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The Environmental Impact of Returns and Exchanges

The world has been in the midst of a retail revolution for the past several decades. The rise of e-commerce has made it much more convenient to accept delivery of goods directly to your doorstep. And the COVID-19 pandemic has further accelerated increases in online shopping.

Unfortunately, online ordering makes shopping for certain things – such as apparel – much more difficult. Brick and mortar clothing shops allow you to try on items and ask questions about them from sales staff before making an informed purchase. Online ordering doesn’t allow you to try on anything before you buy, and most people forego asking questions, assuming that if it doesn’t fit or they don’t like it, the product can simply be returned. A full 41% of individuals indicate that they regularly purchase variations of products with the intent of returning all but the best option.    

The practice represents the ugly side of online shopping, and it has far-reaching ramifications on the environment, consumers, and retailers. 

The High Cost of Returns

The truth of the matter is even when retailers offer free returns, these come with a steep price, particularly to the environment. Every additional package, or envelope sent leaves an additional trail of waste and pollution. Optoro has found that dealing with returned inventory creates over 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, and adds five billion pounds of trash to US landfills annually. And many of these items are in new conditions or are unopened, but cannot be re-stocked for any number of reasons. 

The amount of waste and environmental impact created by returning items is staggering. As society continues to implement measures that promote greater sustainability, eliminating this waste must become a priority. And it is a relatively easy target to achieve, which can be accomplished through retailer education and policy combined with informed and mindful consumer habits.

 When returns and their corresponding costs are lowered, the benefits also extend to the consumer and the retailers. The total cost of return deliveries is estimated to be approximately $550 billion in 2020, and this expense dramatically increases retail prices for all consumers across the board. When returns are lowered, the financial expense is lowered, allowing retailers to lower prices while still achieving profitability. Additionally, customers who take the time to read and understand size charts and ask any questions upfront are far more likely to be happy with a single initial purchase, and they won’t have to deal with the hassle of returning unwanted items.

Free return policies also tend to negatively impact small businesses at a greater rate than larger businesses because they eat away a greater portion or already-small profit margins. Because of this impact, many high-end and boutique clothing retailers have eliminated return policies – not to punish the customer, but because it’s the only way to sustain financial viability. Even major retailers, such as Amazon, are taking steps to close the accounts of consumers that return too many items. The reality is that we are beginning to realize that free and unlimited return policies hurt commerce, consumers, businesses, and most of all - the environment.  We can do better than this. 

Shopping to Keep

As an eco-friendly and sustainable company, Strange Bikinis is committed to eliminating unnecessary waste, and we look forward to working with our customers to ensure that they are happy with the product they order – the first time it is ordered. When retailers and consumers work together to create a collaborative online shopping experience, we can begin to see real gains being made to eliminate unnecessary waste and pollution caused by unnecessary returns. 

Tips to Shop Smarter

  1. Know Your Measurements: As most women already know, sizes can vary tremendously from one company to another. And while in-person shopping allows you to simply try on multiple sizes until you find one that fits, online shopping does not share this luxury. You need an accurate measurement of your hips, waist, bust, and inseam. If you are uncertain how to get these measurements yourself, you can request that a tailor measure you. They will often provide this information for free or for a very small fee (which is well worth the expense). 
  2. Reference Size Charts: When you have accurate measurements, it’s easy to tell by the size charts, which size you will need to order. But be wary, you will still have to check the size charts for every item on every order since they may still vary significantly between brands and items. 
  3. Track Your Purchases: If you make frequent orders online, it’s worth keeping some notes about how specific brands fit, and ones that didn’t look flattering. You can reference this for future purchases to minimize the risk of ordering something you won’t like or want to keep.
  4. Look for Feedback: You can often find a treasure trove of useful information about a specific item within the user reviews. If you find most users are indicating that the sizing trends either small or large, you can adjust your purchase accordingly. Many brands also invite social media influencers to don their products and review them as a promotional strategy. While you should be wary that influencer reviews aren’t always unbiased (they got something in return for the review, after all), they can still be helpful. At the very least, you may get to see some additional real-life photos of the item in question. 
  5. Ask Questions: All reputable online retailers have some way to communicate with a sales staff member that can address your questions. And asking questions before you make a purchase is far better than being unsatisfied after receiving the item. Colors may appear differently depending upon the device you are viewing. Fabrics have a wide range of textures, durability, and cleaning recommendations. No matter what your questions may be – speaking with the company directly is the best way to get accurate and helpful answers.
  6. Don’t Be Afraid of Alterations: While no one likes the thought of having to alter brand-new clothing, the reality is that it can often be more convenient and can result in a perfect fit. And let’s face it, sometimes you’ll only be able to find something that fits “pretty good” off the shelf. Minor adjustments that are relatively inexpensive can be made by a tailor and ensure that you get the perfect fit every time.
  7. Know the Policies: Because of the impracticality of free, unlimited returns, many retailers are eliminating or restricting their return policies. This is especially true for high-end clothing retailers, who simply cannot offer this benefit to customers and remain profitable. While these policies are a great step for retailers to make in reducing the waste created by returns, they can catch some consumers off-guard – particularly customers who have a return mindset when shopping. It’s always good practice to review these policies before making a purchase. 

As online shopping – including clothing and swimwear - continues to grow, we must be more conscientious of how the product’s life cycle impacts everyone involved, and especially the environment. Most returns are unnecessary. While they can’t be avoided in every single instance, the vast majority could be eliminated by shopping smarter and embracing a ‘shopping to keep’ mindset. 

Strange Bikinis is devoted to eliminating this type of unnecessary waste – and we cannot wait to help our customers learn more about our products so that they can make an informed decision when purchasing our swimwear. Together, we can work together to ensure that the customer gets swimwear that fits great, meets their expectations, and won’t be returned.


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