It all started with a hooded tracksuit worth less than Â£ 30. The junk item, processed online at one second past midnight on Christmas Day for being too large, was the first in a spate of festive returns for ZigZag Global, a company that specializes in handling online returns.
Within an hour, 709 products were returned online via ZigZag; At 3:51 a.m., a Â£ 99 off-the-shoulder dress was the first item to be deposited in an InPost locker, and when the newsagents opened at 10 a.m., queues formed at the counters to return unwanted items.
Shoppers sent back more goods than ever this Christmas as the cancellation of parties, the return to home work, and the shift to online shopping resulted in a huge pile of unwanted goods.
Since Christmas, returns have increased 24% year over year, according to ZigZag, which works with companies like Boohoo, Selfridges and Gap. Colleague ReBound, specialist in returns, saw even higher demand, with returns in December being 40% higher than a year earlier.
With up to half of the clothes bought online being returned to some retailers, the entire process costs an estimated Â£ 7 billion a year in 2020, according to a study by consulting firm KPMG. It is difficult to measure environmental costs, but the transportation, storage and disposal of items that cannot be resold because they are damaged or polluted are likely to weigh heavily on the brands’ carbon footprint and raise worrying questions about the dark Side of the internet on sales boom.
Anita Balchandani of the consulting firm McKinsey says that the management of the return flow is a “sustainability imperative for the industry” is no longer wanted.
While the percentage of items returned by online shoppers declined in the early days of the pandemic, it has increased since then as trends have changed: light-fitting tracksuits that were popular in the early days of the home office have been abandoned in favor of more structured ones Items like suits and dresses, thanks to returns from weddings and office work. Last month, the online fast fashion specialist Boohoo had to cut sales and profit expectations due to changed habits, among other things.
About 15% of electronics returned after purchasing online are disposed of because they either cannot be repaired or are not worth repairing or cleaning, according to a major remanufacturer. Every brand or retailer has a different benchmark, but since remanufacturing each individual item costs up to Â£ 20, many returns retailers lose money. Many small products will never be re-used unless they are untouched in their original packaging.
The processing of returns is associated with considerable effort. Checking the goods for their functional condition, cleanliness and deletion of personal images or data from the software has to be done manually and is a time-consuming, sometimes tricky process. While some brands provide remanufacturers with free parts to repair faulty items and avoid landfilling, others don’t.
A large, expensive item, like a washing machine or even a food processor, will likely be checked, repaired, and resold – likely through an auction site like eBay – for 15 or 20% less than the selling price.
But the best that can be expected from most broken or used hair clippers or electric toothbrushes is that they are disassembled for recycling.
Cosmetics is another tricky area. Unless they are completely untouched and in the original packaging, resale is not possible due to the hygienic risk.
Approximately 80% of clothing returned are likely to be resold with no significant labor – new packaging or a steam may be required. Of the rest, most can be recycled, but around 5% are likely to be considered unsuitable for resale, either because they are too damaged or possibly unsanitary – like worn underwear or swimwear.
Items clearly run out, labels removed, or labeled with cosmetics cannot simply be remodeled for sale by the original retailer, and again, the value of that item will affect the decision on whether to sell it through a cleanup – or repair process or buried.
Al Gerrie, CEO of ZigZag Global, says: âFast fashion has a life cycle of around six weeks. If it doesn’t go off the shelf for three or four weeks, it will lose value during that time and won’t be able to get it back [in time], it will be less attractive or not for sale. If it’s a Christmas item, it may have to wait until next year. “
Many unwanted items can be sold in bulk to charities or resellers who will then repair them or reuse them for sale on eBay or Depop.
Incidentally, the vast majority of large retailers are now sending these unwanted items to charities or for recycling, but despite the excitement over such practices in recent years, some are still believed to be either incinerated or landfilled.
However, the pressure to be more sustainable and cut costs is driving retailers to reduce the amount of unwanted goods.
Laura Gee from another returns specialist ReBound says, âBrands are on a learning curve. You get better at it [reprocessing] because the buyers are becoming more and more sustainable. “
Tech companies like ZigZag and ReBound are helping retailers more closely track returned items, monitor why a sale was unsuccessful, and make decisions about where and how to reprocess the goods without necessarily having to bring them all back to the UK when they are in To be sold abroad.
Last year, eBay said there has been a surge in retailers setting up their own online stores to delete unwanted products and seconds.
Other techniques to reduce return rates include posting customer reviews that identify a garment’s fit, using avatars to allow a dress to be virtually tried on, or asking customers to bring an item back to a store where they can find the alternative pick up and try on.
Geerie from ZigZag says: âEven fast fashion retailers are becoming more aware of their social responsibility and sustainability and try to win back products whenever possible. It’s a shift in the market for good, but not at a low cost, you are definitely losing money on some products. “
The change is being driven in part by the threat of legislation. In France, companies must monitor what happens to unsold goods and are no longer allowed to destroy them from this month. Other European countries should follow suit.
In the UK, charities called for the introduction of an anti-waste law after Amazon was forced to deny it sent household items like laptops and televisions to landfill after employees filmed by ITV Last year, such products were packed in boxes labeled âDestroyâ. The company said the items had been donated or recycled.
Balchandani says better educating consumers about the effects of more selective purchasing will be key to reducing the wasteful carousel of returned goods.
“In a world where consumers are increasingly aware of their carbon footprint, I think brands don’t talk enough about how to be more conscious,” she says.