Since we have completely embraced online shopping, the return of clothing and electronics has also increased enormously. A Swedish study now shows that a large proportion of those returns go straight to landfill. The cheaper the order, the more likely it is to be thrown away.
Since the corona pandemic, online shopping has become a permanent fixture in many people’s lives. That also entails countless returns, especially since returns are often free. It even encourages shoppers to place large online orders that they can then try or try on at home in peace. The pieces that do not meet their requirements are then returned.
What consumers may not fully realize is that many retailers and manufacturers adhere to the practice of product destruction: they dispose of brand new consumer products such as customer returns or unsold goods. The returned items are therefore not always resold to other customers, but they often end up in a landfill or are destroyed.
Researchers at Lund University in Sweden have come to this conclusion. They interviewed employees and experts from the textile and electronics industries to gain insight into the driving forces behind this practice. They also wanted to investigate why more sustainable solutions are not being sought and what policy measures are needed to tackle this problem effectively.
Their research shows that the unsustainable view of returns and unsold inventory is often already embedded in the retailer’s business model. Other factors influencing: consumer expectations, product design, profit considerations, accountability and brand integrity.
According to the research, throwing away clothing or electronics often turns out to be the lesser of two evils. After all, some items are made so cheaply that it is less expensive to throw away returns than to have to check and repack them. The results do show that the more expensive the product, the more likely it is to be repackaged and sold.
Earth under pressure
The way the global economy deals with raw materials today leads to significant negative environmental impacts and puts increasing pressure on the Earth’s fragile ecosystem, the researchers say in their report.
In doing so, they argue that the practice of product destruction prevalent in many current production-consumption systems is particularly troubling.
Figures show that by 2022, nearly 22 billion euros worth of returned clothing and electronics will be destroyed in the European Union. In France, for example, 180 million euros worth of unsold hygiene and beauty products are destroyed every year, while some three million French people cannot afford basic hygiene products.
The researchers call for more targeted policy on this issue, although they also say that Europe is already intervening, including with programs such as the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe and the more recent Circular Economy Action Plan. Among other things, Belgium has introduced an exemption from VAT on products donated to charities as an economic mechanism to encourage reuse and discourage the destruction of usable products.
According to the authors, making returns a payment is not necessarily a solution, as long as the fast fashion industry is not tackled. If clothing remains dirt cheap, customers themselves will also consider throwing away pieces that do not meet the requirements, instead of sending them back for a fee. The same applies to inferior electronics that are sometimes even rejected by the second-hand circuit because of poor quality. Then there is only one solution for surpluses: the landfill.