This post was originally published on Forbes.com.
‘Free returns’ has become an industry standard in online fashion shopping. But there is a high price to pay which every consumer should be aware of: The heavy carbon footprint of all the unnecessary shipping back and forth.
When it comes to sustainability in the fashion industry, all emphasis seems to be on the production part. Is the cotton organic? Is the use of chemicals minimized? These aspects are tangible to the consumer and can be understood from a label.
But there is another bill to be paid which will be picked up by Mother Nature. Consumers think of free returns as a blessing. You don’t need to worry if it will fit, right? Just put three shirts in the cart, one of each size, and let the company pick up the bill for the return. When you ship your free returns, the climate is impacted in three stages: logistics, intentional returns, and post-production.
Logistics (the part in the truck)
As a consumer, you don’t pay much attention to the swarm of shipping trucks filling the big city streets. But many of them are filled with fashion items going back and forth because they were too big, too small, too blue or just didn’t fit the trend.
Couriers typically use heavy polluting vans to come and collect returns. Factoring in the amount that a van can carry at once, and the fact that some vans are more efficient than the larger transits, a single item using a courier emits 181g of CO2, when being returned (Edwards, McKinnon, Cullinane, 2009). But that is assuming 100% success rate with courier collections which is far from the case. Looking at 3 studies on failed deliveries, if we take the median - a 12% failure rate (IMRG) - the total emissions increases from 181g to 203g CO2.
Worldwide, approximately 17 billion items are being returned every year. This totals to 4.7 million metric tons of CO2 emitted yearly , and if we are able to decrease that figure with just 10%, it would be the equivalent of the power used by 57.000 US homes for an entire year.
Intentional returns (The art of creating something no one will ever use)
Often shoppers order clothing knowing they will return it. This has become somewhat of a trend with online shopping, especially with free returns policies. But there is an environmental impact of this trend: buying clothes you know you'll return means that the CO2 emission from a return is doubled because that particular return also includes the item being delivered. So instead of 181g CO2, a whopping 362g CO2 will be emitted (Edwards, McKinnon, Cullinane, 2009).
On top of that, if you buy three shirts, two of which you never intended to keep, this creates an inflated production of shirts where the manufacturer will have to produce a lot more shirts than what is actually needed. And for every extra shirt produced, more carbon dioxide will be exhausted at some factory needlessly.
This would not be the case if the shirts would simply be reused after being returned. But as the next point shows, this is rarely the case.
Post-production (the real garbage part)
When you return an iPhone, it can be refurbished and sold as new. But when you return clothes they rarely get re-sold. Instead, they will rack up a giant carbon footprint as they wind their way through a network of middlemen and resellers and, at each step, a share of those goods will be discarded in landfills.
It’s estimated that just 50% of returns go back into store inventory. Because of their condition, due to use, damage, or even just opened boxes, the rest have a more cruel fate. Stores may be able to return some to their manufacturer or resell them through their own outlets. But often they sell them at a fraction of their original cost to discounters or massive, centralized liquidators, who buy truckloads of inventory that they sort and resell to other middlemen before they land at secondhand shops. For fashion categories, this number is likely to be even higher.
Luxury brands often do this in order to avoid selling returned items at lower prices, getting the “wrong people” to wear their items and protect their brand value. Burberry has destroyed more than £28 million of unwanted products over the past year. Even at its notoriously high prices, that is the equivalent of more than 20,000 of its signature trench coats.
Other retailers will end up burning or dumping returned items because they’ve been worn or are not in good condition.
So what to do then?
The responsibility of the massive climate impact of the free returns is not the responsibility of the individual consumer and we shouldn’t kid ourselves that free returns will go away. But an obvious step forward is to create transparency on this issue. It’s due time that online shops add more traceability and transparency into their supply-chain: to make it clear how items are being produced, transported and returned.
Traceability in the supply chain is a prerequisite for companies to understand the environmental impact of business practices and products. It enables brands to identify risks and challenges, as well as opportunities to increase operational efficiency while building strong and trusting relationships with suppliers.
Online shops need to educate their customers that there is no such thing as a free return and that their choices have an impact on the climate. At the same time, online shops should address shoppers' concerns and help them get the right item from the beginning. Whether it's about helping to find the right size or showing realistic pictures, minimizing returns will help save time, money and carbon emissions on both sides of the shopping cart. Easysize, a technology company helping shoppers find the right size, estimates that unnecessary returns can be decreased by 25-30% when online shops start getting better at using the return data at hand to get the size right from the start.
But the problem is of course that the return problem is intangible and non-visible. That’s why campaigns such as the one below by the Belgian organization Fashion Revolution does a great job at visualizing the return problem to the end consumer.