Generation Z leads to an increase in the rapid return of fashion

Hubbub CEO Trewin Restorick says trying to unravel the dark world of fashion returns is “complicated” as he discusses how Hubbub has done research to see if consumers consider the impact of their shopping habits on the environment.

Fast fashion brand Boohoo reported that profits fell after online shoppers returned clothes faster than before the pandemic. Although the financial implications are clear, it is much more difficult to assess the impact of this change in consumer behavior on the environment.

Trying to unravel the dark world of fashion returns is complicated, but what is certain is that transporting clothes back and forth must have significant implications for carbon, packaging and waste.

As part of a growing survey of the fashion industry, Hubbub was interested in finding out what triggered this behavior and whether consumers are considering the impact of their shopping habits on the environment. An independent survey was commissioned from 3,000 people giving a cross-representative sample of the adult population of the United Kingdom. The results were fascinating.

The implication is that there is a gap between what young people say they care about and their shopping habits. How can this gap between value and action be narrowed?

As expected, the survey showed that online shopping for fashion is on the rise. This was most pronounced among Generation Z (16-24 years old), three-quarters of whom shop online each month.

This group tends to buy an average of 3 items at any one time, and 82% say they return unwanted items, and the average number of returned items is two.

When ordering clothes online, 23% order things in multiple sizes and return the ones that don’t fit, 21% say they order more garments and return items they don’t like. 7% of respondents admit to ordering clothes / accessories to get dressed once and then returning them.

The most common reasons for returning clothes / accessories purchased online were bad clothes / wrong size (56% and 48%, respectively), poor quality (34%) and an item that does not look like the picture (31%).

Yield growth driven by Gene Z.

The results show that the growth of returns is significantly stimulated by generation Z, but this is the age group that expressed the greatest concern about the impact of return on the environment.

The survey found that 82% of Generation Z said they were concerned about the negative impact of returning clothes purchased online compared to 75% in total.

This age group was also the most cynical about what happened to the clothes that were returned, with 25% saying they thought those items were destroyed, compared to a total of 7%.

The implication is that there is a gap between what young people say they care about and their shopping habits. How can this gap between value and action be narrowed?

One option for retailers would be to charge for returned items, but surveys have shown that this would meet with resistance from buyers.

46% of those who shop online and return do not agree that as a customer they should pay to return a piece of clothing / accessories they bought online – this is more among women than men (59% vs. 31% respectively). More than three-quarters (76%) said they were more likely to buy from sellers offering a free refund

There were actions that retailers could take that would be more acceptable to customers. The three biggest actions that respondents think traders / brands could follow are: More customer feedback to show product quality and compliance (45%), better, more detailed product information / description (43%) and better product quality (39 %).

Transparency

Another way would be for retailers to be more transparent about what happens to returned clothing and how it affects the environment and the economies of countries where some clothing undoubtedly ends up.

There is confusion and uncertainty about what happens to returned clothing and this poses a risk to all companies found to be rejecting returned items.

More than half of the respondents said that they would no longer buy from sellers who were found to be throwing away clothes. This was more among those over 35, but interestingly dropped to 42% among those aged 16-34.

Perhaps there could also be a role for stricter policy regulations, which DEFRA could consider in developing extended producer responsibility law and which could also be embraced by some of the EU’s ambitions for circularity.

What the polls reveal is that the impact of the return of fashion on the environment is currently largely an untold story and that a significant change in consumer behavior is needed, which currently seems far away.

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