What happens to clothes when they are returned?

Recently more consumers have been shopping online, which is excellent for public health and sort of better for the environment (read the "What will our shopping habits look like after COVID-19?" article here). However, with an increase in online shopping comes an increase in returns. The National Federation of Retailers said that in January 2017, right after the holidays, U.S. consumers were expected to return $30 billion worth of goods, accounting for roughly 9% of all e-commerce sold. That's about 5.8 million packages. The amount of returned items has been increasing since 2009 and continues to rise. Not only do all of these returns cause an increase in greenhouse gas emissions but as it turns out, returned clothing causes a lot of physical pollution as well. Several reports have confirmed that returned items "often" get sent to the landfill, even if they are not used or damaged. In 2016, over 4 billion pounds of landfill waste was generated when "processing" consumer returns. Optoro, a company that aims to improve "reverse logistics" of returns, says that just 50% of products sent back go into store inventory again. The rest of the returned merchandise is shipped to resellers and sometimes ends up at your local secondhand store. Any clothing that can't be sold by resellers gets sent to the landfill.

Currently, it is cheaper to dispose of returned items rather than process them and send them back to inventory. When an item is shipped back, it has to be checked for damages, which means paying extra employees whose sole job is inspecting packaging, merchandise, and assessing if it can be sold for full price or if it will have to be resold for a discounted price. Sometimes the cost of processing and the price the item could get in resale is higher than the cost of just making a new product. This is when it "makes sense" for a brand to throw out returns. Stores also don't want to get sued for reselling items that are damaged, so to err on the side of caution, many beauty brands in particular choose to dispose rather than restock.

It may be cheaper for the time being, but as more consumers and governments become aware of merchandise disposal methods, brands will start to be punished for throwing away returns. At the beginning of the year, the French government stepped in and banned designer clothing companies from destroying unsold or returned items thanks to a new anti-waste law. The bigger threat for brands is consumers, though. Consumers would be less willing to buy multiple items, or by anything at all, if the brand irresponsibly handles the returns.

You may have heard about the Burberry scandal in 2018 that caused a public outcry and resulted in the French law this year. Burberry burned around $100 million worth of clothing and accessories over five years because they did not want their "exclusive" products to sell for lower prices or go to charity shops, essentially devaluing the brand. Before that, Amazon got in trouble for trashing and incinerating millions of new household goods in France and Germany. Items included diapers, toys, washing machines, and furniture. The good news is that both Burberry and Amazon received a ton of public backlash when their practices were revealed. Now they have been forced to change or suffer more severe consequences from governments and consumers as opposed to just a bit of negative press. There are plenty of other brands that have unethical and unsustainable return policies; fortunately, this is now an issue that consumers are aware of, and hopefully, more shoppers will be conscious about which stores they buy from in the future.


The problem is apparent; returns are harmful to the environment, and this insight into the amount that goes to the landfill is just another problem. The more significant issue, though, is how to stop returns, or at least make them more eco-friendly. There has been a dramatic rise in online shopping, and it looks like it won't be on the decline so long as consumers remain concerned about their health. Therefore now is the time to prioritize solutions to curbing pollution caused by e-commerce, including returns. Big retailers like Amazon are best poised financially to create these solutions. Still, small direct-to-consumer brands can also make a big difference and prove their commitment to the environment and fans. For too long, brands have mainly been focused on what happens in their supply chains, but now there is a shift. Brands need to be accountable for not just producing sustainably, but also keeping track of their items and ensuring they are disposed of appropriately. Of course, consumers need to be willing to work with brands on this, but the outrage from the "returns going to landfill" news shows that there are plenty of shoppers willing to make small sacrifices for the good of the planet.