Report: Returned Online Purchases Frequently Sent to Landfills

A waste of a perfectly good shirt, but on a massive scale

Would you be as quick to return something online if you knew it would end up here?
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Creative Commons

The modern world abounds with people in need, whether it be of food, shelter or clothing. The modern world also abounds with a penchant for disposability: something that might change the life of a person living in poverty could be utterly worthless to someone living in luxury. Every once in a while, a story comes around that illustrates this perfectly, with a side of righteous anger.

At the CBC, environmental journalist Adria Vasil uncovered numerous disturbing facts about the online retail ecosystem — chief among them the fact that numerous retailers process online returns by, well, consigning the returned products to the nearest landfill

Among the retailers cited by Vasil are Burberry, who destroyed  £90 million worth of clothing over a 5-year period before agreeing to stop the practice last year, and H&M. The CBC’s report also notes that Amazon has been accused of this practice in France and Germany, and that France in particular has taken steps to make this sort of behavior illegal. 

Vasil also observed that online clothing returns are particularly prone to this kind of response; in other words, that many companies find it easier to just destroy a returned item that was the wrong size as opposed to reshelving it. 

All of this prompts the question: why don’t the companies just donate clothing slated for the landfill or the incinerator? “They’re trying to maintain kind of the specialness of their product,” Vasil stated. “But it’s really symptomatic of a larger issue with kind of our consumer culture right now.”

Vasil does cite Patagonia as one company taking steps to avoid this kind of behavior. 

There are echoes here of one retailer’s decision a decade ago to intentionally destroy any excess clothing that was being disposed of, lest the poor and homeless be able to make use of it. There was an entirely justified and understandable backlash to this at the time, and the company thankfully and wisely changed their position on the issue. Will Vasil’s report help usher in a similar change in corporate behavior? For the sake of the environment and the well-being of many people, let’s hope so. 

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