The latest fashion trend in the UK seems to be brands charging customers to return items. While that sucks for consumer pocketbooks, it probably has a positive environmental impact. Free returns come with an environmental cost, namely more pollution and waste.
H&M is the latest brand to start charging for returns in the UK, BBC reported today. It joins Zara, Uniqlo, and several other clothing brands cutting their own costs by nixing free returns. The parent company that owns Zara, Inditex, and H&M make up the two biggest clothing retailers worldwide. If these policies start gaining traction outside of the UK, they could make a significant dent in the fashion industry’s environmental footprint.
Before you buy a thing, it has probably been on a lengthy journey by sea, air, truck — maybe even all three. That journey creates greenhouse gas emissions heating the planet and local air pollution (especially for what tend to be low-income communities of color near warehouses). Returning the product extends its journey, creating even more pollution. And there’s a good chance its final destination will be a landfill since it can be cheaper for a company to chuck the unwanted item rather than sell it again.
The popularity of online shopping with free returns has encouraged people to use their homes like dressing rooms. It’s easy to buy a product online, try it on at home, and then return an unsatisfactory item. And that has taken a growing toll on the environment. In the US, carbon dioxide emissions from hauling around returned goods grew from 15 to 24 million metric tons of CO2 between 2019 and 2022. That’s roughly equivalent to the climate pollution from more than 5.3 million gas-guzzling cars last year.
Around half of online purchases are returned, The Guardian reports. But that doesn’t mean the items go back on the shelf; half of those returned products go up for sale again in the US. Nearly 10 billion pounds of returned merchandise wound in landfills in the US last year, according to one estimate.
Disincentivizing returns is one way companies can cut down on that waste and their greenhouse gas emissions. They can also give consumers more accurate and detailed information about products they market online. That might be able to stave off some returns by giving customers a better idea of what they’ll be getting in real life once a package gets to their door.