Have you ever wondered what happens to the online shopping items you return? It’s not a pretty picture

In the Nobody Denim warehouse, it’s not uncommon for mail bags to come from online shoppers who return the same jeans in multiple sizes.

The behavior is sometimes referred to by the fashion industry as “bracketing”. This is when online shoppers hedge their bets by ordering clothes in different sizes and sending back what is wrong with them.

It suits the consumer in an era of online shopping that has only been accelerated by a pandemic.

But it also has an environmental impact.

“There is definitely a culture of returns,” said Lara Cooper, Marketing Manager for Nobody Denim.

This is not a new problem for the industry.

Even before online shopping, returns were a problem for retail stores, and that had an environmental and business impact as well.

Still, the consumer had to try on items before buying, which reduced behaviors such as bracketing.

With online shopping, when items are displayed, they are often wrapped in plastic as well.

Then there are the mail bags, swivel labels, and the less measurable environmental expense of sending items across the country and back.

Luxury brands in particular can organize complete packaging regimes for products that include gift cards, packaging layers and embossed boxes.

Lara Cooper of Nobody Denim urges consumers to think about the impact of their online shopping.(ABC News: Emilia Terzon)

Most of the items are returned to Nobody Denim in the same packaging, and some may be collected.

“We get a lot of these plastic items and binders that we ship and then get back to our hands,” Ms. Cooper said.

“It’s up to us to decide what to do with this waste. We have partnerships with recycling companies. “

How did returns become a problem?

Fashion sustainability experts note that behaviors such as 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 of them discloses their rate of return.

No one Denim has tackled the problem by forcing consumers to pay for their own returns.

He also put sizing apps on his website.

hands touching a phone with icons on the screen asking people what body size they feel
Nobody Denim uses an app on their website to help online shoppers shop for clothes that fit them. (ABC News: Emilia Terzon)

Its co-founder, John Condilis, says the brand, which makes their clothes in Melbourne, take pride in the quality and believe that it keeps people from wanting to return them.

“We are working on fairly low margins just that everything is made in Australia,” he says.

“It’s more important to us than giving a lot of free feedback.”

In doing so, the company lowered its return rate to single digits.

a man in a black top and pants in a workshop
John Condilis of Nobody Denim says the fashion brand is on a “sustainability journey”.(ABC News: Emilia Terzon)

The company has also already implemented simple measures such as the phasing out of purchase orders in online sales, now digital.

It is also studying the replacement of all its packaging with compostable bags. However, this is going to be an additional expense.

“This is approximately three to four times the cost of our current packaging materials,” said Mr. Condilis.

The company can also only control the packaging and return policy of the products it sells directly through its own website. It also sells through The Iconic which dictates its own packaging and return policies.

a plastic bag with the words
The Iconic is one of the largest online fashion sites in Australia.(ABC News: Emilia Terzon)

In a statement, a spokesperson for The Iconic said the company’s packaging was made from recycled materials. They say the company has ruled out compostable packaging for now.

“Most customers in Australia and New Zealand do not have access to home composting or commercial composting services,” the spokesperson said.

“This means that the packaging would likely end up in a landfill or in the flexible plastics recycling stream, compromising its recycling potential. That’s why we landed on our 100% recycled post-consumer plastic bags.

“For returned items that need to be repackaged, we are currently in the process of switching to poly bags made from 100% recycled plastic. These bags can also be recycled and collected again. “

a brown bag with the words 'I'm a real bag of dirt'
Fashion brands are trying to improve their environmental impact.(ABC News: Emilia Terzon)

This year, the Australian government helped launch an industry initiative called the Australian Packaging Covenant. This is a voluntary code that retailers and brands can adhere to and commit to reducing their environmental impact.

The Iconic is one of the signatories. However, the code is not legally binding and many major online fashion websites, including UK-owned Asos, are not on the list of signatories.

In a statement, an Asos spokesperson said the company’s packaging contained up to 90 percent recycled plastic. He says he works with suppliers to recycle any packaging he collects on returns.

And what about the actual clothes?

Understanding what happens to our fashion returns online is even more complicated.

Nobody Denim claims that the vast majority of what it receives from online shoppers arrives in good condition and can be resold.

But sometimes things come back soiled or torn. Mr Condilis says that if they cannot be brought down to perfect quality, they are either sold at the company’s factory outlet or sent to charity.

postage bags with
Nobody Denim has reduced its return rate with a series of measures.(ABC News: Emilia Terzon)

Aleasha McCallion, fashion sustainability expert at the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, says this is a common protocol for Australian fashion brands.

“This is why it is really important that [online returns] come back in the best possible conditions, ”she said.

“Because otherwise they end up wasting seconds and are often reduced and potentially wasted. “

Asos claims that only 3% of its returns cannot be resold after inspection, cleaning and repair processes.

“When that happens, we either sell the product to second-seller markets so that it can be reused elsewhere, or we recycle it so that it can be made into something new,” his spokesperson said. .

However, Ms McCallion is concerned that there are no strict rules on what happens to unsold clothing in Australia.

“We don’t necessarily know what’s going on in landfills,” she says.

“We don’t want to make all of these beautiful things just to just go to landfill and not even be used.

“We should be concerned about that because we are actually overproducing and using everything less. And textiles have basically just been dumped and neglected.”

a woman with glasses in front of a shopping mall
Aleasha McCallion of Monash University is concerned that there are no hard and fast rules for what happens to online shopping returns.(ABC News: Emilia Terzon)

Ms McCallion believes the problem was created by both businesses and consumers.

“We’re all in the same boat. We’re in a symbiotic relationship,” she says.

“Businesses want to stay competitive and want to provide great options for their customers, and customers want to have choice. And through that, we’ve just collectively created a waste problem.”

Back at Nobody Denim, Lara Cooper urges people to think twice before a post-Christmas sales period that will likely be largely online rather than in-store.

“Before you are happy with the clicks, you have to ask yourself if you really need them,” says Ms. Cooper.

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