Written by Vedika Pathania, a second-year journalism student
All of us, or our parents have, at one point or another, bought clothes online. In fact, due to Covid-19 lockdowns around the globe, there was a huge increase in online shopping. Apps like Amazon, Myntra, Ajio, etc, make shopping convenient and easier by presenting us with thousands of options to choose from and fast delivery.
But because we don’t have the option of trying these clothes we buy, we often have to return them if they don’t fit right or if they don’t look like they did in the pictures.
So what actually happens to these clothes that we return?
Do they go back to the store, are they resold or disposed? Let’s find out.
Before we understand what happens to the clothes we return, let us first understand what ‘Fast Fashion’ means
What is Fast Fashion?
If you’ve bought clothing in the last decade, chances are you’ve purchased at least one item from a fast-fashion retailer. Most people’s purchasing habits are still dominated by stores like Zara and H&M, two of the world’s top retailers.
Fast fashion is ‘fast’ in several ways: the rate of change in fashion is fast; the customer’s decision to buy is fast; shipping is fast; and clothes are worn quickly – generally only a few times before being discarded.
Fast fashion is a design, production, and marketing strategy that focuses on creating large quantities of garments in a short amount of time. To introduce low-cost fashions to the public, garment manufacturers use trend duplication and low-quality materials (such as synthetic fabrics). These low-cost, fashionable items have sparked an industry-wide tendency toward large consumption. Unfortunately, this has negative consequences for the environment, garment workers, and, eventually, the wallets of customers.
Another important factor here is the impact of social media
Trends are everywhere. In reels, in posts, in what influencers wear. It is inevitable that they have an effect on what consumers want to buy and wear too. The problem is, these trends are short-lived. So, we might buy flared jeans when they’re trendy and then be compelled to dispose them when no one on the internet is wearing them anymore. Fast Fashion brands make use of these trends to produce multiple garments which appeal to the consumers. An important example is a brand named Shein.
But what happens to our online returns?
Returns increased in parallel to internet purchases during the pandemic. Returning items using a large e-commerce retailer’s app, such as Shein’s, is an easy procedure for customers. Once you request for a return and give a reason, the returned item is processed and the refund is generated. This is where the line ends for the shoppers.
The returned clothes, however, could end up with two different fates.
The first is that these clothes get burnt and dumped in a landfill, and the second is that they get resold to markets where they are sold as knockoffs and unused clothes at a much, much lower price than the original.
Returns turn out to be not just a huge carbon impact, but also a major issue for companies. That new pair of jeans you sent back, requires a different treatment than, say, a ripped t-shirt. Because many enterprises lack the technology to manage these complexities in returned items, it’s sometimes more profitable to sell them cheaply to discounters via a network of shipping, driving, and flying them around the world, or simply trucking them to the landfill.
Only a small portion of what is produced is recycled. Eighty-seven percent of the fibre input used in garments is burned or disposed of in landfills. Fashion labels have been criticized for activities such as burning unsold merchandise and sending mountains of clothing to landfills in the Global South.
The human impact of fast fashion
Fast fashion has an influence on the health of both customers and garment workers, in addition to the environment. Today’s clothing contains harmful substances including benzothiazole, which has been linked to a variety of cancers and respiratory problems. Exposure to these substances puts the health of garment workers in danger. Long hours, unjust salaries, a lack of resources, and even physical abuse are all factors in play. Because there are few alternative options, the workers who create our garments are underpaid, underfed, and pushed to their limits.
The way towards sustainable alternatives
With conscious production, fair labour rights, natural materials, and long-lasting clothes, slow fashion provides an alternative. We could ensure agency and advocate for the environment and people by purchasing clothing from responsible businesses, speaking up for social responsibility and accountability, and shopping at second-hand stores.
Another option is upcycling. Get creative, wear your old clothes in different ways.
You could also try donating old clothes to NGOs and organisations around you.
Another way of being more sustainable is by thrifting. A lot of online stores on Instagram and even some shopping outlets resell pre-loved clothes at discounted rates. This way, you’re both recycling and upcycling.
While thinking of change and how we bring it about, the dominant thought in our heads is always “How would it help if only I, if only 1 person change? Let others do it.”
The reality is, one person changing their habits and being more mindful of their lifestyles does help. Each clothing item that is thrifted, recycled, or upcycled, helps. It causes a ripple effect. Every effort towards the environment and also, the rights of the workers, helps. And that is something we need to remember.
Your contribution, small as it may be, is significant, and it helps.
For a more detailed explanation, here’s great article