What happens to the clothes we send back?

Part 1: The customer perspective

I’ve seen it happen so many times and I’m not going to pretend like I haven’t done it myself: Sending back clothes because they either don’t fit, don’t suit you like you thought they would or because the clothes arrived damaged.

In this day and age it is so easy to send back clothes. It is even free for most online clothing shops and especially now during the Corona pandemic we order more than ever before [1]. But do we actually know what happens to all these clothes we send back?

My surroundings
I was curious to find out what people in my surroundings thought happened to the clothes that we sent back. So, I did a little informal research by asking friends and family about this. Some hadn’t really given it much thought, while others knew quite a bit and were even able to inform me on some rumours I had never heard before. For example, ‘the sniffer’. Never heard of that but it sounded intriguing. But most people I spoke with were thinking pretty wishfully, or partly wishful. Where do all these different perspectives come from and how come some know more than others?

The ‘I don’t know-ers’
This is the group of people who have never really given the returning of clothes much thought or don’t order clothes online at all.

“I always buy my clothes in a store. Never ordered clothes. I have no idea what happens when people return their clothes.” – Maria

One of the reasons these people don’t really think about it is probably because the clothing industry markets the returning of clothes as something completely normal. Everywhere on TV you can see commercials which basically shout at you that you can ‘Order and Return for Free!’ So there is really no need to question it for some.

The wishful thinkers
These people have given it some thought for sure and mainly want to see the good side of things. We desperately need these people too, without them everything would be extremely pessimistic.

“I think they check to see if the clothes can be resold and then repackage them to be sold again and I hope that they send the clothes that can’t be sold anymore to third world countries or donate them otherwise.” – Amy

“I think they check the clothes to see whether they are broken or for example stained and then it seems to me that they put it back / put it in the warehouse when it is still good.” – Rob

By this logic, sending back clothes would be fine and only the clothes with bad stains on them or the ones that are damaged would be thrown out. This happens in clothing stores anyway, right? But what happens when we send clothes to third world countries? Does this truly happen to the clothes that can’t be resold?


The conspiracy theorists
The last group of people is the largest group in my surroundings and the slightly more pessimistic one. They don’t all have conspiracy theories, of course. They just look at the darker and maybe more realistic side of it. Some, however, do have some theories I had never heard before.

“Well I know there is also a job as “sniffer”. Literally someone who sniffs the clothes to determine how much they have been worn.” – Julian

What is this sniffer job? Does it exist and is it really something companies use to determine the quality of some of the clothes that are sent back? Seems like it would be a bit unreliable to only base the quality of clothing on the smell. Maybe it is used only as a last step?

Others that didn’t have theories like this mainly believed that the returned clothes would be either burned or thrown in with the garbage.

“That is a good question. Of course, I hope that all those clothes will eventually be sold, but I think that a large amount of those clothes cannot be sold again. So there will be warehouses full of clothes, which will end up with the garbage.” – Daphne

“I think they Accept the clothes and mark it as returned, then sell it as the last option of an item. And I think it depends on whether it has actually been opened and worn and whether any damage is visible, etc. But I am actually afraid that even then it will still be burned or thrown away.” – Zara

“I once read that it is selected and inspected by people to see if it is still good, but that this is such a hassle that many companies immediately throw it away without looking.” – Julia

So according to these people, damaged clothes will be either thrown away or burned and maybe all of the clothes will be thrown away. They might not even check to see if the clothes can be reused again. That sounds very wasteful and it would seem like a company would be losing a lot of money on this if it actually happens this way.

After getting all these replies from people close to me, I had even more questions about the clothing industry than when I started writing the first part of this blog. The main question: ‘Is there really something called a sniffer which is used to process used clothes?’ I had many others of course, most of which I have already mentioned.

It basically all boils down to this:

  1. How can companies afford to have clothes send back for free if there is a real possibility that most of these items will not be sold again?
  2. What is the environmental and economic impact of sending back clothes for free?

I need to do a lot more research before I am able to answer all these questions. For now, my point of view is very similar to the ‘conspiracy theorists’ ones. It is probably very wasteful to return clothes and I don’t think companies make a profit on this sending-back-for-free tactic at all. Buying clothes in shops should be the norm, not buying them online and returning them right away. No matter how easy it is.

But am I right? Read it in ‘Part 2: The company perspective’ and ‘Part 3: The sustainability perspective’ of this blog. Coming soon!

I’ll be here in my strange little town, lots of love



Disclaimer: Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

[1] https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/23/what-people-are-buying-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak-and-why.html

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