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Brands moving away from ‘free returns’ to curb fast fashion

Boohoo, Zara, and soon-to-be H&M are among the major retailers now charging customers to send back clothes in the post. Though shoppers are divided over the new policy, there’s no denying the environmental benefits of a move that targets throwaway culture.

When attending a fancy event we don’t have the cash for, it can be tempting to order a specific outfit and return it straight after for free, allowing us to save face and avoid an outfit repeat on social media feeds.

This convenience of quick, cheap outfit swapping has pushed many consumers away from in-person stores, offering an unbeatable alternative that can’t be replicated outside of the internet.

Online shopping is hard to argue with from a convenience perspective.  It tackles clothing disparity, allowing shoppers to try different sizes before committing, all from the comfort of home.

This unique gimmick may be coming to an end soon, however, as H&M just became the latest in a string of major retailers – including Boohoo and Zara – to consider charging shoppers for returns.

H&M’s actions will be dependent on how news of its looming decision is received.

Unfortunately, if the response to Boohoo starting to deduct £1.99 and Zara £1.95 from every refund earlier this year is anything to go by, H&M’s choice to begin implementing fees may not go down so well.

Top 8 Tips on How to Reduce Fashion Returns | Salesupply

Yet what does that matter when our flippant reliance on returns is fuelling the throwaway culture that fast fashion is so renowned for keeping afloat?

Because, if you weren’t aware, barring the industry’s already catastrophic contribution to the climate crisis, most of what we’re sending back doesn’t get resold.

When clothes are returned, they almost always wind up in landfill.

It’s a well-kept-secret that discarding returned clothes is essentially a cheaper, easier way for brands to bypass the time-consuming and costly practice of getting items into stock on the system again.

‘When looking at e-commerce returns, every single return has to be processed individually,’ says Meagan Knowlton, director of sustainability at Optoro.

‘They have to be opened and inspected, judged whether they can be resold or listed back online. It’s super time-consuming.’

Tackling the Unsustainable Rate of Returns - Eco-Age

In the US alone this amounts to 2.6m tonnes of additional waste and 15m tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions generated annually, partly thanks to the popularity of try-on-hauls across platforms like TikTok.

Does the premise of having to think twice and address our unsustainable shopping habits really sound that bad?

Particularly in light of new research showing that Gen Zers are driving the bracketing trend, whereby three-quarters of them are purchasing an average of three things at any one time, and then returning two.

Perhaps, with the threat of a charge, the contents of their (and ours) wardrobes will look a little more appealing.

‘We know this approach can work,’ writes Sophie Benson for The Guardian.

‘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.’


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