Online shopping returns in Australia can’t be put into inventory, so where do they go?



What’s the climate cost of online shopping?

Last year, online shopping was a salve. I only bought a handful of things (because *mindful shopping*) but when I did, it was like giving myself a sense of hope. An imminent package meant something to look forward to when we couldn’t even meet up with a pal for a walk. A new piece of clothing gave me excitement and a sense of self even when I had nowhere to wear it to. 

Getting a massive ASOS parcel, urgently ripping apart the plastic to try on clothes gave me something to do when the days stretched out endlessly before us. And when the clothes didn’t fit or were a bit too adventurous for the new world outside, I could just go on my little government-sanctioned walk and post them back for the brand to sell on, right? Wrong.  

Keep up to date with ethical designers over at our Fashion section. 

Camille Reed, founder of the Australasian Circular Textile Association and The Australian Circular Fashion Conference is championing circular textile innovation and came to me bearing a terrifying statistic. 

“30 per cent of all online sales are returned,” Camille tells me over the phone. “And of those 30 per cent, another 30 per cent can’t be sold.” You heard that right. That brand new Glassons shirt that was just a touch too small? It may have gone straight from the returns pile only to pile up in landfill. 

Camille tells me that there’s a number of reasons for this. “Some of the inventory can’t be sold because it comes back damaged so they can’t go back on the shelves, others can be discounted and can go to a DFO [Discount Factory Outlet]. Other times they’ll sit in returns. The Iconic a couple of years ago had part of their dispatch warehouse, and a quarter to half of it was just online returns.” 

Most of the time, however, there’s just simply not enough resources to get through all of the thousands of returns processed each day. And frighteningly, the COVID pandemic has only ramped up online shopping (and thus, online returns). 

According to the Australia Post’s 2020 eCommerce industry report, Australians spent $50.46 billion on online goods last year. This grew by a huge 57 per cent compared to the pre-pandemic year of 2019. 

Clearly, my dopamine hit of online shopping was also felt by fellow Victorians. Other states averaged an online shopping increase of between 43 to 48 per cent while Victoria amassed an 81 per cent increase, proving that everyone in lockdown last year needed some serious retail therapy. 

While this increase was partly out of necessity due to brick-and-mortar stores being forced to shutter their windows, Camille notes that consumers are failing to think about what goes on behind the scenes when returning online items. 

While it may feel like those shoes magically teleport from your shopping cart to your front door, transporting purchases back and forth around the country can (quickly) increase our carbon footprints. “I think people are failing to remember the efforts and energy [that exists] within the online returns,” Camille says. 

“They’ve got comings and goings of trucks and logistics and man-handling and all these different resources that are really increasing the footprint of the product in a different sense. So now you’ve not only got to think about where it came from and how it was made but you’ve also got how the online dispatches are working and how far that’s being taken.” 

While 100 companies are responsible for 71 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, Camille says that choosing to buy a parcel full of clothes just to try them on is damaging and is something that consumers themselves can change. 

“People aren’t really taking into consideration ‘Well if I buy five things and I choose to return half then someone’s got to handle that’. The cost for that to get back through the system is not feasible for a business in terms of profitability.” 

Optoro, a US technology company helping retailers process returns says that every year in America, roughly “3.5 billion products and 5 billion pounds of returned goods ended up in landfills.”

So does this mean that shopping in-store is more environmentally friendly? According to Camille, technically yes. “There’s going to be aspects where it’s going to be better to shop in-store because at least things are arriving in one box and they’re unpacked once. There’s probably less packaging.”  

Just like the other fashion sustainability conversations occurring at the moment, it’s all about shopping mindfully. “Making the effort to go down to the store to see it and touch it and feel it, to me that is a lesser footprint as you can see whether you really want it or not,” says Camille. 

“Or try it on and leave it back at the store so someone else can buy it rather than you taking it home, wearing it, accidentally getting a makeup mark on it and it can’t be sold.” 

Of course, brick-and-mortar stores are not always accessible to everyone and for some, online shopping is the only way they’re able to purchase goods. But in the same way that we don’t need five colours of the same T-shirt, Camille reminds us that, “mindfulness is the top point here”. 

“Always choose things you need, choose high quality, all of the principles we already look for, and consider that if you’re going to be trying on all of these products [at home] is everything there for somebody else to purchase and wear it?”

On average, Australians purchase a whopping 27 kilograms of new clothing each year, making us the second-largest consumer of textiles in the world. The main point of these fast fashion conversations seems to always come down to the same thing: our over-consumption is a major issue. 

Whether we’re returning clothes purchased online through interstate trucks polluting the highways or shopping in person only for your new dress to end up in landfill in three months, the stats show that we’re simply wasting too much. 

Want to find out more about reducing your fashion carbon footprint? Try this.

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