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Free returns are ending as more online fast fashion retailers introduce a charge for returning goods. Photo: Shutterstock

Free returns on the out as fast fashion retailers introduce a charge – Boohoo joins Zara, Next and Uniqlo in push to reduce environmental harm

  • Online fashion retailer Boohoo angered customers in July by doing away with free returns on unwanted items – but it isn’t the only one introducing paid returns
  • Fast fashion is moving away from free returns to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the amount of clothing that ends up in landfills

Online fast fashion website Boohoo has become the latest retailer to cancel free returns, angering its customers.

Many people have become accustomed to free returns, free shipping and the general convenience of online shopping that has become the norm during the coronavirus pandemic.

“A single return may not seem like much, but consumers are often unaware of the sheer scale of the problem, which damages our planet and hits their pockets,” said Whitney Cathcart, co-founder of 3DLook, the company behind virtual fitting room YourFit.

Cathcart is a fashion industry veteran and sustainability expert who created YourFit as a way for consumers to minimise returns, which benefits brands and the environment.
Many people have become accustomed to free returns and the convenience of online shopping during the pandemic. Photo: Shutterstock
Boohoo is not the only one rolling back free returns – fashion chains Zara, Next and Uniqlo have also introduced paid returns, with more brands likely to follow. Shoppers who subscribe to next-day delivery service Boohoo Premier for £12.99 (US$15.66) a year will still receive free returns.

Anisha Kukreja, a recent university graduate and an occasional online shopper, said she usually steers clear of sites with a return fee and was not aware of any repercussions from returning online shopping duds. “I didn’t know about this,” says Kukreja. “How is it bad?”

If Gen Z is so stressed about climate change, why buy so much fast fashion?

Experts point out that returning unwanted online purchases is not in fact free. The monetary cost of shipping and returns is baked into the prices shoppers pay – and there is a big environmental cost to pay.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the fashion industry accounts for up to 10 per cent of global carbon dioxide output. Global production of clothing has at least doubled since the year 2000, according to the World Economic Forum.

The average American has been estimated to throw away 37kg of textiles a year, of which 85 per cent ends up in landfills, according to the World Economic Forum. Clothing returned by online shoppers also ends up in landfills.

In May, Boohoo said customers had returned items at a rate higher than before the pandemic.

Returns from online shopping have never been free to begin with, according to various experts. Photo: Shutterstock

Consumers often believe that their returns go right back to the retailer. However, these goods are often sold to a discounter at a fraction of their original price.

Before they can be resold, they are transported from warehouse to processing facility, generating millions of metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year. If they remain unsold or are defective, they are shipped to a landfill, generating more emissions.
Nearly half of all returned stock gets discarded, and returns add 2.3 million tonnes of waste to landfills annually. Still, fast fashion retailers continue to produce more despite knowing already how many of the items you buy are likely to be returned – after all, as long as you keep shopping, a few unwanted items are of little concern.
Ending frее returns could support sustainable efforts while reducing the cost to consumers
Whitney Cathcart, co-founder of 3DLook

Brands calculate in meticulous detail how much stock is likely to be returned and factor the cost of that into their prices.

Online returns cost retailers an average of 21 per cent of the original order value, according to a survey in April by global shipping and mailing company Pitney Bowes. So consumers pay that cost with each item they buy online.

In the UK alone, that is about £7 billion (US$8.4 billion) annually.

Brands calculate in meticulous detail how much stock is likely to be returned and factor the cost of that into their prices. Photo: Shutterstock

Charging customers a fee for returns makes the cost explicit. This could deter them from frivolous online buying and make them more mindful and eco-friendly shoppers.

“If the fee is to deter people from returning often, then good move, but make it clear on the website,” says Kukreja. “The consumer will also learn something.”

Cathcart says: “With brands and customers united in their pursuit of a greener fashion industry, ending frее returns could support sustainable efforts while reducing the cost to consumers.”