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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
There has been a massive increase in online shopping over the last few years and COVID has contributed to a significant increase on top of that. Not only are we buying more online now, but COVID has resulted in new online shoppers doing their grocery shopping, clothing shopping and more online. It is likely that they will continue shopping online also post COVID-19.

I love the idea of clothing shopping online, but I must admit that I 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. And do I order one size up and down from my regular size? But then I have never been that kind of shopper that buys a bunch of things to try things at home, as I find the process clumsy and costly – time and money wise.

Apparently, most online shoppers do not have the same hang up and statistics show that about 40-50% of clothing purchases online are returned. More and more online shops are offering free returns, which offers them a competitive advantage as well as happy and loyal customers. The promise of free returns also results in people buying more than they would otherwise do. This 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”.

With the rise of e-commerce and free delivery, it has been interesting to 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, and then potentially returning to the store to get a refund or exchange?

From fitting room to bedroom

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.

Sometimes, garments can’t be resold because they don’t always come back in good condition and sometimes garments are only returned after a season change. 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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