Your holiday 'free returns' may be part of over 5 billion pounds of landfill waste: 'Mother Earth foots the bill'

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Holiday return season lasts until the end of January. Where do all those unwanted products go? (Photo: Getty Images, graphic by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Life)
Holiday return season lasts until the end of January. Where do all those unwanted products go? (Photo: Getty Images, graphic by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Life)

In Unearthed, Gen Z climate-change activists discuss some of the most pressing issues facing our planet — and reveal what you can do to help make a real difference.

Regarding that pile of scratchy sweaters, polyester PJs and other holiday-gift rejects that you still plan to box up and return, here's a hint: You might want to reconsider, as they could all wind up somewhere you'd least expect — tossed away, into a giant landfill.

Yes, it might seem counterintuitive for companies to junk their own products, but, experts explain, the high expense of dealing with returns actually makes it more profitable to not deal with them at all.

And now, during this holiday-return period, which officially lasts until the end of January, might be the perfect time to come to terms with this reality. According to a spokesperson for Optoro, a returns technology company, between Thanksgiving 2021 and the end of January 2022, $120 billion of goods will be returned.

For context, the amount of returned and tossed inventory added up, in 2020, to 5.8 billion pounds of landfill waste — up from 5 billion pounds in 2019, according to Optoro's 2020 year-end impact report.

Giftbox ready to be shipped with Free Returns tag
"Free returns" come with a high environmental cost, say experts. (Getty Images)

It's one of e-commerce's ugliest secrets, say experts, news of which usually stuns online shoppers — especially fans of fast fashion.

"People are generally horrified when they find out about returns being tossed," Lauren Bravo, author of How to Break Up With Fast Fashion: A Guilt-Free Guide to Changing the Way You Shop — For Good, tells Yahoo Life. "I think it feels like a kind of violation, in a way, of an unspoken agreement that we enter into with a brand when we buy something. It's the idea that we should be able to change our mind and send an item back, safe in the knowledge that someone else can buy it instead."

Sustainable fashion activist and influencer Maya Penn, 21, agrees.

"As someone who has been working in the sustainable fashion space for nearly 14 years now, I've seen there is still a noticeable disconnect in how consumers think about the end stage of a piece of clothing's life cycle," she tells Yahoo Life. "Yes, there may be no monetary cost on the customer's end, but very often Mother Earth foots the bill in the cost of 'free returns' via some fast-fashion brands burning perfectly good returned inventory, or dumping it in landfills where the dyes and other chemicals used to process the textiles, as well as synthetic fibers, pollute the soil, water and air."

But even when returns don't get tossed, Penn explains, "there's also the increasingly significant amount of CO2 emissions from shipping and transportation involved in returning an item. For an idea of just how large the footprint of post-holiday item returns is: In January of 2021, UPS's 'National Returns Day' — yes, that's a thing — had to be upgraded to 'National Returns Week,' as they predicted a 23 percent increase in package returns in comparison to 2020's holiday season."

That, Bravo notes, leaves shoppers to grapple with an uncomfortable truth: "Every online purchase has an environmental cost, whether we keep it or not."

Yahoo Life reached out for more details about the return process to fast-fashion retailers H&M, SHEIN, Mango and ASOS — as well as to Zappos and to Amazon, both of which have reportedly destroyed items rather than reselling them — but did not receive responses.

That's no surprise to Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School and a former CEO of Sears Canada. "It's clouded in secrecy, and you're not going to get any retailer that I know of who will talk about the size of their returns and the process they use to manage and dispose of them," he tells Yahoo Life. "And the reason it's so shrouded is because it's a bad news statistic and a bad news story. It's expensive, it's very, very challenging and there's no regimentation to help retailers deal with returns." The fact that so much product winds up getting dumped "is a rolling, emerging crisis."

Fast fashion, he explains, promotes enormous amounts of non-biodegradable material goods. "They're non-investment-grade products — buy now, wear now, dispose of now — cheap, of-the-moment, with no lasting value … so that indirectly promotes the process of buy it, wear it, pitch it," he says.

As for Amazon, Cohen adds, "it's dealing with volumes that are staggering … and the facility that picks, packs and ships your order is not the facility that you send your return back to — and the return process is mostly manual as opposed to mostly system-driven. … When you send something back, a human has to determine that what is being returned is what was purchased, and a human has to make some determination of what to do with it. And that's why it's so damn expensive to process returns."

Bulldozers move trash atop of a 300-feet tall hill at the Simi Valley Landfill and Recycling Center in Simi Valley, California May 8, 2008. Trash, rubbish, whatever you call it, the 1.6 billion tonnes of stuff the world throws away each year -- 250 kilograms per person -- is being touted as a big potential source of clean energy. As concerns about climate change escalate and prices on fossil fuels like oil and natural gas soar to record levels, more companies are investing in ways to use methane gas to power homes and vehicles.  To match feature ENVIRONMENT-WASTE/     REUTERS / Hector Mata (UNITED STATES)
It's possible that your "free return" could wind up tossed into a landfill. (Hector Mata/Reuters)

Many might wonder why companies don't just donate their returned, not-quite-perfect, products. Says Penn, "For starters, sorting through tons of returned items and doing quality control still requires labor for many fast-fashion brands, creating a whole new set of costs and logistics that will no doubt involve cutting corners as a sea of returns matches their low-quality overproduction." There has also been controversy, she says, "around higher-end brands allegedly refusing to donate returns with the idea that people who shop at thrift stores don't fit into their 'luxury' image. Honestly, there is a whole myriad of 'why's' depending on the brand. But no matter which way you slice it, many major corporations are avoiding taking responsibility for their own creations."

Penn's generation, at least, seems determined to move toward more sustainable fashion — even though dumping fast fashion altogether could prove challenging. A 2019 Forbes report, "The State of Consumer Spending: Gen Z Shoppers Demand Sustainable Retail," notes that 62 percent of Gen Z prefer to buy from sustainable brands (on par with findings on millennials).

And, observed McKinsey partner Bo Finneman on the "Meet Generation Z: Shaping the Future of Shopping" episode of the McKinsey Podcast, "There is an authentic spirit to Gen Z individuals where I think they just really want to know and understand who they're buying from. I would describe them as tremendously discerning and disciplined."

How to be part of the solution

If you're staring down a pile of returns right now, consider other options: regifting, donating (though that comes with its own landfill risks) or giving away/trading, especially through "buy nothing" groups on Facebook, and platforms like NextDoor and Freecycle.

As Penn says, "Sometimes people can give up on their clothing too quickly. There's simple sewing, no-sew DIY, experimenting with styling, regifting, reselling, donating, etc. If you return an item, try combining trips and returning in-store." That way you at least cut down on a return's carbon footprint.

Resale options are also constantly evolving: Take Karma Trade, for example, the brainchild of Mona Fang, 21, who in high school understood how vital it is to keep fashion circular — meaning it's designed, sourced, produced and provided with the intention to be used responsibly and for as long as possible. Her company uses brick-and-mortar "trading posts" for people to trade or resell their used clothing items. Keeping it local eliminates the need for wasteful shipping materials. Though the locations are only in Illinois at the moment, there are plans to expand — with the goal to change the entire resale playing field. 

"Fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world after the oil industry … and collectively, as a species, it's something to which we're dedicating too many resources," Fang tells Yahoo Life. "The concept of a circular economy is something I think is very important these days."

Luckily, some big brands are starting to get on board with that, too, making it much easier for consumers to be part of solutions: Just this week, Timberland launched its "Timberloop" product take-back program, which vows that "returned products will either be disassembled and some parts will be reused, recycled/upcycled into new products, or refurbished for sale on a dedicated website launching later this spring." Lululemon, meanwhile, has a "Like New" program "for the planet," which allows customers in California and Texas to bring back gently used items for a trade — or to be "revived" for others to buy at a discount. 

And then there are scientists looking at ways to actually recycle textiles — such as Ambercycle, a "materials science company converting end-of-life textile 'waste' into new yarns for apparel brands and manufacturers, with a mission to "end waste in fashion by keeping textiles out of landfills and the environment and closing the loop in apparel production and consumption." H&M, in a hopeful sign, is a partner.

Because above all, says Penn, "This is a systemic issue. Large fashion brands must become more transparent and responsible for not only how they handle returned items, but also what kind of consumer behavior they foster."

There are so many "closed-loop options" better than landfill dumping, she adds: "Circularity, recycling and reusing post-consumer materials, maybe even adopting technologies such as IOT (Internet of Things) to better track the lifecycle of a product, all can make an impact. The possibilities are endless if this industry is willing to embrace them, and we are willing to demand better."

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