The Real Cost of Returns
One of the biggest shifts in the apparel industry was the introduction of free returns. Gone were the days of paying postage fees or for a courier to come and pick returns up. It was a turning point in retail that gave shoppers the comfort they needed to buy more clothing online, knowing that returning it would not be costly.
But the real cost of returns is not the financial cost. It's the environmental one, and it's staggering.
The total carbon footprint of clothing returns is hard to measure, because the supply chain for getting a return back to the shelves is long, complex, and differs a lot between retailers. However, we can just focus on the impact that shoppers directly have on the environment by returning clothes.
There are 2 ways to return clothing that have an environmental impact - getting a courier to come in their van, or returning at a drop-off spot , such as the Post Office or back to a store, but taking public transport to get there. So let's start with couriers.
Couriers typically use heavy polluting vans to come and collect returns, and factoring in the amount that a van can carry at once, and the fact that some vans are more efficient than the larger transits, it turns out that returning a single item using a courier emits 181g of CO2 (Edwards, McKinnon, Cullinane, 2009). But that's also assuming that there is a 100% success rate with courier collections, but this is definitely not the case. Looking a 3 studies on failed deliveries, if we take the median - a 12% failure rate (IMRG) - the total emissions increases from 181g to 203gCO2.
But many people return more than 1 item of clothing at a time, and this of course significantly decreases the emissions because the 181gCO2 is divided by the number of items returned. So if you return 3 items at once with the same courier, the actual impact is 60gCO2 per return. HOWEVER, people who return more clothes at once tend to order clothing knowing they will return it. This has become somewhat of a trend recently with online shopping, especially seeing as returning is free. But there is an environmental impact of this trend: buying clothes you know you'll return means that the return is allocated 362gCO2 (Edwards, McKinnon, Cullinane, 2009) because that particular return also includes the item being delivered (hence why its double).
According to a NetImperative report, 41% of online shoppers in the UK order multiple sizes of clothing to try on at home and send back the ones that don't fit. (NetImperative, 2017), and ordering multiple sizes is just one way that people order clothes knowing they'll return it. Given this, I have simply assumed that those who return multiple clothes at once, and thus emit less CO2 per return than normal, are cancelled out by those who order multiple items knowing they'll have to return them, so the average remains 203gCO2 per return.
Now let's look at taking public transport to a drop-off or to a store. There are many ways that people can do this, and of course it is not always public transport that gets used. For example, returning clothes using ASDA's 'toyou' drop-off is most likely to be done by car.
For ease, I will assume that all returns are done by bus. The average trip to the post office is 2.4km, and when we factor this distance into the average emissions of a single bus journey, purely by coincidence, the carbon dioxide emissions for returning a single item is, again, 181gCO2.
THE TOTAL IMPACT
In London alone, 66 million items of clothing are returned every year, just to retailers offering free returns.
We estimate that around 1/3 of returns are handled by couriers. And of the remaining 2/3 who return clothes via drop-offs, i'll assume that half of them use public transport. So of the 66 million free returns in London, 44 million are pollutant. For the couriers, each return emits 203gCO2, and, for public transport, each return emits 181gCO2.
In total, when we multiply these by the total number of returns allocated, free returns in London cost the environment close to 8500 metric tonnes of CO2 per annum. Using the Environment Protection Agencies Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, this is the same amount of CO2 given off by the electricity usage of 1274 US homes for a year, or from 956,453 gallons of gasoline consumed!
ALTHOUGH we all party in the knowledge that returning clothes doesn't eat as much into our wallets anymore, let's take a moment to realise how much returning clothes pollutes the environment. Small changes can help reduce this figure drastically, like making sure we don't miss courier pick-ups, and not ordering clothes unnecessarily. But in the meantime, just being aware of this environmental impact will help us be more tempered when we shop online, knowing that returning clothes might not cost us, but it does cost the planet.
Edwards, McKinnon, Cullinane, “Comparative analysis of the carbon footprints of conventional and online retailing: A last mile perspective”, International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management (Vol. 40, No. 1/2, 2010), pp. 103-123. DOI: 10.1108/09600031011018055
NetImperative, "8 out of 10 online shoppers vow not to go back to a retailer if they have had a bad returns experience returning items." (March, 2017) - http://www.netimperative.com/2017/03/8-10-online-shoppers-vow-not-go-back-retailer-bad-experience-returning-items/