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


Free shipping, free returns – in 2018 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 there are some startups out there that 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 who works with brands like North Face, Prana, and NAU and many other brands that are 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 –

Online sales account for the highest return rates in the apparel world, and while you might think that online shopping has taken over, it still only accounts for 10% of apparel purchases. Imagine how this returns number will grow once it becomes 20%, 30% and higher as more and more consumers get comfortable shopping for clothes online.

We live in a time where people are doing more than ever before to protect the environment, but 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 are putting together a list of the most environmentally conscious apparel brands in the world. We’ll be 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. Stay-tuned!

Photo Credit: eileenmak Flickr via Compfight cc

2 Responses to " Do you know what happens to clothes after you return them? "

  1. Jenafer says:

    Very very interesting, astounding, and frightening! What are your sources on this article. I am seriously ready to change my behavior and spread the word to others, who like me are probably ignorant to this impact. As a busy mom I usually online online shop. I’m not a huge shopper but when I do, I get a few different sizes and often return more than I keep. It just dawned on me today to learn more about what happens to my returns as I pulled open the plastic bags to some dresses I ordered for an upcoming event. None of them worked and will all be returned (basically b/c I am not built like the 5’10” model in the online advertisement for the garment. They did not work in my body). I wondered what’s going to happen to these when I return them. Does someone repackage these up in a new plastic bag so they look new to someone else? That in itself seems too wasteful but what you are sharing is even more astounding!
    Please provide sources and where I can find more information on this topic.
    Thanks for brining this to light!!!!

  2. […] Bold Metrics n.d ‘Do you know what happens to clothes after you return them?: The environmental impact of Apparel Returns’ in Bold Metrics […]

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