Return to Sender: The Environmental Cost of Online Clothing Returns

May 5, 2024

In the world of online shopping, the convenience of trying and returning items with just a few clicks has become commonplace. However, while we revel in the flexibility of purchasing decisions, the environmental impact of clothing returns is a growing concern that often goes unnoticed. Today, let’s delve into how clothing returns are affecting our planet and what we might do about it.

The Scale of the Problem

The convenience of online shopping has led to a surge in purchases—and consequently, returns. Industry reports suggest that about 30% to 40% of all clothing bought online are returned. Unlike returning a sweater to a brick-and-mortar store, online returns involve complex logistics. Each returned item needs to be shipped back, processed, and then either restocked, liquidated, or, unfortunately, discarded.

Environmental Impact of Returns

  1. Increased Carbon Footprint: Every returned item incurs additional transportation, typically involving trucks and planes that significantly increase carbon emissions. This transportation not only includes the journey back to the retailer but often subsequent shipping to secondary processing locations or new customers. Each journey releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.
  2. Packaging Waste: Returns generate considerable packaging waste, including boxes, plastic, and padding that often end up in landfills. The production and disposal of these materials have their own environmental costs, such as deforestation, pollution, and the depletion of non-renewable resources used in manufacturing synthetic packaging.
  3. Waste Generation: A significant portion of returned goods do not end up back on sale but are instead directed to landfills. The reasons range from damage during shipping or handling to the cost of restocking being higher than the item’s value. Moreover, items that do get restocked require additional resources for inspection, refurbishing, and repackaging, further increasing their environmental footprint.
  4. Resource Inefficiency: The entire lifecycle of a returned item—from production to delivery, return, and reprocessing—uses more water, energy, and raw materials compared to a non-returned item. This inefficiency becomes particularly pronounced when products are disposed of rather than resold or recycled.
  5. Impact on Local Environments: The return process can also exacerbate local environmental issues. For example, increased truck traffic contributes to air pollution and road wear, and the operations of larger warehousing facilities can lead to habitat disruption and increased local waste.
  6. Energy Consumption: The logistics involved in handling returns—such as transportation, warehouse operations, and waste management—require significant amounts of energy. This energy typically comes from fossil fuels, further contributing to the carbon footprint of returned items.

The Driving Forces Behind High Return Rates

Several factors contribute to the high rate of returns in the clothing sector:

  • Size and Fit Issues: Unlike other products, clothing and shoes often need to be tried on for size, leading to a higher likelihood of returns.
  • Impulse Buying: Easy return policies encourage consumers to buy items on impulse, knowing they can return them without hassle.
  • Quality Expectations: Sometimes, the product in hand doesn't match customer expectations set by online images or descriptions.

What Can You, as a Consumer, Do?

Addressing the environmental impact of clothing returns isn't just a task for retailers and policymakers—consumers play a crucial role too. Here's how you can help reduce the footprint of your fashion choices:

  • Mindful Shopping: Before making a purchase, think critically about what you're buying. Assess whether the item is something you truly need or just a fleeting desire. This practice can significantly reduce the likelihood of returns and, by extension, their environmental impact.
  • Consider Fit with Your Existing Wardrobe: Look at how a new piece will fit with the clothes you already own. Can you mix and match it with several outfits? If it's not versatile enough to be worn with multiple existing pieces, it might end up being returned or rarely worn.
  • Understand Your Body Shape and Coloring: Knowing what fits your body shape and complements your skin tone can reduce the chances of dissatisfaction with online purchases. Invest time in understanding which cuts, styles, and colors work best for you, thus minimizing the risk of returns.
  • Quality Over Quantity: Opt for clothing that is well-made and durable, even if it means paying a bit more. Higher quality items are less likely to be sent back due to early wear and tear or disappointment in the product's feel and finish.
  • Educate Yourself on Sustainable Brands: Support brands that are transparent about their manufacturing processes and are committed to sustainable practices. These brands often offer higher quality goods that you're less likely to return.
  • Use Technology: Take advantage of tools and services that can help you make better decisions from the start. At OpenWardrobe, we provide you with many tools to help make better buying decisions.

By adopting these habits, you can not only diminish the environmental toll of returns but also become a more conscious and responsible consumer. Each decision to buy less impulsively, choose more wisely, and think sustainably contributes significantly to a healthier planet.


The environmental impact of clothing returns is a multifaceted issue that spans consumer behavior, retail policies, and logistical operations. As online shopping continues to grow, so does the responsibility to manage its sustainability. By making informed decisions, supporting sustainable brands, and advocating for responsible consumption, consumers can play a significant part in reducing the ecological footprint of their fashion choices.

Understanding these impacts helps us as consumers to make more environmentally friendly choices and supports the broader goals of reducing waste and promoting sustainability in the fashion industry.