The Hidden Costs of Clothing Returns on the Environment

The Hidden Costs of Clothing Returns on the Environment

The dark side of e-commerce that remains a headache for both the consumer and the company is clothing returns. Since the rise of internet shopping, we have been on a never-ending cycle of buy, return, and repeat. It’s practically textbook at this point– you need a dress for a wedding in two weeks, so you buy five dresses to try out different colors, styles, and sizes, but as always, you end up only hanging one dress in your closet and returning the others.

Although returning clothes is tedious, once it’s done, it’s out of your hands, and the clothes will go back on the racks to be sold again. Well, so I thought until headlines popped up across the news the last month, making me question what actually happens to our returns.

The New Yorker reported that the annual retail value of returned goods in the U.S. is approaching a trillion dollars. The returns to online retailers are averaging close to twenty percent, and the clothing returns alone are double that. But the clothing will return to regular inventory and be sold again, right? Wrong. This rarely happens, especially if the seal is broken and the wrap isn’t intact. Instead, the items aren’t returning to the shelf but getting a first-class ticket to the landfill. 

With this news, why would anyone stick to the textbook and order more than one item when online shopping increases the chances of return? It's easier said than done because retailers still need to overcome numerous obstacles to combat their return rates. Clothing is a tough industry to combat because all fashion doesn’t stay in style forever. 

Jesse Timmermans, CFO of Revolve, a go-to online shop for contemporary and luxury fashion, told investors that their return rate is now 60 percent. Due to this, Revolve released a virtual try-on with a size comparison feature tool and is working to have better communication and detailed product page information. 

Companies such as Amazon, Zappos, and Warby Parker are addressing the return issues and offering services that allow for a “try before you buy” feature. Amazon even told CNBC they don’t send any returns to landfills. Even though it might not be Amazon itself, there is no denying that returns end there. 

BBC Earth says, “Each year, five billion pounds of waste is generated through returns.” Furthermore, the Canadian television show “Marketplace” includes a conversation with an employee of a “product-destruction” facility where they say a truckload of Amazon returns was apparently shredded for recycling. But what good will shredded-up merchandise do for the circular economy? 

At this point, it feels up to the companies to change their policies and websites to accommodate the customers and the environmental needs better. However, there are a few solutions we as consumers can consider to limit our amount of yearly returns. The first solution would be to try to shop in person or choose wisely about what you purchase online. Thankfully, tech and software solutions are popping up to change the online shopping experience to accommodate customers needing more knowledge on sizing and fabrication. 

The second solution would be to consider resale. With resale, you know your product's next move through the circular economy and will still earn back your money spent. For your items that aren’t in the condition for resale, our partner, RewearAble, is where you can donate those clothes you might’ve brought to a thrift store, working to keep those garments and textiles out of landfills.

But, like many Tulerettes who choose to explore websites like TheRealReal or Poshmark for their wardrobe, they find that sometimes resale platforms don’t offer a monetary value worth your hassle. This brings us to the last solution– clothing rental. A peer-to-peer lending model allows you to list your items to ensure they gain a second life and enable you to buy less and borrow more. 

The next wedding on your calendar is already much easier with a quick rental, allowing you to try a new style and trend without the commitment of buying new but rather a commitment to the planet. Yes, you still have to return your rental item, but this time, back to its owner, a win-win for both fashion enthusiasts and the Earth. 

-As always, elevate your wardrobe with respected fashion and embrace the shift in style.