Ever wonder about that jacket you convinced yourself you didn’t need or that t-shirt you returned that just wasn’t the right size?
Well, sadly that jacket and t-shirt are probably in one of five places: at liquidation stores, “recycled”, actually recycled, donated, or in a landfill. Let’s dive in and see where unsold and returned inventory goes:
Sometimes, unsold or returned inventory will make its way to liquidation stores such as TJ Max or HomeGoods. Here, it has a second chance to be sold, often for a marked-down price.
Many brands don’t want their products available at discounted prices. Instead, they will “recycle” their inventory into energy by burning it.
This is common with higher-end luxury companies who want their products to stay exclusive and worry that sales will harm that image. Burberry admitted to destroying $36.8 million of its own merchandise that was unsold in 2018, and other companies such as Louis Vuitton have also been accused of the practice. However, image isn’t the only benefit of this practice. Goods imported into the US, are subject to tariffs and taxes. A law known as “Duty Drawback” allows companies to collect back 99% of this cost if a good is imported into the US then unsold and destroyed. While seeing a perfectly good Chanel bag put in the furnace may seem like an absolute crime to the average consumer, from a business perspective, it’s a smart move. Unfortunately, it’s incredibly wasteful too and unethical in my opinion. Not only are the resources put into the products unrecoverable, the energy harnessed is nowhere near the energy put into making the product.
A company may send their unsold goods to a textile factory to actually be recycled, however, this also brings its own set of challengess. Perfectly good products are still being demolished, wasting the energy put into making the product in the first place. Additionally, many of these textile factories are in impoverished areas with unsafe working conditions alluding to even bigger social issues aside from wastefulness. Many of the workers may be underpaid and their health put at risk. On a microscopic level, when textiles are recycled their fibers become shorter and thus of lower quality more prone to breakage.
If the item were to stay in its original condition, it may be donated. While this avoids the initial waste of the products, it creates unintended consequences. Thrift stores normally only keep a quarter of their donations, the rest are packed and sold to other countries for pennies. This creates booming secondhand industries, but it also creates competition for domestic industries. For example, 35% of secondhand clothes in 2016 were sold to Africa, with 13% going to East African countries. To protect domestic clothing industries, states in the East African Community (EAC) started to place high tariffs on secondhand clothing imports. Since then, domestic clothing industries have seen an increase, with Rwanda’s textile industry increasing from $7m to $9m. However, these states have also seen repercussions from the United States in the form of bared access to the US market. Countries must choose between protecting domestic industries or protecting US relations.
The only other place for unsold and unused products to end up is in landfills. Each year, an estimated 21 billion pounds of textiles end up in the landfill. However, clothes are not the only culprit here. Amazon has been known to trash trailer loads of returns, from toys to appliances to, of course, clothes every single day. Once in the landfill, these products stay for years, rotting away and producing harmful methane gas. Their resources cannot be recovered. In a life cycle analysis, this would be called the “grave”.
The root of this wastefulness comes from our tendencies towards consumerism. As items become cheaper and free shipping and returns become normal, people are buying more…and returning more. With retail calendars shifting away from the normal 2 or 4 seasons and towards monthly trends the result is more products being put out on the market faster than ever before and a need for the old to go somewhere.
Of course, it’s unrealistic to shift everything towards donations and recycling. For example, it would be incredibly unhygienic to resell returned cosmetics such as lipsticks, mascaras or eyeliners, and some stores have come under fire for trying. These items have to be trashed unless a way to safely recycle or reuse them is found. And there are costs associated with recycling as the product must often be separated by hand. Therefore, it’s often cheaper to throw the product away than to use what’s recovered in the recycling process.
So what’s the solution?
The first thing we can do is avoid making returns. This means avoiding impulse buying and only buying what we know will be used. It may look like buying more timeless pieces that will hold up than hopping on the most recent trends. For the holiday season, this may look like giving gift cards rather than gifts themselves. Secondly, we can shop secondhand. This extends the life cycle of a product by giving it a second life. When we buy less, manufacturers will start to make less thus decreasing the amount of waste produced. Lastly, we must change the way we make things and evolve from a linear economy to a circular economy.
Were you surprised at where your returns end up? Does it make you rethink returning your purchases? Let us know any other questions you have in the comments below.