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Why are fast fashion brands scrapping free returns?

Pretty Little Thing is the latest fast fashion retailer to start charging customers who make returns. But is the decision down to concern for the planet, or profit? 

UK customers have been left disgruntled after popular online fashion retailer Pretty Little Thing (PLT) announced it was scrapping free returns. Consumers will now be charged £1.99 to return clothes, an amount that will be deducted from their refund. 

For a generation accustomed to easily accessible clothing and free returns, this isn’t the first ‘betrayal’ by a major fast fashion brand. High street giants Zara, Next and Uniqlo all started charging for returns last year, in a bid to reduce company losses and excess refunds. 

PLT customers have expressed frustration and disappointment over the decision, taking to social media to vent about the new returns fee. 

One TikTok user posted screenshots of the PLT app being deleted from her phone, saying she ‘wasted [too] much money on this app anyway’. 

The post has already garnered thousands of likes, and most of the comments insist the high number of PLT returns was caused by inconsistent sizing. 

‘Why do I have to order the same outfit in three different sizes just to hope one fits?’ said one comment.

For many, the allure of fast fashion lies not just in its affordability but also in the convenience. The ability to buy multiple items, try them on at home, and return what doesn’t work without extra cost has been a key selling point.

But beyond the consumer outrage lies a pressing issue: the environmental impact of returns in the fast fashion industry. Each return generates a significant carbon footprint. Items are often shipped back and forth across vast distances, adding to greenhouse gas emissions. 

In many cases, returned items aren’t even resold but are instead sent to landfills, further contributing to waste.

In the context of ultra-fast fashion brands like Temu and Shein, which churn out new styles at a breakneck pace, the environmental cost is staggering. These companies produce massive quantities of clothing, much of which is designed to be worn only a few times before being discarded. 

The return process exacerbates this issue, as it often involves additional packaging, transportation, and ultimately, more waste.

On the surface, PLT’s decision to eliminate free returns could be seen as a positive step towards reducing this environmental impact. 

By discouraging high rates of returns, the brand may help to cut down on unnecessary shipments and waste. But it’s important to question their motivations. Is PLT genuinely concerned about the planet, or is this simply a strategy to boost their bottom line?

The answer seems clear when you consider the broader context of the fast fashion industry. Companies like PLT, Zara, and Uniqlo – as well as their ultra-fast competitors like Shein – thrive on rapid turnover and high-volume sales. 

Free returns, while convenient for customers, cut into profits. By shifting the cost of returns to the consumer, PLT stands to save a substantial amount of money. This change is – ultimately – less about environmental stewardship and more about economic growth.

PLT is part of the Boohoo Group, which was founded by Mahmud Kamani and Carol Kane in 2006. The brand is co-founded by Umar Kamani, Mahmud Kamani’s son, who has helped build the business through high-profile collaborations and major expansion in the US.

But the brand has also come under fire for its working practices and environmental impact. Thanks to PLT’s success, Umar Kamani is now worth around $1 billion (£797 million), and recently threw a lavish £25 million wedding in the south of France.

But the brand he heads up has been criticised for low workers wages, poor working conditions, and a damaging environmental impact. 

The rate of returns has risen since the pandemic, when PLT enjoyed major growth as an online retailer. But with rising competition from ultra-fast brands like Shein, dishing out refunds has started to dent company profits. 

According to official filings, in the year to 28 February 2023, PLT’s sales dropped £712 million to £634 million, while profits before tax more than halved. 

Brands are under growing pressure to recoup costs and raise prices, especially as younger consumers opt for more sustainable ways of shopping like second-hand sites and rental platforms. 

‘Businesses need to dissuade shoppers from returning and when they do they need the shopper to pay for it,’ retail analyst Catherine Shuttleworth told the BBC. 

The rise of buy now, pay later sites like Klarna and Clearpay have also led shoppers to place orders of several items, try them on, and then return them before any money leaves their accounts.

The carbon emissions from manufacturing and shipping vast quantities of clothing are significant, and the human cost of this relentless production cycle can’t be ignored.

Supporting brands that prioritise ethical practices and sustainability over sheer volume is a start. Opting for quality over quantity and considering second-hand or slow fashion alternatives can also make a difference. 

Ultimately, holding companies accountable and pushing for transparency and ethical practices is key.

In the end, Pretty Little Thing’s decision to scrap free returns serves as a reminder that behind every convenient trend lies a complex web of environmental and ethical implications. As consumers, our choices matter, and it’s up to us to demand better from the brands we support.