Unhappy Returns
The Atlantic|November 2021
What really happens to all the pants that don’t fit
By Amanda Mull. Photograph by Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin
Consider the dressing room. The concept began its mass-market life as an amenity in Gilded Age department stores, a commercial sanctuary of pedestals and upholstered furniture on which to swoon over the splendid future of your wardrobe. Now, unless you’re rich enough to sip gratis champagne in the apartment-size private shopping suites of European luxury brands, the dressing room you know bears little resemblance to its luxe progenitors.

Over the course of several decades and just as many rounds of corporate budget cuts, dressing rooms have filled with wonky mirrors and fluorescent lights and piles of discarded clothes. At one point in your life or another, as you wriggled your clammy body into a new bathing suit—underpants still on, for sanitary purposes—you have probably experienced the split-second terror of some space cadet trying to yank the door open (if you’re lucky enough to have a door). Maybe you have heard your own panicked voice croak, “Someone’s in here!”

Through the 1990s and into the 2000s, even as stores became dingy and understaffed, the dressing room try on remained a crucial step in the act of clothing yourself. But as online shopping became ever more frictionless— and the conditions in the fitting room ever less desirable— Americans realized that it might just be better to order a few sizes on a retailer’s website and sort it out at home. Estimates vary, but in the past year, one-third to one-half of all clothing bought in the United States came from the internet. More shopping of almost every type shifts online each year, a trend only accelerated by months of pandemic restrictions and shortages.

This explosive growth in online sales has also magnified one of e-commerce’s biggest problems: returns. When people can’t touch things before buying them—and when they don’t have to stand in front of another human and insist that a pair of high heels they clearly wore actually never left their living room—they send a lot of stuff back. The average brick-and-mortar store has a return rate in the single digits, but online, the average rate is somewhere between 15 and 30 percent. For clothing, it can be even higher, thanks in part to bracketing—the common practice of ordering a size up and a size down from the size you think you need. Some retailers actively encourage the practice in order to help customers feel confident in their purchases. At the very least, many retailers now offer free shipping, free returns, and frequent discount codes, all of which promote more buying— and more returns. Last year, U.S. retailers took back more than $100 billion in merchandise sold online.

All of that unwanted stuff piles up. Some of it will be diverted into a global shadow industry of bulk resellers, some of it will be stripped for valuable parts, and some of it will go directly into an incinerator or a landfill.

It sounds harmful and inefficient— all the box trucks and tractor-trailers and cargo planes and container ships set in motion to deal with changed minds or misleading product descriptions, to say nothing of the physical waste of the products themselves, and the waste created to manufacture things that will never be used. That’s because it is harmful and inefficient. Retailers of all kinds have always had to deal with returns, but processing this much miscellaneous, may be used, maybe-useless stuff is an invention of the past 15 years of American consumerism. In a race to acquire new customers and retain them at any cost, retailers have taught shoppers to behave in ways that are bad for virtually all involved.

THE RETAIL LOGISTICS industry is split into two halves. Forward logistics—the process of moving goods from manufacturers to their end users—is the half most consumers regularly interact with. It includes postal workers, your neighborhood UPS guy, and the people who stock shelves at Target or pick items and pack boxes at Amazon warehouses. “Pick packing and shipping individual things to satisfy customer orders is a madness, but it’s a straightforward madness,” Mark Cohen, the director of retail studies at the Columbia University School of Business and the former CEO of Sears Canada, told me. The other half—reverse logistics— isn’t straightforward at all.

“Reverse logistics is nasty,” Tim Brown, the managing director of the Supply Chain and Logistics Institute at Georgia Tech, told me. The process of getting unwanted items back from consumers and figuring out what to do with them is time- and labor-intensive, and often kind of gross. Online returns are collected one by one from parcel carriers, brick and- mortar stores, a growing number of third-party services, and sometimes directly from customers’ homes. Workers at sorting facilities open boxes and try to determine whether the thing in front of them is what’s on the packing list—to discern the difference between the various car parts sold on Amazon, or the zillion black polyester dresses available to order from H&M. They also need to figure out whether it’s been used or worn, if it works, if it’s clean, and if it or any of its components are economically and physically salvageable.

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