As the grim fate of returned online purchases are exposed to the public, the world of fashion is looking particularly problematic. According to the CEO Agenda — an outline of 8 sustainability priorities for leaders of the fashion industry — 73% of the world’s clothing eventually end up in landfills. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017) describes this problem vividly: every second of every day 1 truck full of textiles is dumped. Shocking. Returns that we, online shoppers, make are very much part of the problem.

Without pointing any fingers or assigning any blame, the problem is multi-faceted and complex for several reasons, the main one being that shoppers will not buy online purchases if they aren’t provided a return process that doesn’t cost them anything. And who can blame us? Why should we pay for the return of a shirt that doesn’t fit, or a shoe that doesn’t suit our foot, or an item that we simply don’t want?

As our confidence in the online store grows because of a judgment free, no-questions-asked returns policy, so does our appetite for the process. We are encouraged to buy as much as possible; to use our home as our fitting room, and to return what we don’t want to keep. We buy items in multiple sizes, colors and fits. The problem is that just because we buy more does not mean that we keep more. What the generous returns policy has created is a revolving door of packages. For instance, with 1 billion online purchases returned every year in the EU (not just fashion), this could mean more than 2.5 million returned items are collected by trucks, postal services and couriers, from return spots, businesses and residential addresses every day. Now that’s one helluva carbon footprint.

So what’s the solution? To make the returns policy less generous? To penalize shoppers for returns? Clearly not. This would alienate us shoppers and torpedo sales. As an industry, online retailers can think about educating the public: businesses can do their part to talk about the problem, expose it, understand how we, as shoppers can do more to know our correct size, reduce impulse buys and be accountable for our own personal carbon footprint. But this top-down “education” reeks a bit of corporate one-sidedness — you (shoppers) must help us to help ourselves. And even if shoppers do become accountable for the right reasons, because we want to make a difference in the world, since who needs so much “stuff” after all? I would propose that this solution does a disservice by framing returns as a threat, instead of lauding them as an opportunity.

A holistic, end-to-end solution should allow for shoppers to make their decisions as normal, but at the point of return, to provide a green alternative for the manner in which the online purchases are handled. This would mean to provide a local solution for the handling and resale of the item. No more endless revolving doors for packages. No more needless returns mileage and handling.

This solution is not as far away as we think if we use resources already in place — such as local retailers, recyclers and refurbishers — to give a new life to the returns, instead of having them walk the proverbial plank. What does it matter if you return 1 item or 11 items or 21 items, if each one of these items can be bought locally by another shopper?

Want to hear OtailO’s plan for online product returns? Let’s talk