Each year, 5 billion pounds of waste is generated through returns. The solution? Welcome to the world of reverse-logistics.
You’ve ordered a new pair of shoes online. They arrive; you rush to the front door and cradle the box as you lift off the lid. You un-tie the laces, guide them toward your feet and… bummer, they don’t fit. So, back in the box they go and an hour later you drop them at the local collections store. It’s disappointing, but hey, the shoes have never been worn and they’ll be making their way to a new home soon. Right? Wrong.
So what does happen to our apparel when we order online and then return the items? The reality is that much of it simply ends up in landfill. That is, once its been shipped all over the country, or even the globe, a few times.
Each year in the US alone, customers return approximately 3.5 billion products, of which only 20% are actually defective according to Optoro, a company which specialises in returns logistics.
Sarah Needham from the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at University of the Arts London says the flow of goods to customers and back to retailers is flawed both from an economic and environmental perspective.
“We know that many of the products that are returned end up in landfill before we even use them which only adds to the vast amounts of used items already ending up in landfill... These products use precious resources which are becoming scarce and we are throwing them away unnecessarily,” says Needham.
It turns out that returns not only create a giant carbon footprint, but a real headache for companies. That new pair of shoes you sent back, with the open box and the untied laces, needs to be handled differently to, say, a t-shirt with a rip in it. Many companies simply don’t have the technology in place to handle these nuances in returned goods, so it is often most profitable for them to sell them cheaply to discounters via a web of shipping, driving and flying them around the globe, or to simply truck them to the dump.
Optoro estimates that 5 billion pounds of waste is generated through returns each year, contributing 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The returns system is horrendously inefficient according to Carly Llewellyn, Senior Director of Marketing at Optoro: “Historically the way retailers have handled returns is they get a bunch of items back to a store or warehouse, usually they’ll sit for several months because they don’t have tech to know what to do with them, eventually they’ll go to a wholesaler or liquidator, through all these middle men to try and resell them. It’s bad for environment - as items are shipped around the country so much - and bad for retailers who make hardly any money.”
Clothes and shoes already go through so many environmentally harmful processes, from making the fabric (often out of fossil fuels) to dyeing it using toxic chemicals. Mass manufacturing in factories pumps carbon emissions into the air, and clothes are then shipped across the globe multiple times, only to ultimately end up in a pile on a landfill site because they couldn’t easily be routed to a new home.
It’s an issue we don’t tend to hear much about. We know that sourcing fashion items like cotton, leather and wool can cause habitat degradation, and that manufacturing processes cause climate change and pollute our oceans (17-20% of all industrial water pollution is caused by the dyeing of textiles in manufacturing, according to a 2016 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature). But what about the rest of the fashion supply chain?
Optoro believes it has a viable solution. Its software helps retailers and manufacturers resell unsold and excess items more easily. They offer a multitude of options for retailers, including a website to re-sell their goods, called Blinq, as well as helping with re-routing items to donation, store shelves, Amazon or eBay. They estimate their work helps reduce landfill waste by 70%.
“Our tech uses a lot of different data sources to figure out exactly what to do with each different item. For example a pair of shoes that have only been taken out of the box, and are still in perfect condition, we will put straight on the website,” says Llewellyn.
Co-founders Tobin Moore and Adam Vitarello came up with the idea 11 years ago when they were working to help individuals resell one-off items on eBay from a store in their garage.
“They had a lot of retail stores come to them and say, ‘We have all these returned shoes from last season that are excess and we don’t know what to do with them, can you help us resell them,’” says Llewellyn. The pair realised if they started doing the same but for big retailers they could tap into a much bigger market, and so they started building the Optoro software.
Needham is encouraged to see organisations recognise the issue of waste from returns and offer solutions to reduce the flow of clothing and footware to landfill and preserve the energy and resources that go into producing these items.
Yet, despite the obvious environmental issues, the fast fashion business is still rapidly expanding. A 2016 report by Greenpeace shows that, “Clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014…The average person buys 60 per cent more items of clothing every year”. And, with a booming world population estimated to reach 9 billion people by 2050, solutions that ensure our returns can be reused or recycled are going to be vital.
Ann Starodaj, Senior Director of Sustainability at Optoro, says that while consumer habits might still be harmful, creating a profitable and environmentally friendly fashion model from start to finish is the way forward: “I don’t think people are going to stop buying stuff, but creating a business model where you’re making it easier for them to make sustainable choices is the money shot,” she says.
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