We’ve all been there: you gave in to your consumerism urges and spent a pretty large sum of money you probably don’t have on a haul from one of your go-to online fashion retailers. Your order gets delivered, and as you try on your purchases, you realise that at least half of the items will need to be returned. One pair of jeans doesn’t fit, the top that looked amazing on your ASOS app is actually made in this awfully cheap fabric that will most definitely make you sweat on the coldest days, and for some reason, you went for another tracksuit, which you really don’t need.
Long story short, you’ve had to return a big part of your haul, and it’s all good now, because you’ll get your money back while someone else will get to enjoy the items that simply weren’t for you. Right? Well, not really. Here’s what happens to the clothes you return.
According to Paazl, in January 2020, returns rates to stores were around 8 per cent, and around 25 per cent for items bought online. Free next-day delivery and free returns made it easier than ever for customers to buy clothes online. During the COVID-19 pandemic, as brick and mortar shopping wasn’t possible, return rates saw a sharp increase as more people shopped online.
What you probably didn’t know however is that after these garments have been shipped out to you and back—potentially a trip across a whole country or more—the products won’t even make it back onto the shelf. Retailers will not accept the item back unless it is in a saleable condition despite the fact that they’re not actually looking to sell them again anyway. So, why is this enforced then?
Different brands take different approaches to returned items. In a best case scenario, your returned clothes end up going into a clearance sale or sit in a warehouse until they are out of season. However, in most cases, these returns take a clear pathway to landfills.
In other cases, it is also common for brands to destroy apparel that gets returned instead of sending it straight to a landfill. This is customary for brands that don’t want their garments falling into the hands of retailers that might damage the reputation of the company. Burberry has previously admitted that returned garments and stock that doesn’t sell were burned.
H&M has stated multiple times that it has burned 15 million tonnes of clothing because they weren’t in a “fit condition to be recycled.” That’s because although brands could find better options in order to reduce waste production, it would cost them money and time to find a solution—the easy way out is to simply burn or discard those items instead.
However, many fashion companies have now been forced to consider other options after facing backlash for their unethical practices. As people start doing more than ever before to protect the environment, brands need to be held to a higher standard in order for them to do everything they can to reduce returns and prevent perfectly good clothes from ending up in landfills.
Luckily, some big retailers have made a first step in the right direction: The Renewal Workshop, for example, works with brands like Carhartt to help them reduce the negative environmental impact of apparel returns on the environment. As for the impact that you can have on the matter—no matter how small—maybe next time, think twice about buying that shimmery top that’s ‘screaming your name’. Take it from a professional: it probably won’t be once you put it on.
Last month, British MPs rejected plans for a 1p per garment fashion tax albeit our climate crisis. At the same time, a Missguided £1 bikini appeared on the market—something that should be beyond concerning for everyone. The U.K. has the highest consumption of fast fashion in the whole of Europe, with over a million tonnes of clothing ending up in landfills each year. So how much power do we as consumers really have when it comes to sustainability and why is this discussion still going on?
The swimsuit sold out promptly, with 1,000 bikinis dropping everyday on the brand’s website, which further raises the question of how it is possible to produce and retail an entire set for just £1, free delivery included. Missguided presented an official statement claiming the production cost was of a higher value to the retail cost, and that the bikini was a “gift” to their customers, in the name of “empowering women to look and feel good without breaking the bank”. Interestingly enough, 78 percent of the brand’s employees are female, yet, they are a 46 percent median wage gap between men and women. The brand ‘excuses’ itself on its website by claiming that this is due to “having more women than men” in lower paid positions, and fewer in higher ones. The lower paid positions include the factory ones, where workers often make as little as £3.50 an hour—contrasting with the U.K.’s minimum wage of £7.83 for over 25s.
Despite being one of the U.K.’s leading retail brands, according to the statistics conducted by the House of Commons, Missguided is also the least environmentally friendly, rejecting the use of recycled or organic materials in their products, clearly avoiding the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) programme as well as the sustainable clothing action plan. The government has the most power when it comes to regulating fast fashion, and yet, British MPs have rejected numerous regulations on the industry.
Many of these dismissals include the 1p per item tax to raise £35 million for clothing collection and sorting, the ban on incinerating or landfilling unsold stock, and even making a law requiring brands to publically release a modern slavery statement. In addition to this, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has also urged to put lessons on designing, creating and repairing clothing into the school curriculum, as a means to end the era of ‘disposable clothing’ as well as for the MPs to explore a ‘sharing’ economy in which hiring and swapping would replace purchasing. The failure to implement these rules and regulations results in the continuation of unsustainable, disposable mass production, which ultimately affects the environmental crisis even further.
Marketing alone has so much power in influencing what the consumer chooses to buy, and fast fashion brands know this. The infamous swimsuit was advertised by last year’s Love Island contestant Ellie Brown, and being the official fashion sponsor of Love Island 2018, Missguided saw a 40 percent increase in sales. This year, another fast fashion brand, I Saw It First, secured a spot as the show’s official fashion partner, spending around £2 million on the partnership. With over 4.2 million viewers of Love Island’s first episode alone (57 percent appear to be 16-34 years old) the show has the ability to reach a huge number of potential consumers, and yet, it still decides to go for unethical brands.
Similarly, Emily Ratajkowski has recently launched a collection with Boohoo owned Nasty Gal, a brand known to be criticised for their mistreatment of workers while Kylie Jenner advertises for knock-off brand Fashion Nova via her Instagram with over 139.5 million followers. Celebrities and influencers make a conscious choice to promote these brands and in an age where Instagram seems to dictate all new trends, the choices they make allow us to feel a sense of relatability that we, too, can afford to dress like one of the Jenners. Although there is nothing wrong with that idea, influencers should also make a deliberate choice to promote more sustainable alternatives to their followers.
While it is the consumer who creates a demand for fast fashion, it’s unfair to entirely blame the consumer for the harmful environmental impacts or unethical working conditions of the industry. Of course, it’s true that spending £1 on a bikini could seem immensely appealing, but it is important to consider not only the impact this product will have on our planet, but also how the people who made it are affected by such low prices.
Affordable clothing is not only appealing but is essential too, and we consumers can help so much by simply buying less, shopping vintage or seeking other sustainable alternatives. Until the government or the brands alone begin regulating their carbon footprint, perhaps those with a platform should consider twice before encouraging impulse buying. Just putting it out there. In addition, Missguided has now changed the price of the bikini from £1 to £5—a feeble attempt at clearing their conscience or is selling a swimsuit for a literal pound not making enough profit? Either way, nice try.