How can the fashion industry reduce returns mileage?
5 min

How can the fashion industry reduce returns mileage?

When we think about fashion’s impact on the environment, choice of materials and excess inventory immediately spring to mind. Delivery emissions are also a common concern. 

But there’s another environmental factor which doesn’t get discussed as much: returns. 

New research by Greenpeace has revealed that fashion returns can travel up to 10,000 kilometres per single order – producing 2.78kg of CO2 per package on average. 

With regions including France, Germany, Spain and the UK introducing rules that prevent deadstock from being dumped or penalising companies for textile waste, fashion brands and retailers are under pressure to introduce more eco-friendly practices. 

So, let’s take a closer look at how clothing companies can reduce returns mileage, without affecting customer experience.

How are clothing returns impacting the environment? 

Consumers often think they’re ‘doing their bit’ for sustainable fashion by returning items they don’t want, as it allows those garments to be sold to other customers. But Greenpeace’s research has revealed the true environmental impact of sending things back. 

The organisation’s investigative unit in Italy joined forces with the RAI 3 television show ‘Report’ to track 24 items of fast-fashion clothing over two months. The garments were purchased from several well-known online retailers and fitted with a GPS tracker to see where they ended up. 

The results were eye-opening: 

  • Collectively, the 24 garments travelled 100,000 kilometres through 13 European countries (plus China) over 58 days. 
  • The average distance for delivery and return was 4,502 kilometres, with product journeys ranging from 1,147 km to 10,297 km. 
  • Trucks were the most popular transportation method, followed by aeroplanes, vans and ships. 
  • The average environmental impact of each return was 2.78kg of CO2, with packaging accounting for 16% of this figure. 
  • 58% of garments were not resold after being returned.

Returns are a vital part of enabling consumers to discover new products and develop a trusted relationship with their favourite brands. A quick, free returns service is essential to many shoppers; 67% of UK consumers say they won’t buy from a retailer that doesn’t offer free returns.

But the lengths that returns travel to get back into circulation is not sustainable – and it’s not particularly cost-effective, either. 

How can the fashion industry make returns more eco-friendly? 

With pressure to reduce carbon footprints unlikely to ease, fashion brands and retailers must develop strategies to reduce the environmental impact of clothing returns. For example: 

  1. Returning unwanted garments to the smartest stock point: Many clothing companies process returns through the original sales channel, meaning orders are sent back to their initial fulfilment point – even if there’s a closer return location.

    One of the most effective ways to minimise the miles returned items travel is to look holistically at stock capacity. Could the items be returned to a nearby store, for example? Are there multiple returns that can be bundled together and shipped to the same warehouse? An omnichannel approach to inventory management enables unwanted garments to be returned to the smartest stock point.
  2. Increase the chance of resale: The purpose of returns is to prevent overproduction and fashion waste, but Greenpeace’s study revealed a significant percentage of items never get resold. 

    Often, returned stock goes unsold because it ends up in the wrong location – a channel where demand is low. Managing orders holistically will enable you to identify where items are selling best, funnelling returns to the place where there’s the highest chance of resale. 
  3. Find opportunities to reduce the impact of fulfilment: It’s not just the return journey that impacts your brand’s distribution footprint. Identifying ways to reduce shipping miles at the point of sale will also help to reduce your CO2 consumption. 

    For example, adding or expanding fulfilment services like Click and Collect, drop-ship and Ship from Store can enable quick dispatch while travelling fewer miles. If you’ve invested in omnichannel order management software, you can set your orchestration rules to consider environmental impact in fulfilment choices. 

    You can also use inventory knowledge to help your customers select greener delivery options. For example, they can wait longer for their order to avoid split shipments or see when an item is in stock in their local store. 
  4. Get better at predicting demand: Understanding customer behaviour in greater detail can also help you manage production and make intelligent decisions on stock location. 

    Working from a unified inventory database will enable you to capture information on volume, colour and sizing, to understand buying patterns and improve sales forecasting. 

Learn more: How Order Management Systems drive efficiency & sustainability

Reduce your returns footprint with OneStock OMS

As the Greenpeace report concludes, the fashion industry has created an environment where garments can be returned “at no cost to the buyer and at negligible cost to the manufacturing company, but with enormous damage to the environment.” 

If your company is serious about cutting its carbon footprint but you don’t want to compromise on customer experience, investing in omnichannel order management software is a sensible place to start. 

Improving the visibility of your stock and making centralised decisions about where and how to fulfil and reintegrate orders will make it easier to prioritise sustainability without affecting your service levels. And as an added benefit, fewer miles travelled also means a lower cost to fulfil customer orders.

Request a OneStock demo to see how our retail OMS system can improve your returns management.

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