In the warehouse of Nobody Denim, it’s not unusual for postal bags to come in from online shoppers who are returning the same pair of jeans in several sizes.
- Online shopping has increased 50 per cent on pre-COVID levels, according to Australia Post.
- Fashion and shoes are the most commonly bought items online
- Fashion brands are trying to tackle the environmental impact
The behaviour is sometimes referred to by the fashion industry as “bracketing”. It’s when online shoppers hedge their bets by ordering garments of various sizes and sending back what doesn’t fit.
It suits the consumer in an age of online shopping that’s only been sped up by a pandemic.
Yet it also comes with an environmental toll.
“There’s definitely a returns culture,” Nobody Denim’s marketing manager Lara Cooper says.
It’s not a brand new problem for the industry.
Even before online shopping, returns were a problem for retail stores, and there was an environmental and business toll from that too.
Yet the consumer had to try on items before buying, which reduced behaviour like bracketing.
With online shopping, when items are posted, they are also often wrapped in plastic.
Then there are postal bags, swing tags, and the less measurable environmental expense of sending items all around the country and back again.
Luxury brands especially can curate entire packaging regimes for products that include gift cards, layers of wrapping and embossed boxes.
Largely, items are returned to Nobody Denim in the same packaging, and some of it can be salvaged.
“We receive a lot of these plastic items and satchels that we ship out, then come back into our own hands,” Ms Cooper says.
“It’s on us to decide what to do with that waste. We do have partnerships with recycling companies.”
How have returns become a problem?
Fashion sustainability experts note that behaviours like bracketing have become especially prevalent when online fashion websites offer low-cost items, free shipping, and free returns.
Some of the biggest names offering these deals in Australia are Asos and The Iconic. Neither would disclose their returns rate.
Nobody Denim has been battling the problem by having the consumer pay for their own returns.
It’s also put sizing apps on its website.
Its co-founder John Condilis says the label, which manufactures its clothing in Melbourne, is proud of its quality and he believes this stops people being fickle about returning it.
“We work on quite low margins just to keep everything made in Australia,” he says.
“That’s more important to us than giving away a lot of free returns.”
In doing this, the company has lowered its returns rate to single digits.
The company has also already implemented simple measures such as phasing out order slips in online sales, which are now digital.
It is also investigating switching all of its packaging to compostable bags. However, that’s going to be an added expense.
“It’s coming up to around three to four times the cost of our current packaging material,” Mr Condilis says.
The company can also only control the packaging and returns policy on products it sells via its own website directly. It also sells via The Iconic which dictates its own packaging and returns policies.
In a statement, a spokesperson for The Iconic says the company’s packaging is made from recycled material. They says the company has ruled out compostable packaging for now.
“Most customers in Australia and New Zealand don’t have access to composting at home nor access to commercial compost services,” the spokesperson says.
“It means packaging would likely end up in landfill or in the soft-plastics recycling stream, compromising its potential for recycling. That’s why we landed on our 100% recycled post-consumer plastic satchels.
“For returned items that need repacking, we are currently transitioning to polybags that are made of 100% recycled plastic. These bags can also be recycled and recovered again.”
This year, the Australian government helped launch an industry initiative called the Australian Packaging Covenant. That’s a voluntary code that retailers and brands can sign up to and pledge to reduce their environmental impact.
The Iconic is one of the signatories. However, the code isn’t legally binding and many major fashion online websites, including the UK-owned Asos, are missing from the list of signatories.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Asos says the company’s packaging contains up to 90 per cent recycled plastic. It says it works with suppliers to recycle any packaging it gets back through returns.
And what about the actual clothing?
Figuring out what is happening to our online fashion returns is even more complicated.
Nobody Denim says the vast majority of what it receives back from online shoppers arrives in good condition and can be resold.
But occasionally things come back soiled or ripped. Mr Condilis says if they can’t be brought back to perfect quality, they are either sold at the company’s factory outlet or sent to charity.
Monash Sustainable Development Institute’s fashion sustainability expert Aleasha McCallion says this is common protocol for Australian fashion labels.
“That’s why it’s really important that [online returns] come back in the best condition possible,” she says.
“Because otherwise they end up the seconds and often discounted and potentially wasted.”
Asos says only 3 per cent of its returns can’t be resold after inspection, cleaning and repair processes.
“When this happens, we either sell the product to second-seller markets so it can be reused elsewhere or we recycle it so it can be made into something new,” its spokesperson says.
However, Ms McCallion is concerned there’s no hard and fast rules about what happens to unsold garments in Australia.
“We don’t necessarily know what is going into landfill,” she says.
“We don’t want to make all of these beautiful things only for them to simply be disposed in landfill without even being used.
“We should care because we’re actually overproducing and we’re using everything less. And textiles has been basically just undervalued and overlooked.”
Ms McCallion believes the problem has been created by both businesses and consumers.
“We’re all in this together. We’re in a symbiotic relationship,” she says.
“Businesses want to stay competitive and want to offer really good options for their customers, and customers want to be able to have choice. And through this, we’ve actually just collectively created quite a wasteful problem.”
Back at Nobody Denim, Lara Cooper is urging people to think twice ahead of a post-Christmas sales period that’s likely to be largely online rather than instore.
“Before getting click-happy, you need to think about do you really need it,” Ms Cooper says.