How the 'keep or return' challenge is driving hyper-consumption and fast fashion


A new challenge encourages TikTok users to buy masses of clothes before returning most of them to the retailer. Photo: AFP

Buy it, try it, send it back. Such is the new craze among influencers on social media. They don't hesitate to order mountains of clothes from fast fashion brands before submitting them to their followers for approval during try-on sessions.

If their fans like the clothes, they keep them, and if not, they send them back – irrespective of the environmental cost that these mass returns may incur.

This "keep or return" challenge already has millions of followers online.

From water and chemicals to fertiliser, transportation and mountains of waste, fashion is now the world's second most polluting industry, representing between 8% and 10% of global pollution, according to Carbon Literacy.

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No less than 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon emissions are generated each year by the industry.

Faced with this observation, many brands are trying to reinvent themselves by turning to new materials, production methods and other more sustainable solutions, but some (very) low-cost brands instead encourage hyper-consumption and overproduction.

These two major issues are fueled by challenges of all kinds that proliferate at high speed on social networks, much to the detriment of those who strive to make more informed choices.

All too easy

After celebrating ultra-fast fashion with the "Zara vs Shein" challenge, internet users – namely influencers and social media users – are encouraging people to buy en masse and then return the clothes that don't suit them.

This new challenge is facilitated by the famous free returns policies offered by many fast fashion brands, and particularly by ultra-fast fashion brands like Shein.

Not content with offering free delivery for particularly low order amounts – over €39 (RM176), the Chinese giant also offers free returns within 45 days.

This is enough to drive clicks – and purchases – among younger consumers, who can then simply turn their homes into would-be fitting rooms.

And that's exactly what's happening today with the "keep or return" challenge, whose hashtag has already scored more than 140 million views on TikTok.

The idea is simple: buy kilos and kilos of clothes, film yourself trying them on, and submit the results to the vote of your community. If the community approves the looks, they earn a place in your wardrobe, if not, they get sent back to the retailer.

From Shein and Zara to PrettyLittleThing and Primark – brands that are not considered as paragons of sustainability – are among the most popular brands for this challenge.

And if one thing's for sure, it's that the TikTokers involved do not seem to be aware of the impact that these countless returns can have on the environment.

The end of free returns?

Contrary to what you might think, returned clothes are not (necessarily) put back on the shelf. This is due to the cost associated with a return, be it in terms of transport, repackaging or quality control of the product in question.

And with this in mind, the seller's calculation is really quite simple, and depends largely on the retail price of the product.

If the costs related to the return are higher, there's a strong chance – and therefore especially for fast fashion and ultra-fast fashion items – that the clothes in question will be given to non-profit organisations or recycled, resold on discount platforms or simply thrown away... in turn potentially increasing the pollution generated by the fashion sector.

Product returns related to the growth of ecommerce are an issue for which we should take responsibility as consumers, especially since returning a new product will also have the effect of increasing CO2 emissions or pollutants released into the air by the vehicles that carry transport them between storage points and delivery locations, explains the French Environment and Energy Management Agency, ADEME.

When shopping online, give yourself time to think over your purchases, the agency advises.

Even well before the rise of this curious challenge, this problem has already prompted several brands to impose a cost – albeit sometimes a nominal one – on returns, signaling the gradual end of free returns.

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Zara is one of the latest brands to end its free returns policy, and now charges €1.95 (RM8.80) for them. The sum is deducted from the amount refunded, the brand says.

Only returns made directly in store are not subject to any fee.

And it's the same story at H&M, but with a lower cost, and one that may still escape those who sign up to the brand's loyalty program.

The climate emergency and the economic crisis could encourage other brands to do the same, thus minimising all kinds of misuse, as well as reducing the environmental impact associated with free returns. – AFP Relaxnews

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fashion , green fashion , sustainability


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