When You Return Those Pants, There’s a Price You Don’t See

The following piece has been reprinted from The New York Times.

January is a time to redo, revise and recommit. It is also the time to return things.

We can click the return button first on the season’s passive-aggressive and otherwise unwanted gifts. An upgraded espresso machine, perhaps not so necessary. Farewell, too, to the aspirational dress purchased but never quite fit into without a squeeze.

By some estimates, returning purchases in America reached record levels in 2022; the portion of purchases returned has jumped twofold, to 16 percent from 8 percent of sales between 2019 and 2022 And returning things online has become so easy — just scan the downloaded QR code! — that people return items bought online at three times the rate they return things purchased in stores.

Because it’s easy and free on our end, it’s tempting to think our unwanted shoes whiz off to whichever Oz from which they came, neatly refurbished like the Tin Man and sent on to the next customer. But the actual process is far from a virtuous circle of retail recycling. As is true for many things online — bullying, disinformation, conspiracy theories — when something is easy and “free,” it usually exacts a terrible, if largely hidden, cost.

The massive costs of return packaging, processing and transportation are easy to imagine. But what many online shoppers don’t realize is that many returned goods don’t get resold at all.

Because returns are so expensive for online retailers, companies have focused on making the process as cheap and easy as possible — for themselves — and for the most part, the planet pays the price. Online returns create 16 million tons of carbon emissions or the equivalent of 3.5 million cars on the road for an entire year.

It’s often cheaper for the seller to simply throw the item away than to inspect for damage, repackage and resell. Dumping returns (sometimes called “destroyed in field” or “damaging out”) is often less costly than reusing them. A number of startups have created middleman services to streamline the process or increase “circularity” by diverting returns to online resellers or charities, but the problem persists in grotesquely large quantities.

In the United States, 2.6 million tons of returned clothes wound up in landfills in 2020. And that’s just clothing.

But even if we consider just that one category, the news is dismayingly grim. Online clothes shopping accounts for a good amount of returned waste. First and most obviously, not everything that looks adorable online fits the body waiting for it at home. Trying to figure out if a pair of jeans will flatter by looking at professional photos and inseam measurements is hard enough. But widespread disparities in sizing conventions, in which brands designate sizes almost entirely for marketing reasons, make it even harder. Brands aimed at the rich and skinny may be French in their true-to-size austerity while mass brands aiming to please often sell a size 2 that fits more like a size 6. Customers return approximately 24 percent of clothing purchased online.

According to Earth.org, fashion is already the world’s third-most-polluting industry after construction and food. The environmental disaster of fast fashion — boosted by social media, online influencers and paid sponsorships — exacerbates the problem.

Those same trends are shifting other aspects of shopping habits. A majority of Americans (63 percent) admit to purchasing multiple sizes online to try on at home in a practice called “bracketing” or “planned returns.” According to a 2022 Vogue Business report, “Customers have substituted the fitting room for at-home try-ons, buying multiple sizes online with the plan to return in bulk.” This is particularly prevalent among millennial and Gen Z shoppers. Pursuing the most flattering palette, they also frequently buy the same item in multiple colors to be road-tested at home. Another contemptible little practice is “wardrobing,” wearing an item of clothing once before returning it, like a manipulative D.I.Y. twist on Rent the Runway.

Eco-disaster figures are always so mind boggling, it’s easy to block them out as too big a problem for a single individual to consider. And many of the human (i.e. not corporate) costs of our online shopping habits materialize only over time. Like most other human decisions, when an action looks too easy, it usually requires taking extra care. The internet likes to show off its clean and green aura in shiny contrast to the messy materials of our brick, mortar and paper world. But free and risk-free it is not.

We’re already well aware at this point that the internet screws up more than just our politics and our minds. As conscientious users grow more informed about the ancillary effects of our online habits and attempt more personal control over their internet selves, they may also try to shop more mindfully, perhaps adding it to the scope of a New Year’s resolution around digital detox.

January could be a time to redo, revise and recommit — to a lot less returning.

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