, a 2019 report found that 51% of people who buy clothes online have shopped like this. At the same time, our obsession with online shopping is only growing. By 2030, the consulting group Kearney estimates 30% of all retail purchases will be facilitated online.
What Happens to the Clothes You Return?
ASOS, a retailer with a zero-landfill policy, claims to resell 97% of returns by repairing, cleaning, repackaging, and reselling them, with the remaining 3% being recycled. However, it’s not a perfect system. ASOS customers have reportedly found face masks, cigarette butts, receipts, and other items in their purchases, which were returned products that had clearly been worn.
Turns out, managing returns (or what’s known in the business as “reverse logistics”) is incredibly complex. Returns are tricky to anticipate — brands have no way to accurately predict how many or what products will be returned, whether the correct items have been returned, or what conditions they’ll be in. Returns need to be inspected for damage, then fixed and cleaned, pressed, repackaged, and transferred back into the distribution facility to be resold. KPMG estimates that returns cost brands more than double what it costs to deliver it in the first place, so for many businesses, it’s far cheaper and easier to simply destroy the product. In fact, it’s uncommon for brands to resell opened or unopened products, which goes without saying for anything that has sanitary considerations like underwear, swimwear, jewelry, and beauty products. Some big brands like Amazon and Walmart go as far as to issue a refund without even asking for the product back.
For fast fashion brands, where the churn of trends is rapid and the cost of clothes is almost criminally low, there’s even less incentive to resell garments that have been returned. By the time they’re back in the system, they’re probably not even available on the website anymore.
So where do they go? An estimated 10% of all returns end up in landfills, according to McKinsey. Brands across the price spectrum from H&M to Burberry have been caught incinerating or dumping products in the past, and most recently Coach was blasted online for chopping up and dumping “unsellable” damaged bags, despite 40% of the brand’s stores offering repair workshops for broken products.
In theory, many of these products could be donated or resold, but they aren’t, in order to protect a brand’s perceived exclusivity. Depending on the components that make up a garment, it might be recycled or stripped for parts, but this is also contingent on whether a brand has invested in a solid recycling scheme. Often, bundles of returned clothes are sold to discounters or liquidators, shipped around the globe in search of a buyer, then inevitably landfilled. The carbon footprint of this return journey can add up.
How to Make Returns More Sustainable
There are a handful of companies that have emerged to tackle fashion’s reverse logistics challenges, finding creative solutions to salvage landfill-bound returns. In the UK, ReBOUND essentially handles all aspects of a return process for brands, from transport to cleaning and repacking. It offers a variety of options to brands, including the ability to donate returns to the charity In Kind Direct, so that goods can be redistributed to people in need of them. ReBOUND has also partnered with rental platforms like HURR Collective and ZOA Rental to give returned clothing a new lease on life.
Over in the U.S., Happy Returns has 2,500 “Return Bars” around the country where you can take your unboxed returns, which are consolidated and bulk-shipped in reusable containers from a central hub back to a brand. The idea is to cut out excessive packaging, as well as reduce carbon emissions that come with transporting small quantities of returns. Another leader in the returns game is Optoro, a company that says it prevented 96% of returns from ending up in landfills in 2020. Optoro enables brands to restock their returns, redistribute them to secondary sellers, or sell them on through a B2B marketplace, BULQ.
How to Avoid Returning Your Clothes
Customer reviews, high-quality imagery and videos, and sizing guides all aim to give the most accurate information about a garment to reduce the rate of returns. Despite this, McKinsey estimates that around 70% of returns are a result of garments not fitting properly, which is often down to the accuracy of the information a company gives about its products.
Sizing is a huge problem in fashion, as brands tend to grade garments from a sample size U.S. size 0, UK size 6-8), then use an algorithm to come up with the measurements for the rest of their sizes. This means that clothing that looks great on the e-commerce model, might look completely different on a larger size, but the brand didn’t bother trying it on anyone other than a size 0 to find out. There are a few ways that customers can work around this, the simplest of which includes investing in a tape measure to check your measurements against a brand’s size guide.
If a tape measure is a little too analog for your liking, look to tech to help choose your best fit. Efitter is a browser extension that connects to your email and scours it for clothing receipts to find your most accurate size on a selection of brands (unfortunately they’re currently all fast fashion brands, but the company is working to roll it out to more brands). Then there’s EasySize, a plugin that claims to have reduced apparel returns by 30%. It takes into account not just your usual size, but height, body type, and fit preference, creating a tailored sizing profile for the customer based on this information.
Of course, it’s not all about the fit; customers want to try on a piece to see if it’ll suit their style and coloring too. Zeekit is a virtual fitting room start-up that works with brands like Gucci, ASOS, Levi’s, and Tommy Hilfiger. It maps clothing onto models with a wide variety of body shapes and ethnicities, helping customers to see how a garment looks on someone who resembles them. The company founder, Yael Vizel, says that two chain stores that are using Zeekit have seen returns drop from 38% to 2%. Other platforms are taking the virtual fitting room a step further, using machine learning and AI to create 3D renderings of clothing. Style.me allows customers to create an avatar with their body measurements, which can also be personalized down to the face, skin tone, and hairstyle.
Keen to avoid the hassle of returns altogether? The best thing you can do is shop in-store. Return rates for in-store purchases are significantly lower (in the single digits) than when you shop online, meaning you’re more likely to make a more informed decision if you can see and try a garment on IRL. Alternatively, you can resell on platforms like Vestiaire Collective and Depop, or if you’re feeling really generous, gift your unwanted pieces to charity or someone you know who would appreciate some new items.
At the end of the day, e-commerce is only going to take up more of the fashion market in the coming years, so it’s worth embracing tech solutions to help you find the best fit and prevent having to return your purchases in the first place. You’ll be doing your wardrobe, the planet, and your favorite brand a favor.