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23 million returned fashion items sent to landfill in 2022, says landmark BFC study

Lauretta Roberts
14 March 2023

Some 23 million items of returned fashion were sent to landfill or incinerated in the UK last year, according to a new landmark study from the British Fashion Council’s (BFC) Institute of Positive Fashion (IPF), DHL and Roland Berger which has been released today. 

This activity generated 750,000 tonnes of CO₂ emissions in 2022 and represents 75% of the approx 3% of all returns that can not be resold. 

Entitled 'Solving Fashion's Product Returns', the report not only quantifies the environmental impact of returns in the fashion industry but outlines a suggested framework of recommendations to address the issue.

As part of the report, a consumer survey was conducted by the IPF, Roland Berger, and Dynata to better understand UK consumers’ online fashion purchasing and returns behaviour. 

This revealed that incorrect sizing or fit (93%) and product quality not meeting expectations (81%) were the top returns reasons for returning an item, while 56% of consumers said a charge for returns would be the most likely method to reduce them.

The report suggests that free returns will soon become a thing of the past and that investment in sizing calculators will become an industry norm with digital avatars, for virtual try-ons, being an integral part of the future.

Roland Berger has calculated that large retailers with approximately 70% of sales coming from their website, could reduce cost of returns handling by 20-40% with the introduction of sizing calculators and avatars. 

Retailers also need to consider reverse logistics to reduce costs and meet CO₂ emission targets. This involves investing into technologies and processes such as digital product passports and automated warehousing, so that businesses can make returns operations more efficient, cost-effective, and less carbon intensive. 

Caroline Rush, BFC CEO said: “This project recognises the importance of investing in innovation to secure robust and profitable businesses, while safeguarding the planet and society. The responsibility now lies with retailers and fashion businesses to reach the target state by implementing the necessary change across their entire businesses from production to  reverse logistics.”

Siobhan Gehin, Roland Berger Senior Partner, added: “Tackling the returns issue is being prompted by lower consumption, impending legislation and higher operating costs – the latter probably being the strongest motivator for companies to move from a linear to a circular business model. While the future for fashion is circular, achieving it is not an easy task. The prize, though, is that circular fashion businesses are estimated to grow 18% per annum from where they were at the beginning of this decade to 2030, whereas the rest of the market is looking at just 3% annual growth.”

The full report can be downloaded here.

Main image: Alamy

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