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 Featured image: a landfill full of returns -

Do you know what happens to clothes after you return them?

Free shipping, free returns – it is easier than ever to buy clothes online, keep what you like and return what you don’t.


Amazon and Zappos have been championing free returns for years, and now most brands have followed suit. What most brands aren’t telling you, though, is what happens after you return what you buy, and this is quickly becoming the apparel industry’s dirty little big secret.

“Here’s something you probably didn’t know: Many of those returns aren’t going to make it back into store inventory and onto shelves. Instead, they will rack up a giant carbon footprint as they wind their way through a network of middlemen and resellers and, at each step, a share of those goods will be discarded in landfills.” (Source – Quartz)

Yes, you read that right. When you return clothes, the manufacturers don’t just dust them off and put them back up for sale. In far too many cases, apparel returns find their way to landfills. So while it might be more convenient for a shopper to buy a pair of jeans in three different sizes, keep the one that fits, and send the other two back, most people would probably think twice if they knew that the two pairs they are returning could end up in a landfill.

Luckily, some startups are helping apparel brands do the right thing and preventing clothes from finding their way to a landfill near you. One of those companies is The Renewal Workshop which works with brands like North Face, Prana, NAU and many other brands committed to reducing the incredibly negative environmental impact of apparel returns on the environment.

“When you return an iPad it is refurbished and re-sold, but most consumers just don’t realize that when they return clothes, both online and in-store, they can all too easily be contributing to what is quickly becoming an environmental disaster.” (Morgan Linton, co-founder Bold Metrics)

On top of the environmental impact of returns, some brands opt to destroy clothes that don’t sell to prevent them from getting into the hands of discount retailers. Burberry, for example, admitted to burning (yes, physically burning) clothing and accessories that didn’t sell, and fast-fashion retailer H&M admitted to burning 15 tonnes of clothing that they decided were not in good enough condition to recycle. The reality is, not surprisingly, that brands could do a much better job of reducing waste, but it could cost them money and time to find a solution, and the sad reality is that far too many companies are taking the easy way out.

“Burberry admits that its unwanted stock is burnt but says it works with specialist incinerators that are able to harness the energy from the process. Luxury brands destroy unwanted products to protect their intellectual property and brand values, according to insiders. Designer labels, it is claimed, do not want their products to be worn by the “wrong people” after emerging on to “grey markets” at knockdown prices.” (Source – TheTimes.co.uk)

Online sales account for the highest return rates in the apparel world, the apparel and accessories category for eCommerce retail sales has grown significantly over the years. According to Statistica, the eCommerce share of total retail sales in the United States as of February 2021 for apparel and accessories is a whopping 37.9%. With apparel returns accounting for 25% for online sales (source - McKinsey), the impact of such staggering rates of returns on the environment needs to be addressed.

We live in a time where people are doing more than ever before to protect the environment. Still, these same consumers often don’t realize that their online shopping habits could be undoing a lot of the good they are doing in other areas. We all need to hold apparel brands to a higher standard and demand that they do everything they can to reduce returns and prevent perfectly good clothes from ending up in a landfill just because someone didn’t like the size they bought online.

At Bold Metrics, we work with brands like Canada Goose, Men's Wearhouse, Burton and UpWest to drive down returns with proven AI solutions that unlock the power of body data to solve sizing challenges at scale. By simplifying fit and connecting customers easily, accurately, and fast to their best size based on their unique body measurements, our technology enables apparel brands to reduce average return rates by 32% while driving conversion and personalizing the retail experience for their customers.

We’ve also been talking with people from the sustainability teams at many of the brands you know and love to do a deeper dive into how they handle returns, what they’re doing to reduce returns, and how they are taking steps to reduce the amount of waste they produce. If you’re like us – this is information you’d like to know, and we’re looking forward to sharing it with you over the coming months on our BOLD Brands podcast. Subscribe to keep up with the latest on fit and returns. If you'd like to see how we can help your brand significantly reduce returns and meet your sustainability goals - chat with us!

Photo Credit: eileenmak Flickr via Compfight cc

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