Imli Diaries

Tamarind Chutney

Is a return just a return? What really happens to returned garments

We've all experienced it: you order a cute top online and eagerly anticipate its arrival. When it finally lands upon your doorstep, you tear open the package like a kid on Christmas. But when you try it on, it fits about as well as a square peg in a round hole. Or maybe it looks more "potato sack couture" than the stylish stunner in the product photo. Sure, it’s annoying, but no big deal—you just return it. Sounds simple, right? We wish it were. 

From shelf to shreds

You may assume that returned clothes simply go back on the shelf and find new homes, but in many cases, that’s not what happens. According to David Sobie, the CEO of Happy Returns, a reverse logistics company, between 15% and 40% of all products ordered online are returned, with even higher rates for clothing. Only a fraction of these returns are resold, often at clearance sales or discount retailers. The rest face a grim fate: the landfill. Some brands even incinerate their returns! This translates to an alarming 2 billion kilograms of waste generated annually through return processes alone. 

Naturally, this waste poses a significant threat to our environment. Even before considering the impact of returns, the fashion industry alone contributes between 2% and 8% of global carbon emissions. When we add the environmental cost of disposal and incineration into the equation, the overall toll on our planet becomes even more concerning.

The returns section of an e-commerce warehouse

So next time you’re thinking of ordering a pair of jeans in three different sizes…maybe think again. 

Why burn cash?

You might be wondering: why would any brand discard products that could potentially turn a profit? 

The answer lies in the complexities and costs of reverse logistics. While returning your online purchases may appear straightforward to you, for brands, it's a costly and intricate process. It entails collecting items from your doorstep, covering shipping expenses, and meticulously assessing each product to determine its resale viability. These expenses add up… to the point where discarding clothes becomes a more economical choice than attempting to resell them.

Microseason, mega wastage

What’s more, by the time returned clothes are processed and sorted, the seasonal collection they once belonged to has often already been cleared from store shelves. Fast fashion's rapid turnover of styles means that customers swiftly move on to the next trend, leaving behind a trail of returned items that struggle to find new homes.

 And with regard to incineration, many luxury brands (we’re looking at you, Burberry) burn their own unsold inventory to maintain exclusivity. This wasteful practice isn't exclusive to the upper echelons of fashion; reports suggest that certain fast fashion brands also resort to burning excess stock to maintain their market positioning.  

How to minimize return waste

So what can you, as a consumer, do to minimize return waste? Here are some tips: 

  1. Only order what you actually like and want to keep
  2. Read the size chart carefully and know your measurements before ordering
  3. Try to get minor alterations done locally
  4. If possible, gift or thrift instead of returning items
  5. Shop from small businesses that can’t afford to waste inventory
  6. Shop from sustainable fashion brands that resell returned products

How TC processes returns

And how do we at TC process returns?

We get your garment picked up, we do a quality check to ensure tags are intact and that the garment isn’t damaged, we clean and iron the garment, and then we put it back in our inventory to be sold again. In case any garments are unfit to be resold, they’re either worn by the team (yay, freebies!), sold in our defective piece sales, or the fabric is reused to make our zero-waste accessories. 



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