Over New Year’s, a mate of mine shared a stat on her Insta stories: 2.2 million tonnes of online returns end up in landfill every year. And that’s in the US alone.
Immediately I kinda spiralled, picturing all the jeans I’d ordered in different sizes over the years, multiple party outfits at a time, emotional impulse buys, all while “I’ll just return it” echoed over the horrific montage.
I had to know: what’s the story in Australia?
While we don’t have exact numbers on how many returns are ending up in landfill here, it’s likely to be a hefty chunk.
Camille Reed is the founder of the Australasian Circular Textile Association, a not-for-profit that advocates for more sustainability in the fashion and textile sector.
She says about 30 percent of all online sales are returned in Australia.
“And of that 30 percent, a further 30 percent cannot be sold,” she tells Hack.
That’s part of the roughly 800,000 tonnes of textile waste generated in Australia annually, according to the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
With so many of us turning to online shopping during the pandemic, some experts are concerned these issues have been exacerbated by COVID.
“The pandemic accelerated online shopping, which was already growing, but now it’s just gone exponential,” says Associate Professor Alice Payne, a specialist in sustainable fashion with the Queensland University of Technology.
“And with that has come an exponential growth in returns as well,” she tells Hack.
In their 2020 Returns Report, Optoro – a company that manages returns logistics in the US – noticed some companies had actually stopped accepting returns during the pandemic, because they couldn’t keep up with the volume or had to lay off the staff who’d usually manage them.
And a portion of young customers said they were returning items because their budgets were just too tight, with less income thanks to COVID.
Camille Reed says the pandemic also disrupted the usual supply chains, between retailers and charities – where a lot of companies send clothes that can’t be resold. Some charities have stopped accepting donations full stop. Without those avenues, she says people are more likely to throw things out with the garbage (or worse, in the recycling bin).
While she couldn’t say for sure whether COVID had increased textile waste, she suspected there’d be a lot more people with a whole lot of time on their hands, sitting around their homes and assessing whether their things still sparked any joy.
Hack reached out to The Iconic, one of Australia’s most popular online retailers, to see if they’d noticed anything different during the pandemic.
While they wouldn’t disclose how many returns they get week to week, month to month, Chief Operating Officer Anna Lee told Hack they’d actually seen the return rate go down by 6.5 percent in 2020.
They put that down to new browsing features, like more product images, detailed descriptions of material and measurement, augmented reality and video displays that helped customers narrow down their choice.
There’s a bunch of similar tech ideas like that springing up around the world – part of a growing attempt to deal with the environmental cost of returns.
But it’s hard to keep up with both the demand for change, and the waste being generated, says Camille Reed.
“The challenge with textiles, even the recycling component, is that we haven’t developed the innovation or the technology as quickly as we’re asking the question,” she says.
Okay but HOW are they ending up in landfill?
There’s many factors at play here, and they vary from retailer to retailer.
When returns come in, they’ll usually be manually assessed to make sure the product is in good condition, and fits the company’s protocols for resale.
“Maybe there’s no capacity to actually have staff on the payroll to facilitate that,” says Camille Reed.
“There probably is a huge cost associated with holding [certain] labels and branding and remarketing, ensuring that it’s all correct.”
If items can’t be resold, they might be donated to charities, sold on to discount chains – or tossed altogether.
Associate Processor Payne says companies will ultimately be thinking about their bottom line, as well as the environmental impact.
“For each particular retailer, they have to make a decision: which is the most cost effective pathway?” she says.
“And for some of them, it might be to partner with a charity or a textile recycler, to handle that waste.”
“Sometimes the easiest pathway, the path of least resistance, might be landfill or to overseas retail incineration as well.”
Anna Lee says products from The Iconic never end up in landfill.
She wouldn’t disclose exactly how many of their returns can’t be resold, but says the majority of customers return items in the same condition they’re sent out in.
They’ve gone down the charity route for things that don’t meet their usual checks for resale.
“Where possible these items are donated to our charity partner, Thread Together, who provide people in need with access to brand new clothing,” she says.
Small repairs are made by the Thread Together team, if needed. Ms Lee says they’ve donated over 89,000 items to the charity to date.
What can customers do to reduce the waste of returns?
There’s a bunch of practical ways buyers can tackle this problem.
If we zoom out to the bigger picture, it starts with consciously deciding to just buy less, says Associate Professor Payne.
“Choosing to consume less to begin with, or to really reflect on what we’re buying in the first instance,” she says.
So you’ve thought it through, decided it’s something you really need (it’s not just an impulse buy). Now you have to wade through all the options online.
“Stick with what you know,” recommends Ms Reed.
She says buying from familiar brands means you’re more likely to find something that fits you well, or uses material you like, reducing the likelihood it’ll need to be returned.
Avoid taking a punt on something that’s a bit different to your usual taste, or you’ll only wear for a handful of special occasions. If you’re 50/50 on it, reconsider, she says.
And take the time to read through all the info on the listing.
“Look at what the product is made out – is it a natural fibre? Or is it a blended fibre? Is it high maintenance, does it need dry cleaning?” says Ms Reed.
“All these sorts of things will help determine whether or not it’s a product that will last, or something that may be poorly made.”
Okay so you’ve bought the thing, it’s arrived at your door like 12 hours later, it’s the moment of truth: actually trying it on.
“It’s really important for customers to be mindful of whether they’re wearing any makeup or sharp accessories, like rings or earrings, when trying on clothes at home,” says Ms Lee from The Iconic.
“Two of the most common reasons items become faulty are makeup stains and small piercings which can cause tears in fabric – so easy to avoid.”
Shoes can also be a problem. If you’re trying them on at home, don’t take a wander outdoors, says Ms Lee – stick to carpet and soft surfaces to keep the soles clean.
“It’s also really important that customers leave all tags attached and product packaging in good condition,” she says.
What can brands do better?
Change doesn’t just rest on the shoulders of consumers, though.
Associate Professor Payne says companies could be investing in those new tech ideas that’ll help solve issues like inaccurate sizing guides.
“There’s things that can be done to make it more efficient, so that the returns problem doesn’t happen in the first place,” she says.
And there could be better incentive schemes, that see customers return worn clothes back to the brands they bought from – and the company helps manage that waste.
“[Retailers] can bring more recycled and more reused garments into their model, so that you’re circulating, and re-circulating, second hand garments that have been cleaned, restyled perhaps, or remanufactured in some way.”
Camille Reed would like to see clearer sustainability messages from companies, and more detailed descriptions for online listings – so customers can make more informed choices.
Even returns policies themselves could change.
“There’s probably a few things that [companies] could tighten up on, to slow the process of impulsive purchasing down,” she says.
Associate Professor Payne says she can see the tide turning, when it comes to sustainability and clothing. When she started teaching about all this a decade ago, it was an issue most students had never heard of. Now, they’re starting the course already across the problem, and super keen to start tackling waste in the fashion industry.
Brands are also taking notice, responding to criticism – even if it’s still a bit “chaotic”, she says.
“High churn, low cost business models might not be acceptable, and won’t be even feasible, potentially, if people actually do genuinely embrace the idea of buying things that last longer.”
“There’s no reason we can’t adjust … We’re living through an adjustment period like no other at the moment.”
“So I’m feeling hopeful that people can change their behaviour with the right incentives.”