The report is called ‘Fashion on the move. The hidden cost of online returns: the thousand rounds of fast-fashion that pollutes the planet’ and was conducted by the Greenpeace Italy Investigative Unit, which for almost two months, in collaboration with the television programme Report, traced the journeys made by some fast-fashion garments bought and returned via e-commerce platforms. It emerged how clothes that are sold and returned several times, and parcels of clothes that also travel tens of thousands of kilometres between Europe and China, at no cost to the buyer and at negligible expense to the manufacturing company, actually have enormous environmental costs.

 To conduct the investigation, 24 fast-fashion garments were purchased on the e-commerce platforms of eight of the leading companies in the sector: Amazon, Temu, Zalando, Zara, H&M, OVS, Shein and ASOS. Before making the returns, Greenpeace and Report hid a GPS tracker in each dress, thus being able to trace its movements, discover the means of transport used and study the sellers’ supply chain.

In 58 days, the parcels travelled a total of about 100,000 kilometres through 13 European countries and China. On average, the distance travelled by products for delivery and return was 4,502 km. The shortest distance was 1,147 km, the longest 10,297 km. The most frequently used means of transport was the truck, followed by plane, van and ship. The 24 garments were sold and resold a total of 40 times, with an average of 1.7 sales per garment, and returned 29 times. To date, 14 out of 24 garments (or 58%) have not yet been resold.

Looking at the individual companies, all of Temu’s garments were shipped from China, travelled over 10 thousand kilometres (mainly by plane) and, to date, none have returned to the seller after the first return. Two ASOS garments travelled, on average, more than 9 thousand kilometres via as many as 10 European countries. ASOS, Zalando, H&M and Amazon top the list in terms of average number of resales: 2.25 times. While 100% of the garments returned to Temu, OVS and Shein have not yet been resold.

 “Our survey confirms how the ease with which returns can be made in the fast-fashion sector, almost always free of charge for the customer, generates hidden and very significant environmental impacts,” says Giuseppe Ungherese, head of Greenpeace Italy’s Pollution campaign. “While some European nations have already legislated to curb or prevent the destruction of clothes that are returned to the seller, the same cannot be said for the practice of facilitated returns, which encourages compulsive buying of disposable clothes, with serious consequences for the planet”.

The collaboration with the start-up INDACO2 also made it possible to estimate the emissions produced by the transport and packaging of the garments: the average environmental impact of the transport of each order and return corresponds to 2.78 kg of CO2 equivalent, emissions on which the packaging accounts for approximately 16%. On average, 74 g of plastic and 221 g of cardboard were used for the packaging of each parcel. Taking the impact of a pair of jeans (with an average weight of 640 g) as an example, transporting the ordered and returned garment leads to an increase in CO2 emissions of around 24%. The average cost of fuel for transport, on the other hand, is estimated at EUR 0.87.

The online clothing sector, recalls Greenpeace, is among the most relevant in the Italian Business to Consumer (B2C) eCommerce. Young people, digital and fast-fashion are the three axes driving the growth of the fashion market worldwide. However, only 3% of fashion is circular and only 1% of new clothes are produced from old clothes, while every second a truck full of clothes ends up in a landfill or incinerator. The fashion industry is among the most polluting production sectors, a voracious system that uses enormous quantities of raw materials: in the European Union alone, textile consumption is the fourth largest sector in terms of environmental and climate impacts, and the third largest in terms of water and land consumption. Every year, 5.8 million tonnes of textiles are thrown away in the EU, approximately 12 kg per person.

 Globally, textile production and consumption doubled from 2000 to 2015 and could triple by 2030. A trend driven by the advent of fast and disposable fashion and further accentuated by a recent and even more unsustainable phenomenon, also from the point of view of the rights of workers in the industry, such as ultra fast-fashion.