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Seán Moncrieff: What really happens to the clothes we return online?

Figures from the UK and the US suggest that about 20 per cent of clothes ordered online are returned

Myself and Herself are lucky enough to have home offices, in which we spend part of our working days. They are not single-use rooms. Mine doubles as a domestic storage facility. If Herself finds an object in the house and doesn’t know where it lives, it ends up on my desk. From where I’m sitting now, I see a stool that used to be in the kitchen, a pair of speakers I don’t need but don’t know what to do with, a baby-walker that Granddaughter Number One doesn’t use as she’s crawling now, a smoke alarm that fell off an upstairs wall, a large folder from one of Daughter Number One’s many college adventures, and a pile of empty picture frames.

Herself’s office is even more multifunctional as it contains a bed: which is a great boon to our relationship. If there’s snoring or an excess of heat or general agitation, we have the resentment-free option of gently stealing into the other room. However, you can’t just walk in there and slip under the covers. First you have to remove the various shopping bags and packages from the bed.

Because this office has a third use: it’s a kind of limbo for newly bought clothes. There’s a long procedure at work here. Herself might have bought an item online or have already tried it on in a shop, but this is followed by a thinking-about-it stage, during which the item will remain within the packaging.

If the item passes that test, it comes into our bedroom where it will often sit – still wrapped – along with other items that have made it to Phase Two. Finally – out of sight of any other living being – she musters the courage to try it on again. It may subsequently be shown to me, or hung up in the wardrobe or, just as often, sent back.


This is, in her mind, the caution required before making a long-term commitment to a piece of clothing. Because once she commits, she’s all in. She will wear clothes until they are close to disintegration. She has dresses she paid for in Irish pounds.

Still, I do sometimes wonder about the items she sends back. Do they eventually find a home with a delighted owner? Or are they somehow lacking, subject to an endless cycle of purchase and rejection? Do they spend all their functional lives in warehouses and the backs of delivery vans?

She’d want me to point out that she would never, ever, buy something, wear it once or twice and then send it back. She’s not one of those people. But there are plenty of them. Figures from the UK and the US suggest that about 20 per cent of clothes ordered online are returned.

It’s an odd contradiction. You’d think the online retailers would discourage returns, but they go out of their way to make it easy: because it’s good for business. Serial returners tend to keep a proportion of what they buy, making them the more profitable customers. But the effect is that the pair of shoes that don’t look as good when you put them on can start to build the same carbon footprint as an airline pilot.

Many of the returns go to outside companies contracted to get rid of the fake tan and wine stains and get them ready to be sold again. But much of it does not. Some of the retailers couldn’t be bothered and send it to landfill. An enormous dump in the Atacama Desert in Chile – it’s the size of Central Park in New York – takes tens of thousands of tonnes of unsold clothes every year. It leaches chemicals into the ground and occasionally catches fire in the heat. It’s a monument to our insatiability as a species, and perhaps a portent of how eventually we may drown in a sea of our own stuff.