The latest fashion trend in the UK seems to be for brands to charge customers for returning items. While this isn’t good for consumers’ wallets, it likely has a positive impact on the environment. Free returns have an environmental cost, namely more pollution and waste.
H&M is the latest brand to start charging for returns in the UK, the BBC reported today. It joins Zara, Uniqlo and several other clothing brands reducing their own costs by eliminating free returns. The parent company that owns Zara, Inditex and H&M make up the two largest clothing retailers in the world. If these policies begin to gain traction outside the UK, they could have a significant impact on the fashion industry’s environmental footprint.
Before you buy something, it has probably traveled a long way by sea, air, truck – maybe even all three. This travel creates planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollution (especially for what tend to be low-income communities of color near the warehouses). Returning the product prolongs its journey, creating even more pollution. And there’s a good chance its final destination will be a landfill, as it may be cheaper for a business to throw away the unwanted item rather than resell it.
The popularity of online shopping with free returns has encouraged people to use their homes as a dressing room. It’s easy to buy a product online, try it at home, and then return an unsatisfactory item. And this has had increasingly serious consequences on the environment. In the United States, carbon dioxide emissions from the transportation of returned goods increased from 15 to 24 million tons of CO2 between 2019 and 2022. This is roughly equivalent to the climate pollution caused by more than 5.3 million of gas-guzzling cars last year.
About half of online purchases are returned, The Guardian reports. But that doesn’t mean the items are going back to the shelves; half of these returned products are sold again in the United States. Nearly 10 billion pounds of returned goods ended up in U.S. landfills last year, according to one estimate.
Discouraging yields is one way for companies to reduce this waste and their greenhouse gas emissions. They can also provide consumers with more accurate and detailed information about the products they sell online. This could help avoid some returns by giving customers a better idea of what they’ll get in real life once a package arrives at their doorstep.