Say Goodbye to Free Returns: Fashion Retailers Are Starting to Charge

This is a very good shift that might drive more responsible shopping habits.

POC woman shops for clothing in fashion boutique with large window and plant

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"Free returns" is music to any online shopper's ears. For some, it's a prerequisite for shopping on a particular website; for others, a convenient perk. Either way, it offers a promise of being able to return an item of clothing if it doesn't fit properly, or if it just doesn't tickle your fancy anymore, without any financial repercussions. It's a sort of "get out of jail free" card that offers immediate relief from buyer's remorse or a too-high credit card bill.

This is starting to change, however. A number of major fashion retailers, including Zara, Boohoo, Uniqlo, Next, and Sports Direct, have all announced that they will charge shoppers to return items purchased online. It's not a lot—Zara's fee is only £1.95 (US$2.30)—but that adds up over time and if numerous items are being returned. And it certainly feels different psychologically.

The motivation behind the change is financial, according to the Guardian. Shoppers have been abusing the free returns policy so extravagantly that the costs associated with processing returns is eating into fashion companies' bottom lines. Asos issued a profit warning—the third in less than a year—that it blames on "a significant increase" in returns from shoppers. Retail analyst Clare Bailey said the pandemic created conditions in which consumers became "very comfortable ordering a £1,000's worth of clothing and only keeping £200."

What's Going On?

There are a lot of bad habits contributing to this situation. A practice called "bracketing", which refers to buying an item in multiple sizes in order to try them all on before committing to one, drives many returns. "Wardrobing" happens when a person buys an item just to wear once on social media or for a Zoom call and then returns it, often with tags still on. A 2019 survey found that 9% of British shoppers admitted to buying items just to post once on Instagram before returning them.

This has a very real and horrifying impact on the planet. From the Guardian: "In the US, 2.6m tonnes of returned goods end up in landfill every year, generating 15m tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually."

Irresponsible shopping habits and a failure to comprehend the environment impact of treating clothes as disposable is partly to blame, but so is unreliable sizing by fashion companies. When the fit of a particular size varies between items, it's hard not to want to participate in bracketing. Retailers need to do a better job at providing accurate and consistent sizes, maybe branching out into virtual try-ons, and having better representative models if they want to curb that habit.

What Happens to Returned Clothes?

What many people don't think about is what actually happens to all of the clothes that get returned. This is a time-consuming and costly process, so the majority goes to waste. Many manufacturers cannot afford to ship it back to the country of origin (usually in Asia) with transportation costs being as high as they are right now—in some cases, seven times more expensive than in early pandemic days; or they don't have access to the labor required to check, clean, reattach buttons, refold, add new tags and cardboard inserts, repackage in new poly bags, and add back as stock in the computer system.

It's cheaper and easier to cut their losses and discard items to landfill, incinerate, or ship to African ports like Accra or Lagos, as well as South America and Southeast Asia. Reporters for Rest of World cite Elizabeth Shobert, vice president of marketing and digital strategy at e-commerce analytics firm StyleSage, who says returns cost retailers about two-thirds of an item's original selling price. "That means the $20 sweater [purchased by Rest of World reporters from online retailer Shein] could cost a company $13 to take back." It's hardly worth it.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. There is no "green heaven." Every single thing you buy has to go somewhere to die, someday.

We Need a New Approach

Reading the descriptions of how returned clothes are handled is sickening, and while it does make the retailers look grossly irresponsible for not having a better system in place, one can't help but feel repulsed by the shoppers' mentality that has allowed this problem to balloon to such a damaging scale. When did it become OK to treat clothing purchases in this way? There's something terribly wrong with how we shop if it involves such profligate carelessness—and that's the root of the issue that must be addressed before condemning companies for not knowing what to do with all of these abandoned items.

The new fees on returns will hopefully force people to pause before buying. It may even encourage them to get up off the couch, walk or bike to a physical store, and try on the items in a fitting room. This is a positive change, and one I heartily support. 

Guardian writer Sophie Benson agrees, comparing it to the charges implemented for plastic bags. "Between 2015 (when the 5p plastic bag charge was introduced) and 2020, plastic carrier bag take-up dropped by more than 95% in England’s main supermarkets. It turns out we just didn't want to pay for something that we already had a cupboard full of at home." Maybe the same effect will be had with our wardrobes. 

Personally, I've developed a no-online-shopping rule for clothes. It's not absolute, as I'll still order socks, underwear, and other easy-to-size items online, but for everything else, I wait till I can try things on in a store. This allows me to inspect the quality of construction, to compare different styles, and to assess how it looks and feels on my body. Obviously the store must have a fitting room, which a surprising number have done away with in the wake of the pandemic, but that's an instant red flag for me; I won't even bother looking if I can't try something on. 

This rule has saved me a lot of money. Because I live in a small town with very few clothing stores, I rarely shop. I just wear what I have. And when I do buy, I feel confident in the choices I make—and I like knowing my money is going straight to a real storeowner who's committed to creating a successful shopping environment.

The fees are bound to stick around, and that's a good thing. The more deliberate our purchases can be, the better off our wallets—and the planet—will be.

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  1. "Snap and Send Back." Barclaycard.