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Fashion at the Point of No Return

By Eliza Evans

It is undeniable that fashion has a devastating effect on the environment. A single cotton T-shirt can require up to 2700 litres of water in its production, whilst formerly ‘eco-friendly’ fleeces made from recycled bottles have now been demonised for their role in water pollution as a result of microplastics. These are, undoubtedly, serious issues that we must be aware of when making conscious decisions and exercising our purchasing power. However, a much-overlooked impact of the fashion industry is in the returns process.

Undeniably, as students there is an irresistible convenience in ordering several near-identical items or sizes of clothing online, to retain only the very best and then simply return those that don’t make the cut. It’s an easy process which means that, even if unwanted by the initial buyer, nothing goes to waste and is sent back into circulation. Right?

Yet, as recent reports have revealed, an astronomical amount of our returned clothing is never resold and is, instead, sent to landfill. Following the 2018 Burberry scandal, in which the luxury fashion retailer incinerated unsold accessories, clothing and perfume to prevent them from filtering down into the realm of high-street affordability, we are now facing a further crisis in the fashion industry: each year 5 billion pounds of waste is generated through clothing returns.

Perhaps, worse still than the purchasing of synthetic clothing that leeches plastics into our water systems through their wearing and washing, is the fact that brand new clothing, which through manufacture already has a large carbon footprint, is being sent straight to landfill unworn and unused, further adding to the copious and over-saturated piles of textile waste.

Despite new pledges for transparency in working conditions, ethics and sustainable production methods from leading fashion retailers, there is little to no evidence of an efficient reverse logistics system in place to account for returned items. Even if conscious consumers decide to buy from brands with a certified ethical status, there is no guarantee that the goods these consumers purchase will be reintegrated into the retailers’ system and resold.

Whilst apps such as ‘Good On You’ help consumers to make ethical and sustainable choices with our purchases, it is difficult for the customer to both see and control the impact that the return of an item may have on the environment. Not only should we be conscious of the ethical and environmental history of our clothing purchases, but their future too – whether we choose to keep them or not. ‘Buy less, buy better’ has never been a truer statement.

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