Bans or Fees Don't Work, Ending Fast Fashion Only Way to End Returns

The fast fashion setup incurring mass production of cheap goods that sometimes only last a single season, and the increase in the trend of returning wears is a business model fed by the depletion of natural resources, labour in poor countries and fossil resources. There is an urgent need to regulate product quality so that products last longer and can be repaired, according to a research. 

Long Story, Cut Short
  • Researchers have found that it is easier for e-commerce companies to throw away returned items rather than selling them again.
  • Companies who nurture a sustainable, carbon-neutral profile, usually throw away the products that are sent back.
  • The total value of returned textile and electronic products destroyed in the EU could be as much as €21.74 billion in 2022, according to some calculations. Some believe the true cost to be higher still.
According to industry data, the trend of returning items looks to be on the increase, something that might be explained by the fact that shipping returns back is usually free.
Buy Buy According to industry data, the trend of returning items looks to be on the increase, something that might be explained by the fact that shipping returns back is usually free. Hannes Edinger / Pixabay

Ending fast fashion is the only way to end the trend of online returns. Researchers have found that it is easier for e-commerce companies to throw away returned items rather than selling them again.

  • High volumes of returns increase fossil-fuel emissions, thanks to more freight journeys. But what is not widely known is that companies — often ones who nurture a sustainable, carbon neutral profile — usually throw away the products that are sent back
  • The total value of returned textile and electronic products destroyed in the EU could be as much as €21.74 billion in 2022, according to some calculations. Some believe the true cost to be higher still.
  • The findings are from new research at Lund University in Sweden.
  • Carl Dalhammar, senior lecturer at the International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics at Lund University, alongside colleagues Hedda Roberts, Leonidas Milios and Oksana Mont, recently wrote an article featuring interviews with eleven representatives of the clothing and electronics industries.

The Context: Internet shopping now comes with more returns: previous studies have shown that digital commerce generates significantly more returned products than shopping in shops. 

  • According to industry data, the trend of returning items looks to be on the increase, something that might be explained by the fact that shipping returns back is usually free.

Bans Not an Answer: After their investigations, Dalhammar and his colleagues concluded that dealing with the problem is not that easy. A ban on throwing away returned items has been introduced in France, but it is not straightforward.

  • If companies are forced to give away unsold products in as-new condition to charity or second-hand shops, the value of the companies’ ordinary product range is devalued.
  • Or you might have five lorries filled with the same clothes, there are no second-hand shops that can take on those quantities. Another example would be low-quality products, such as cheap headphones that break almost immediately.
  • Second-hand shops do not want to sell them at all.
  • One first step would be to introduce a compulsory fee on returns instead. Certain clothing brands have already introduced fees on their own initiative, but for the most part, return parcels remain free of charge.
  • Companies quickly recoup the extra costs for returns, including free postage, since in total the customers who make returns still generate more profit for e-commerce than those who do not send returns.

The blunt reality is that throwing things away is the lesser of two evils for the company, from a financial perspective. That applies particularly to goods that are cheap compared to the cost of examining, repacking and putting them back on sale again.

Carl Dalhammar
Carl Dalhammar / Senior Lecturer, International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics / Lund University

Fees Not an Answer Either: E-commerce researcher Klas Hjort, also of Lund University, along with his colleagues had earlier shown that around 65-70 per cent of customers who buy online never return anything, even though they are buying products that are often returned.

  • If it is expensive to return cheap products, they get thrown away anyway.
  • Hjort and his colleagues believe that there are solutions through making the process of sending returns more efficient so that it becomes both financially and environmentally defensible to take care of the items returned.
  • Companies who work that way have reduced their costs for returns by up to 65 per cent. Returns have been reduced by 15 per cent.

Ending Fast Fashion Only Way: Both Hjort and Dalhammar agree that the fundamental problem is the fast fashion setup

  • The mass production of cheap goods sometimes only last a single season — a business model fed by the depletion of natural resources, labour in poor countries and fossil resources.
  • Changing people’s behaviour is difficult, but Dalhammar puts faith in the European Union, which has several processes under way to regulate product quality so that products last longer and can be repaired. 
  • A new t-shirt costing just SEK 30 is usually only used a few times before — at best — ending up in a second-hand crate or textile recycling.

So, it is a fairly small proportion who do return things, but on the other hand, the ones who do tend to do it a lot. Many of those who do not send things back say that the process is complicated and sometimes expensive, if there is a fee, and for that reason they hold on to products – only to throw them away later instead.

Klas Hjort
Klas Hjort / Senior Lecturer, Packaging Logistics / Lund University
 
 
  • Dated posted: 24 January 2023
  • Last modified: 24 January 2023