How can we reduce the environmental cost of clothing returns?

Small changes to online shopping habits can cut carbon emissions and help stop returns from piling up in landfills.

Louis Sokolow
Louis Sokolow

Former Policy Associate, Frontier Group

Shopping for clothes online can feel like the height of convenience. Sit back in your living room, tap a few keys on your computer and new clothing will be on its way to your doorstep – often arriving in just a couple of days. 

It’s less convenient, though, when the item you bought doesn’t fit or look the way you thought it would. That happens a lot: people return at least 30% and up to one-half of clothing they purchase online

All those returns have a significant environmental impact. About one in four returned goods is landfilled and the rate for returned clothing might be higher, since even items in perfect condition may be out of season or cheaper to dispose of than to restock. 

The result is that up to 9.5 billion pounds of returned items are landfilled every year. Besides the waste of materials, e-commerce returns account for 24 million metric tons of CO2 emissions worldwide every year. That’s the same amount of CO2 as is emitted by 5.1 million cars in a year. 

There’s a lot retailers can do to reduce these impacts. They can help consumers make informed choices about the products they buy by providing complete information about each item and sharing reviews from previous customers. Retailers can also offer a small discount on items that aren’t returned, encouraging customers to buy what they know they’ll keep. Finally, they can make every effort to resell, donate or recycle returned clothes and minimize what is landfilled.  

But you and I can also make a big difference by tweaking our buying behavior. 

How can we reduce returns from online shopping?

Online shopping is more hit-or-miss than in-store shopping. If you grab the wrong size from a rack in a store, it’s easy to get the right size and try it on. So it’s no surprise that online shoppers are more than three times more likely to return items than in-store shoppers. 

Some consumers try to avoid the inconvenience of shipping items back and forth by ordering multiple sizes of the same item and returning the ones that don’t fit. This practice makes the volume of clothes returned from online shopping even greater than it would otherwise be. 

There are several common-sense steps that we can take to reduce the number of online clothing purchases we return and their associated environmental impact: 

Optimize opportunities to shop in-store: You’re less likely to return something if you buy it in-store. About 30% of all goods bought online are returned compared to less than 9% of in-store purchases. If you’re concerned about the pollution from your travel, you can combine several store visits into one excursion.

Buy what you know you’ll wear: Purchasing multiple sizes to keep only one might be convenient, but it leads to unnecessary waste. Make sure you’re committed to wearing everything in your online shopping cart before you hit “buy.” Double-checking the sizing chart and narrowing down color options will reduce the chance of needing to return something and save you time in the long run.

Drop off the return: Even when you need to make a return, you can minimize the environmental impact by cutting out what’s likely the most emissions-intensive step. Local delivery – also known as “last-mile” shipping – accounts for up to half of all delivery vehicle CO2 emissions. The beginning of a shipped return could have a similarly large climate footprint if a truck has to pick up your item and several others in your neighborhood. Walking or biking to drop off a package at a post office or designated pickup location for UPS or FedEx can make a big difference. If you must drive, consider doing the drop-off with other nearby errands. 

Learn before you buy: Check the websites of brands that appeal to you to find out how they handle returns, then support the brands that share your values. Search for terms like “repair and reuse” or “sustainability” on the site and make sure the information you find is specific. For example, Patagonia strives to “repair and reuse” its clothing as much as possible even providing store credit in exchange for some used apparel and will “recycle or repurpose” what’s no longer usable. While some retailers trash returned practically new clothes, Patagonia will maximize the life of returned apparel and keep it from being landfilled or incinerated

“Free” clothing returns aren’t really free because they come at the expense of the environment. By taking the time to consider online purchases carefully and following a few common-sense steps, each of us can do our part to reduce the flow of returned clothing to retailers … and ultimately to landfills.


Louis Sokolow

Former Policy Associate, Frontier Group

Celeste Meiffren-Swango

State Director, Environment Oregon

As director of Environment Oregon, Celeste develops and runs campaigns to win real results for Oregon's environment. She has worked on issues ranging from preventing plastic pollution, stopping global warming, defending clean water, and protecting our beautiful places. Celeste's organizing has helped to reduce kids' exposure to lead in drinking water at childcare facilities in Oregon, encourage transportation electrification, ban single-use plastic grocery bags, defend our bedrock environmental laws and more. She is also the author of the children's book, Myrtle the Turtle, empowering kids to prevent plastic pollution. Celeste lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and two daughters, where they frequently enjoy the bounty of Oregon's natural beauty.