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Study reveals how major clothing brands are wasting 'precious resources' that could help make our clothes last longer

Even when these returned clothes don't become trash, they still waste resources and create waste via extra shipping and packaging waste.

Credit: iStock

Online shopping has grown since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fashion is one industry where this growth has been especially apparent.

With the oversaturation of fast-fashion products across all social media platforms, the industry shows no signs of slowing down. 

But the shadows of this growth hide a tragic flaw — free return policies, which often deceive customers into polluting our planet.

What is fast fashion?

Fast fashion includes companies like Shein and H&M that mass-produce low-quality yet trendy clothing at the lowest cost possible. Such brands dangerously cut corners to lower production costs, even at the expense of their workers and our planet.

To shoppers, fast fashion is attractive for many reasons, including its bargain-bin prices. But this affordability is a bit of an illusion. Inexpensive fast-fashion pieces can cost more per wear because these low-quality garments can't stand the test of time and will need replacing more often than well-made articles of clothing. These cheap clothes are most likely made of plastic-based polyester by garment workers forced to sew or embellish garments within minutes or seconds.

Fast fashion also drives consumers to buy more. Besides its predatory discounts and low prices, fast fashion has taken advantage of social media platforms, using content from influencers and everyday fashionistas to push the newest clothing arrivals. 

Ultra-fast-fashion brand Shein is particularly guilty of this — the hashtag #SheinHaul has amassed nearly 9 billion views featuring trending videos of users spending hundreds of dollars on Shein clothes. Such videos cause people to become influenced to overspend on clothes that they will eventually return or throw away because they didn't want or need them in the first place. 

Sending clothes back has become so common that Statista reports shoppers are more likely to return clothing than any other product type, with 26% returning apparel in 2022.

Why do we return clothing?

Because fast fashion produces cheap and nondurable clothing, often created by exploited and underpaid workers, these articles of clothing often show fit and quality issues that lead shoppers to return them.

Size is the top cause of clothing returns, with 38% of shoppers returning their apparel because the items didn't fit well, and understandably so. There isn't a universal size chart, and bodies are diverse, so finding the right fit online can be tedious.

Many shoppers turn to "bracketing" — when customers order multiple sizes of one item, choose the version they like the most, and return the rest.

A massive advantage of shopping in-store is the ability to inspect items before you buy them. Online shoppers don't have this privilege and often pay for clothes with second-rate prints, holes, loose threads, and rips.

We return these items expecting stores to sell them again, but unfortunately, this rarely happens for fast fashion items.

What happens to returned clothes?

Returns are a complex process, and often the cheapest solution for fast-fashion companies is to cut the loss and send the returned merchandise to landfills. Returned inventory sent 5.8 billion pounds of trash to landfills in 2020, return logistics firm Optoro reports.

"We know that many of the products that are returned end up in landfill before we even use them, which only adds to the vast amounts of used items already ending up in landfill ... These products use precious resources which are becoming scarce, and we are throwing them away unnecessarily," says Sarah Needham from the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the University of the Arts London.

Returned apparel needs to get sorted, repackaged, and often cleaned — a big expense for fast-fashion companies that like to cut as many corners as possible for a profit. The cost of processing returns alone was a whopping $2.6 billion in 2022, roughly a $1.4 billion increase from 2021.

As fast fashion grows with its enticing discounts and free return policies, the magnitude of returned clothing will only continue to grow. In 2022, there were 270 million more apparel returns compared to 2021, according to Dressipi. 

Even when these returned clothes don't become trash, they still waste resources and create waste via extra shipping and packaging waste. 

Transporting returned inventory in the U.S. was found to release at least 15 million pounds of carbon air pollution annually — the same amount of carbon pollution released from 2.9 million cars driving for an entire year. 

An estimated 180 billion plastic polybag mailers are produced every year for shipping apparel from online shopping. Less than 15% of these bags get collected for recycling.

Fast fashion can provide affordable and size-inclusive clothing that may not be available in other stores, so not everyone can easily avoid it. 

But there are simple ways to avoid returning items, like knowing your measurements, reading product and brand reviews thoroughly, and trying on clothes in-store. But the most effective thing you can do to avoid returning items is to appreciate the clothes you already own.

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