Online shopping

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

In Nobody Denim’s warehouse, it’s not uncommon for mailbags to arrive from online shoppers returning the same pair of jeans in multiple sizes.

The behavior is sometimes referred to by the fashion industry as “bracketing”. It’s when online shoppers hedge their bets by ordering clothes in different sizes and returning what doesn’t fit.

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

However, this also has an impact on the environment.

“There’s definitely a comeback culture,” says 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 it also had an environmental and business impact.

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

With online shopping, when items are posted they are also often wrapped in plastic.

Then there are the mailbags, mobile tags, and the less measurable environmental expense of sending items across the country and back.

Luxury brands can especially arrange complete packaging schemes for products including gift cards, packaging layers and embossed boxes.

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

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

“We get a lot of these plastic items and bags that we ship out and then come back into our hands,” Ms Cooper says.

“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 particularly prevalent when online fashion websites offer low-priced 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 rate of return.

Nobody Denim tackled the problem by asking the consumer to pay their own returns.

He also put sizing apps on his website.

hands touching phone with icons on screen asking people what body size they think they are
Nobody Denim uses an app on its website to help online shoppers buy clothes that fit. (ABC News: Emilia Terzon)

Its co-founder John Condilis says the label, which makes its clothes in Melbourne, prides itself on its quality and he thinks that stops people from being fickle about returning it.

“We work with pretty low margins just to keep everything Australian made,” he says.

“That’s more important to us than giving a lot of free returns.”

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 said the fashion label was on a “sustainability journey”.(ABC News: Emilia Terzon)

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

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

“That’s about three to four times the cost of our current packaging materials,” says 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 Australia’s largest online fashion sites.(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 landfill or in the flexible plastics recycling stream, compromising its recycling potential. That’s why we landed on our 100% post-consumer recycled plastic bags.

“For returned items that need to be repackaged, we are currently switching to polythene bags made from 100% recycled plastic. These bags can also be recycled and reclaimed.”

a brown bag with the words
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. It is a voluntary code to which retailers and brands can subscribe 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 listed as signatories.

In a statement, an Asos spokesperson says the company’s packaging contains up to 90% recycled plastic. He says he works with suppliers to recycle any packaging he gets back through returns.

And what about the clothes themselves?

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

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

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

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

Monash Sustainable Development Institute fashion sustainability expert Aleasha McCallion says this is standard protocol for Australian fashion brands.

“That’s why it’s really important that [online returns] come back in the best possible condition,” she said.

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

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

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

However, Ms McCallion fears there are no hard and fast rules on what happens to unsold clothes in Australia.

“We don’t necessarily know what goes to landfills,” she says.

“We don’t want to make all these beautiful things just to be thrown into landfill without even being used.

“We should care because we’re actually overproducing and using everything less. And textiles have been fundamentally undervalued and neglected.”

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

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

“We’re all in this together. We’re in a symbiotic relationship,” she says.

“Companies want to stay competitive and offer great options to their customers, and customers want to be able to have choices. And through that, we’ve actually just collectively created a waste problem.”

Back at Nobody Denim, Lara Cooper is urging people to think twice before a post-Christmas sale period that will likely take place largely online rather than in-store.

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