Are Shoppers Being Robbed of Free Returns, Or Is This Sustainable Change?


The domino effect is loud and proud in the fashion industry, and unrelenting within the high-street retail space. When one of the leading labels initiates change, others are quick to follow suit, fearful of losing clientele and losing their place in such a competitive game. Recently, with the biggest labels set to scrap their online free returns policy, it seems the whole online shopping landscape is remodelling itself. Free returns have been somewhat intrinsic to the perpetuation of easily accessible fast fashion, and this change could put the brakes on the expanding dilemma of overconsumption. For GLITCH, hoping to uncover the newest ways in which the fashion industry is bettering itself, this change is thus notable and exciting. But will new postage costs deter consumers from spontaneous clicking, or will lazy shoppers just accumulate unwanted items in their homes? 

There is a wealth of studies to suggest that items bought online are much more likely to be returned than those bought in-store. According to a 2018 study by Barclaycard, who sees nearly half of the nations’ credit and debit card statements, the problem is worse than we might think. In a 2018 survey, they found that 1 in 10 shoppers admit to buying clothes to simply post on their social media accounts, before swiftly returning them. Moreover, it seems men are the worst culprits, with 15% of them admitting to wearing clothes with the tags on in case they want to return them, compared to 11 per cent of women.

The ease of prepaid returns labels and abundant collection points has meant that shoppers often fill their virtual baskets to the brim, before returning the majority of items just some days later. Whilst returning unwanted apparel might seem eco-responsible, and better than letting it lurk in the back of wardrobes untouched, it is certainly putting a lot of financial strain on brands. 

Returning items seem eco-friendly. However, the costs of the transportation and labour involved in shipping aren’t so planet-friendly. In the words of Gulnaz Khusainova, Forbes fashion contributor, fundamentally “There is no such thing as a free return”.  According to ……., a consumer goods consultant at Infosys , eturns are a “big mess” in the fashion space, and “have always been a protiftability drain”. What’s more garments and packages frequently journey to and from distant warehouses and distribution points, involving excessive air travel or motorway excursions—neither of which scream green. As such, the era of free returns has not only been draining retailer’s pockets, but has overshadowed many of their other sustainable efforts, and resulted in a net negative impact on the planet. A dark secret of the fashion industry is also the staggering amount of returned products that fail to be resold. Whether returned in an unsellable condition or simply because the cost of re-processing outweighs the garment’s worth, common within our slash-sale culture, many items never make it back out into the distribution channels. An investigation by Mckinsey and The Global Fashion Agenda back in 2020, suggested that reducing an e-commerce return rate from 35 percent to 15 percent, could save 12 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year. This statistic is both telling of the indisputable need for change.

Interestingly, many psychologists suggest that the free returns’ waiver has greatly impacted the way we shop. Twentieth-century consumers are notoriously lazy, attuned to the ease technology has granted us in the modern day. The majority are more likely to do what suits them best with little thought towards the implications of their actions. In fashion, this manifests itself in overconsumption, whereby shoppers order various sizes and styles, perhaps even exceeding what they can afford. The ease of testing and trying in your own home is infinitely more attractive than sweatily schlepping into the changing rooms. As a tech-reliant millennial myself, it is very easy to understand why laxed returns policies are perhaps encouraging gluttonous consumer behaviour. According to a study by Royal Mail in 2018, Delivery Matters, 52% of shoppers interview are unlikely to purchase from a retailer again if they charge for returns. Laura Moroll, a Manager at LCP consulting who was involved in such study suggests that “the offer of free returns is perceived by customers as a statement of confidence in the brand. There is something reassuring about shopping with an online store that is sure enough about the quality of its products that it is happy to offer returns for free.” Resultantly, when this offer is revoked, confidence and loyalty is diminished.

So, whilst retracting this liberty intends to remove the chokehold of shipment costs on retailer profit, as well as improve their net environmental impact, it hasn’t necessarily been welcomed by long-term loyal customers. In fact, according to social media, many shoppers feel betrayed by this sudden policy turn, enraged further by the furtive manner in which new costs are being tacked on at checkout. The infamous online retailer Boohoo has been quick to come under fire, with one customer claiming to have paid  “£6 for air” and swearing to never shop with the retailer again. Perhaps these new costs are frustrating to consumers who are used to the free rein of bulk buying, free of guilt and repercussions. Yet, these addicted scrollers, myself included, should be made more aware of the logistics and transportation incurred by their clicking fingers. The six quid isn’t spent on air, but rather on contaminating our air, by pumping copious carbon into the atmosphere through transport emissions. Perhaps it is an irritating surprise cost, but it is also a measly cost in comparison to the immeasurable impact such activities could have both on our planet and future generations.

So how can consumers begin to distance themselves from this “returns culture”? For starters, pre-purchasing research needs to be a more common habit to avoid spontaneous buying. Consumers also need to open their mind to alternatives, rather than being so unaware, and quick to peel and stick the shiny label. Perhaps we need to fortify a culture where regifting is socially acceptable, or donating unwanted purchases to second-hand platforms or charities is encouraged. Shoppers also need to understand that there is an onus on them to be conscience of what happens to their unwanted items after they are shipped away, they should feel some responsibility to investigate the returns policies of the website they have bought from, and ensure that the items will be reprocessed and reused rather than discarded. 

GLITCH is super interested to see how the online shopping arena develops in correspondence with these new changes and attitudes, and how the relationships between retailers and consumers will flare or appease. Is it in the retailers’ best interests to retract free returns for all the aforementioned reasons? Or, will this negatively impact sales so dramatically that they are willing to flaunt the costs for the sake of overall profits? More interestingly, this whole issue has laid bare a shocking lack of consumer education, or more damningly consumer care. It seems that few people choose to be conscious of the logistics and intricacies of their online shopping habits. Consumer knowledge is somewhat greyed to the truths and realities of the fashion world, and arguably this is the more pressing matter we should address to shape a more wholesome and cooperative industry that can self-improve.


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