This is What Really Happens to Your Online Shopping Returns

Have you ever bought something online and thought – ‘Oh well, I can just send it back if I don’t like it?’

Or even ordered clothes in multiple sizes to try on at home and return the items you don’t want?

You’re not alone, in fact, 51% of shoppers admit to overbuying items with the intention of returning unwanted garments. It’s so common, it has even coined its own phrase ‘bracketing’.

Bracketing is the purchasing of multiple sizes/colours of a product with the intent to return what isn’t needed.

It seems like a reasonable way to shop, particularly with clothing you can’t try on before you commit to buying.

But, if fashion wasn’t already damaging enough to the environment, bracketing places even more environmental cost to consumer behaviour.

The Guardian reported that in the US alone, 2.5 million tons of returned goods end up in landfill each year. Sorry to pile more doom and gloom eco-stats on your already burdened shoulders.

This number is important though as it illustrates a point we can all be forgiven for missing.

Common sense says that your returned items are simply returned to a shop to be resold, right?

What Actually Happens To Online Shopping Returns

It seems simple enough. Send the item back to the retailer to be resold.

In actual fact, life is far more complicated than this. What you’re actually doing is reversing the complete supply chain, sending something back the way it came. The transportation alone is detrimental to carbon emissions.

This supply chain reversal creates a headache for retailers. Item condition must be assessed, repackaged and returned to the correct place in sales funnel are just some of the obvious issues.

Think of it like missing your train stop or motorway exit.

Or for you mountain folk, skiing past the chairlift you’re meant to be getting on.

You can’t just turn around and drive or ski back where you came from. You have to carry on until there’s another exit or lift, take a longer route and sometimes end up nowhere near your intended destination.

It’s all very time-consuming at the very least. Sometimes it’s just easier to give up and send something to landfill. (My metaphor breaks down a bit here, but you get the point.)

For retail items, there’s warehousing, staffing, damage, transport and who knows what else to consider. It’s not always worth it from an economic standpoint.

It’s estimated less than half of returned items are ever resold and people don’t even think they are returning as much as they are. A 2019 global e-commerce report shows consumers believe they only return 10% of purchase but average return rates are more like 25%.

Solving the Problem of Returns

The outdoors and ski industry is by no means immune from this. Bracketing heavy duty outdoors items could be even more devastating with the environmental cost to create these highly durable items is even higher.

We originally opened the One Tree Shop to sell 2nd hand goods, giving the glut of ski gear sitting in wardrobes another lease of life and keep it out of the landfill. Very quickly we started receiving so-called ‘warranty’ gear from big brands.

Not 2nd hand garments, brand new items returned for various reasons. Some with small damage easy to fix but unsellable for a retailer. More stunningly, half of it appeared to be in almost perfect condition.

“The quality of the stuff that has come in really blows us away. I don’t think we were expecting how good condition most items are in. Sometimes we can’t even find a problem to fix on warrantied clothing” explains Andy Davies on the Clean Mountain Living Podcast.

“I think there’s a big problem in the industry with people wearing an item of clothing for a couple of weeks and returning it. And brands probably want to keep customers happy so they’ll bend over backwards.

Then it’s really hard for the brands to repackage it to send it back out to another customer and make it look entirely new. There’s a problem there.” adds Gavin Fernie-Jones.

Do we really need to bracket?

The One Tree Shop really opened our eyes to a problem we didn’t really know about before. Of course, shopping habits are important and this includes the intentionally overbuying items. It is not a handy way to shop but another sign of lazy shopping habits that increase both economic and environmental costs.

A double whammy, nobody really wins at the end of the day.

Another point to illustrate is that where there is a problem there is a solution. It is possible to provide a solution like the One Tree Shop to stop these items ending up in landfill or incinerated. If you don’t want something someone else will, and the proceeds of it can be used for positive change in the world.

If one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, then what the heck it one person’s brand new returned item worth?