• Helen Matthews

Coronavirus isn’t the only pandemic we’re facing right now…

With high-street fashion retailers open for business, but doors to many changing rooms remaining firmly shut, online fashion is gaining popularity at an impressive rate. In fact, fashion e-commerce is expected to soar this year, tripling to account for 23% of all European sales in 2020.

Arguably, this could be linked to the increasingly popular ‘work from home’ dress code, or how many of us have had to purchase clothes with a slightly more forgiving waistband, owing to all that lockdown baking… Alternatively, with the nights drawing in and the pubs shutting earlier, scrolling through websites and pressing ‘add to basket’ is often the most exciting thing to happen all day.

Besides, physical shopping trips are now more something to endure than enjoy; traipsing round shop after shop whilst getting hot and flustered in a mask is no one’s idea of fun. Furthermore, all that hand sanitiser means by the end of the day your hands will have been subjected to more alcohol than someone on a Zoom drinks night. Finally, you have no guarantee that what you’re buying will actually fit, as it’s no longer possible in many stores to try items on.

Therefore, online shopping seems like the perfect solution! You can browse from the comfort of your home and get things delivered straight to your door at lightning speed, and what’s more, many retailers are now increasing their return time. This means if an item doesn’t quite work for you, then you’re free to just pop it back in the post. Companies such as H & M allow you 28 days to return an item and ASOS is now promising a very generous returns policy of up to 45 days. This is great for the fact you can easily have a whole new wardrobe delivered to your door, with the promise of returning anything hassle-free, but it’s not quite such good news for our environment...

Returns company Optoro estimates that up to 2.3 billion kilograms of waste is generated just by returns every single year, emitting 15 million tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. Online clothes are the single biggest contributing factor to this, as consumers are 15-20% more likely to return an online order than a purchase from a physical store. This colossal wastage stems partly from transport emissions- those ill-fitting jeans don’t just go back to the shop they came from. More often than not, they’ll get sent across the world in a global logistics system to be processed in a country far away- and if it’s fast fashion, probably in a country where the workers are underpaid and overworked.

Furthermore, despite the long and arduous journey these clothes take in order to be processed, well, the processing just isn’t that good. For some lucky garments, they’ll be returned to the manufacturer for resale, but up to half of the returned garments will be sold at a minimal cost to liquidators who will destroy stock and send it to landfill. What’s worse, this 50% of clothes aren’t noticeably damaged in a way that would make them unsellable. Insignificant factors such as how the packaging was opened affect how efficiently they can be processed, and this means those perfectly wearable items are wrongly discarded when they are easily worthy of a long and fulfilling life in someone’s wardrobe.

So, what can we as consumers do to ensure our fashion habits aren’t having a catastrophic impact on the planet? First things first, consider whether you need the item in question. Do you have something similar, and will this be an item you will wear often? Then, is the item an in-trend, current fashion item at knockoff price, or is it an investment piece? This isn’t a sure-fire way to determine the chances of a second life post-return, but it gives some indication. Thirdly, where are you getting the item from? If the retailer in question has shady ethics when it comes to their manufacturing process, then they probably aren’t squeaky clean when it comes to a sustainable returns policy.

Finally, consider whether you could find a similar or better item in pre-loved condition. Apps like Depop and Vinted are gaining popularity, especially with Gen Z and young millennials for affordable outfits at a fraction of the cost of new. This also has the bonus of creating unique outfits with bold statements, perfect for creating an individual style.

This is becoming increasingly favourable, with Depop reporting over a 90% increase in traffic since April 1st. This is incredibly exciting as it provides a glimpse of positivity for the future of sustainable fashion; a future where we can look our best for ourselves whilst simultaneously doing our best for the environment.

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