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The real cost of returns

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What is the price the environment pays every time a package is wrapped in plastic and boxes and these items are delivered and collected?

The real cost of returns
It had been seven months since I had done any clothes shopping. I’d bought one item a few days before COVID became a stark reality and wanted to return it. But then lockdown hit and it lay at the bottom of the packet I had carried it home in, for weeks, unsure of its fate. Even once the confusion of what kind of garment was essential in Level 4 came to pass, I couldn’t see myself popping into the store to exchange it – never mind pulling hangers along a rail to take a closer look at what next season’s looks might replace it.

And then recently at Level 1, I had to host a small outdoor event and spotted online, an outfit that would be perfect. But it wasn’t available online. Cue eye roll. Having found it in store, I circled around frustrated that all the fitting rooms were closed and realised I had tuned out a lot of details regarding restrictions besides wearing a mask, washing hands and not touching my face.

At the counter, the attendant confirmed that I could return the garment and get a full refund if there were any issues. I have to say that I’ve never been that kind of shopper that buys a bunch of things to try things at home and find the process clumsy and costly – time and money wise. I almost walked out the store without the dress.

I also spend only a small amount of time window shopping online and have many abandoned shopping carts across my favourite e-commerce sites. Mostly because I agonise over whether the trouble of possibly having to return it may be worthwhile.

Do I also order one size up and down from my regular size? Apparently around 40% of shoppers do this knowing they can return what doesn’t fit, according to Shopify SA. And how much will I be charged for sending those items back?

In another survey on the same site, it’s said that free returns or exchanges push people to shop 54% more than they would if they were charged. It makes sense when reports like one from Fast Company reveals that “some consumers also admit to wearing an outfit to pose for a social media photo before returning it”.

Added to this, that trying stuff on at home is now the only option available whether you shop IRL or online, and together with the rise of e-commerce and free delivery, it’s been interesting to take a look at the real cost associated with returns.

What is the price the environment pays every time a package is wrapped in plastic and boxes and these items are delivered and collected? Is it worse or comparable to us driving to the shops, not being able to try on clothes and then returning to the store to get a refund or exchange?

From fitting room to bedroom

According to a graph shared on Shopify SA, return rates increase in the following way. If you go in store, 8-10%; online, a big jump to 20%; still shopping online but during the holidays, 30%; and if you buy expensive products it goes up to a whopping 50%.

How much does this cost us? Last year, Vogue Business wrote about what they called “The unsustainable cost of free returns”. How more and more of us are shopping for clothes in this way and that it seems like everyone loses quite a bit in the end – the fashion brand, the store owner, the planet and even us, the shopper.

When it comes to retailers in the US, they “lose a third of their revenue to returns, says RSR Research retail analyst Paula Rosenblum”. RSR is an American market intelligence company that focuses on how tech influences the way we shop.

A lot of times, garments can’t be resold because they don’t always come back in good condition. And now in COVID times, clothes may have to be ‘quarantined’ or sanitised before they can go back into inventory.

And the planet?

Vogue Business again highlights that according to an estimate by Optoro, a tech company that manages retailers’ returns, that these “alone [in the US], create 5 billion pounds [close to 2.5 billion kgs] of landfill waste and 15 million tonnes of carbon emissions annually, equivalent to the amount of trash produced by 5 million people in a year”.

And how or what do we lose? Our exposure to pollution and stress because of busier highways and roads congested with delivery trucks that create traffic goes up each time we want to send something back.

What can we do?

1. Some suggest that sizes and fit should be standardised across the industry. If you know what is likely to fit you, there’s less need to purchase a mix of sizes

2. Companies need to develop or use software that analyses height and weight to recommend the best size. Same result here.

3. And more software that analyses feedback from customers about reasons for returning items. Stores will make or order fewer products that won’t do well and reduce waste.

4. Companies need to use sustainable packaging – biodegradable or recyclable. But we still have to make sure to sort our rubbish.

5. Be prepared to pay more for greener initiatives until they become standardised. New tech is never cheap and we’re realising more and more how much fashion should really cost to create better living and working conditions for the people who make our clothes.

6. Read the size guides and reviews before buying so you have a better idea about how a garment will fit.

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