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  • MAP Asia Pacific Ltd

Here’s what actually happens to all your online shopping returns

Huang Qing, the Shanghai-based creative director of athleisure label Voice of Insiders, meticulously accounts for each design choice. His high-tech garments are cut from material woven with seaweed fiber and colorfast nylon spun with marine collagen. Then, after an item is shipped, that’s likely the last time he’ll see it — even if it is returned. “It’s too frustrating to bring it back [to China], too much back-and-forth,” he told Rest of World.

Huang, a niche designer, faces the same dilemma as thousands of Chinese clothing suppliers who sell on marketplaces like Amazon or via an ultra-fast-fashion giant like Shein. Four Chinese manufacturers told Rest of World that they are left scrambling to dispose of the garments however they can, often allowing online shoppers in the U.S. to keep clothes they’re trying to return as a cost-saving measure — and to avoid a logistical nightmare.

Some said they meet in WeChat groups to share tips on where to move items. Others said they directly returned and unsold items in bulk to markets in Africa through a trader or request they be destroyed. For Huang, unless the product is a bestseller, he considers most returned items dead stock. Added pandemic-related supply chain issues — soaring freight rates, worker shortages, and lengthened shipping times — have ensured that other options aren’t worth the time and expense they require.

As online buying ballooned during the pandemic, so did returns. In the U.S. alone, returns during 2021 of fast-fashion clothing jumped by 22% from the year before, according to the retail analytics firm Edited, which tracks over 4 billion distinct items for sales across 140,000 retailers. Shipping costs often exceed the value of the ultra-low-priced garments, with the cost of some routes up more than seven times early pandemic levels in 2021. Tax exemptions and bulk shipping, which ease the journey for garments moving into the U.S., disappear when the time comes to receiving returns.

For shoppers, returns via a giant e-commerce retailer app like Shein’s, making a return is a simple process. In the Shein app, there are a dozen options to choose from in order to explain the reason for a return — “don’t like it,” “ordered wrong,” “arrived damaged” — and a further handful of options to describe exactly which ways an item doesn’t fit. Once the return is approved, the company issues shoppers a printable shipping label. That’s the end of the headache for shoppers, analysts say.

“The fashion industry, for a long time, has been able to hide from the right hand what the left hand is doing,” said Elizabeth Shobert, vice president of marketing and digital strategy at e-commerce analytics firm StyleSage, referring to the asynchronous processes of sales and returns. “The pileup in the supply chain in the last six months or so has really brought this to light.”



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