Returns: Their negative environmental impact and how to avoid them
Thanks to physical distancing and stay-at-home orders, shopping from the comfort of our homes has become the new normal. But as online orders increase, so does the number of issued returns. Clothing and shoes bought online usually have the highest return rate, with a staggering 30% to 40% being sent back. And while returning an online order might only cost very little or be even free for you, returns actually come at a high cost – both for the environment and small businesses. But why? And what can you do to avoid returns?
Why are returns bad for the planet?
There is something about returns the majority of online shoppers aren’t aware of: when you buy from large fashion retailers, many of the items you return never make it back onto the shelf and into another customer’s hands. Instead, around 25 per cent of returns end up in landfills, emitting roughly 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is equivalent to what 3 million cars would emit in just one year. In the US alone, around 5 billion pounds (approximately 2.5 million tons) of goods end up in landfills each year, and this number is projected to double within the next few years. The reason for this is that it’s simply cheaper to dispose of an item than to examine, clean and restock it.
Of course, at The Slow Label, we don’t throw away returned items, but we do encourage you to think about the the environmental impact of shipping, which includes air, water and soil pollution, while also accelerating climate change through the emission of greenhouse gases.
Why are returns bad for small businesses?
In response to an increasing number of customers returning online orders, many businesses have to hire additional employees, increase warehouse space and even establish separate departments to handle reverse logistics, which is extremely costly. As you might imagine, the costs that come with returns can be especially detrimental for small businesses with limited capacity and resources.
To give you a better understanding of the issue, for us as a young label, each return costs €10,90. When someone returns one item for example, these are our costs*:
- packaging materials: 1,50€
- warehouse fee for packaging the order: 2,20€
- shipping: 5€
- warehouse fee for processing the return: 2,20€
- warehouse fee for cleaning, steaming or repairing the item: 30€/hour
- additionally: payment processing fees and customer support employee expenses
* this is a rough estimation, as the costs depend on the goods ordered and the destination the order was shipped to.
How to avoid returns
Now that you have a better idea about the impact of returns, you might understand why they should be avoided at all costs. While most of us can’t imagine our lives without shopping from the comfort of our homes anymore, there are a couple of things we can all do to avoid returns and minimize our impact on the environment and small businesses.
Carefully choose the right size
To avoid return shipments, it’s important to order the correct size – which, of course, isn’t as easy as it sounds. However, it can be incredibly helpful to check the size chart and compare the listed measurements with your own. At The Slow Label, we also like to include photos of our clothing worn by models with different body types and heights, in order to help you choose your ideal size. If you’re still unsure, you can send us an email at email@example.com and we'll be happy to assist.
Read other customers’ reviews
Reading other customers’ reviews can give you an idea about whether a garment fits true to size, and whether others believe their purchase to be worth it. This valuable information can ultimately help you reduce the risk of a regretful purchase.
Review care instructions
Before you purchase a new piece of clothing, make sure you know how to properly care for it. Many customers realize too late that they actually don’t want to or have enough time to hand-wash a garment or have it dry-cleaned. A quick look at the care instructions, which are usually mentioned online, is another way to avoid returns.
Consider the clothes you already own
Sometimes you might not be sure whether a color, fit or style is right for you. Having a look at your closet and asking yourself the following questions can help you make the right decision:
→ Which clothes do I tend to wear the most?
→ Based on this information, do I think I’ll wear the item in my shopping cart a lot?
→ Do I already own something similar?
→ Do I own enough clothing pieces that would go well with the item I want to buy?
→ Can I think of at least five outfits with the garment?
→ Can I think of a handful of occasions to which I would wear it?
→ Do I really love it?
Check where and how the clothes are made
Knowing where your clothes come from isn’t only important from an ethical point of view, but it can also help ensure the quality of the fabric and the clothing piece itself. Make sure you purchase from brands that are transparent about their supply chain while also respecting garment workers’ rights and our planet.
The bottom line
Online returns negatively affect the environment and small businesses. Making it a habit to consider your purchases carefully will help reduce your impact considerably, while also saving you money and a few unnecessary trips to the post office, as well as helping you become a more conscious consumer overall.
McKinsey & Company: The Great Consumer Shift
UNCTAD: COVID-19 Has Changed Online Shopping Forever, Survey Show
CNBC: Finding A Fix For Retail’s Trillion-Dollar-Problem
Common Objective: How To Reduce The High Environmental Impact Of Returns