Like a home renovation project exposing underlying damp and cracked walls, this pandemic has torn open the systemic problems in fashion retail that lay under the surface all along. From the cancelled orders crisis spotlighting garment workers on the poverty line, to the dramatic halt in shopping that’s shifted millions of consumers towards a slower, more sustainable way of engaging with fashion – 2020 has been a wakeup call for an industry primed for radical change.
One area often overlooked in conversations about textile waste is returns, and COVID-19 has highlighted just how colossal fashion’s returns problem has become through a new revolution in how retailers tackle unsold stock.
In lockdown, e-commerce has taken the crown from bricks-and-mortar once and for all, and shoppers have been taking advantage of free, flexible returns and even ‘buy now, pay later’ schemes like Klarna at multi-brand retailers like ASOS (who have enjoyed a recent surge in sales). Nothing wrong with keeping safe and socially distanced while trying on different clothing options at home, right? Firstly, we have to unpick what really happens to our clothes when we return them.
Online return and exchange service Happy Returns suggest that up to 10% of in-store purchases are returned, but as much as 40% are returned from online shopping, which means that the digitisation of our buying habits during the pandemic has once again accelerated the impact for both retailer profit margins and for the environment. According to Green Story, up to 20% of returns from these online orders can be sent to landfill, because as much as we think we’ll get away with makeup-stained necklines, ripped packaging or snipped-out care labels, brands simply can’t sell on a lot of what we expect to make the retail rounds in an endless loop.
While some returned stock will pass the shop floor quality test, fashion’s dirty little secret is the vast network of middlemen, from re-manufacturers to outlets, mass discounters to centralized liquidators, consignment stores and charities to vast sorting and recycling centres. Not to mention the inevitable surge in carbon emissions from all the shipping back and forth between consumers, retailers and third parties. Ultimately, if a brand can save time and cash by skipping these steps and heading straight to landfill or incineration, they will. It’s also worth noting the stock destruction scandals within both luxury and fast fashion sectors, where brands like Burberry, Nike and H&M burn or break down products to ‘protect the brand’. Naturally, there’s also a financial impact from the sheer scale of our unwanted purchases, with GlobalData projecting the cost of returns will total US$7.25 billion a year by 2023. It seems that solving the returns problem in fashion is a point of urgency not only for the planet buckling under clothing waste, but also for the fate of the industry itself.
During the pandemic, the safety of clothing returns, both online and in-store, has come into the spotlight. In the UK, most shops have reopened but now face the logistical challenge of quarantining products in an isolated space before returning to the shop floor (although the 72 hours previously enforced has recently been reduced to just 48). The conundrum of returned stock being in a re-sellable condition has also been heightened by stricter ‘rejection criteria’ of items that have been previously handled by consumers, and some analysts are predicting increased returns as fitting rooms remain shut and customers are forced to try on multiple items at home.
So with hygiene guidelines and consumer behaviour patterns in a constant state of flux, what can brands do to tackle the returns problem at source? According to fashion consultant Elizabeth Stiles, brands can help minimise their returns to better manage they stock levels and cash flow in various ways. “Offer free delivery but not free returns – this means there’s no barrier for them to order but will make them think twice before perhaps buying two of the same piece in different sizes.”
Anyone who has spent time online shopping also knows that a lack of decent e-commerce imagery is enough to turn you away from the point of sale, or trick you into ordering a garment that turns out to be less high end editorial, more high school sewing project. The winners here are online retailers with extensive visuals from all angles, including videos that show the drape, and those who showcase clothing on a diverse range of bodies, not just ‘model is 5’7 and wears a size small’. Sizing information has a huge part to play during lockdown and beyond. A simple conversion chart just doesn’t cut it in 2020. Stiles says brands need “a clear and comprehensive size guide for each item and encourage their customers to actually use it!” Easily accessible, detailed measurements are vital for customers to be able to make more informed buying decisions that don’t end in yet another trip to the post office.
Brands can also collaborate with organisations whose raison d’etre is to simplify returns and streamline future data-driven buyer decisions, such as Optoro, Happy Returns and Rebound Returns. Mallzee is another tech company that claims to help retailers make ‘smarter, faster and better stock related decisions’ that could in turn reduce returns by delivering better products. They have also recently launched Lost Stock, a project that aims to support garment workers by selling tens of thousands of boxes of unsold stock from factories impacted by cancelled orders during lockdown.
Another aspect of commerce proven to reduce returns is the shift towards a made-to-order business model. Olivia Rose The Label is a British ethical fashion brand which swears by handcrafted, small batch production led by direct customer demand with no leftovers. Founder Olivia Rose Havelock shares: “I encourage people to really think about what they’re buying. Only about three percent of items are ever returned, as a lot of it has custom measurements, so people tend to think about the fit before they buy, not afterwards.”
As a shopper, reducing returns is all about developing conscious shopping habits so that every garment you buy will be yours to treasure. Before clicking ‘add to cart’, carefully consider sizing and styles, and think about the carbon impact of ordering multiple garments as a ‘buy-to-try’ system. Make sure to ask the brand customer service team about the fit of their products so you can be confident in your purchase, and do some research on the brand’s return and recycling policies before parting with your hard-earned cash. If you don’t love it, don’t buy it – who knew sustainable fashion shopping could be so simple?
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Cover image by Karolina Grabowska.