Past the parcel: How the end of free returns will change our shopping behavior | Sophie Benson
The days of the bedroom dressing room are numbered. Online retail giant Boohoo is the latest in a string of retailers including Next, Uniqlo and Zara to start charging shoppers for returns. From earlier this month, its customers will have to pay a fee of £1.99 for each return, which will be deducted from their refund. All in the name of coping with increased shipping costs, says the fast fashion giant.
Bargain shoppers aren’t too happy about the news. One person on Twitter explained: “the fun is actually over‘ sums up the mood. Others lamented the fact that, like many fast fashion outlets, the sizing is so erratic that they can’t confidently buy just one size per order. Brands like Zara have brick-and-mortar stores that customers can visit before making a purchase, but when an online store has issues with inconsistent sizing, customers may feel punished for it.
By offering free returns in the first place, companies like Boohoo helped move consumers away from stores altogether and created a whole new way of shopping. YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok are all teeming with try-on hauls that ask viewers to comment on whether the shopper should keep or return stacks of items they’ve bought online. It’s a genre all of its own, fueled by free returns. A 2018 study found that 9% of UK consumers order clothes to post on social media, only to return them straight away. Almost one in five 35- to 44-year-olds admit to doing it, and men seem to do it more than women.
It’s incredibly cheeky behavior, but there’s another glaring problem with the practice: returns have a terrible impact on the environment. When clothes are returned, they are more likely to be thrown away than resold. In the United States, 2.6 million tons of returned goods end up in landfills each year, generating 15 million tons of carbon emissions annually.
The processing of returns is time-consuming and costly. Buttons have to be re-buttoned, cardboard inserts reinserted, labels re-applied, products re-folded and re-packaged and put back into the system. It’s a complex process, and sometimes the cheapest and easiest solution is to simply reduce the loss and send the entire lot to landfill. It’s a hideous waste of resources, not to mention an insult to the skilled people who put their time into making each product, but it’s the reality of modern fashion and retail in general.
If clothes don’t end up as trash, one still has to consider the impact of additional shipping and packaging waste. Approximately 180 billion plastic polybags are made each year to store, protect and transport clothing and shoes, and less than 15% of these are collected for recycling. Everyone knows it’s almost impossible to open one without tearing a giant hole in it, so every return requires another new bag.
The impact of returns is a pretty well-kept secret that likely keeps people guilt-free when shopping. But even if it were widely known, it wouldn’t guarantee that people would stop treating returns so lightly. Finally, other environmental and human impacts of fast fashion are visible to all, and yet the industry continues to thrive. Cost and convenience tend to trump sustainability in purchasing decisions, sometimes requiring a radical step on the part of the brand or government to change behavior.
We know this approach can work. Between 2015 (when the 5p plastic bag charge was introduced) and 2020, the acceptance of plastic carrier bags in England’s main supermarkets fell by more than 95%. Turns out we just didn’t want to pay for something we already had a closet full of at home.
While the move is more financially than environmentally motivated, return shipping fees could well have the same effect. Without free returns on the table, shoppers might think twice about buying 10 items when they know they’re only keeping five (sometimes called “clinging”) or buying clothes just for social media content. With indictment looming, the clothes in our closets could be looking a little more appealing.
We’ve also seen retailers put more effort into sizing, with virtual AR fittings, better sizing guides, more representative models, and improved, consistent fits. Knowing your size is always the same may save you from having to buy two or even three of an item, a win for shoppers and the environment.
After years of free returns, the fees will be frustrating, but when they result in less waste and better fits, they’re worth every penny.