smh– Small business owner Miso Jung occupies a traditionally happy corner of the local fashion industry, providing contemporary clothing for expectant mothers, but the dark side of Australian shopping habits has clouded her outlook. Keeping pace with a 57 per cent year-on-year increase in online sales, accelerated by COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, Jung has witnessed a dramatic rise in returns at her business.
“I’ve seen how things have changed over a decade with online shopping behaviour,” said Jung, who operates Soon Maternity in South Yarra, Melbourne. “Free online returns have triggered huge return rates. Customers talk about wanting sustainable fashion but quickly forget about this when it comes to returns.”
That acquisitive amnesia has created an estimated return rate of 30 per cent, according to the Australian Circular Fashion Association, with shoppers buying multiple sizes or colours to try at home. Bedrooms are the new change rooms, and the cost is increased carbon emissions with transport and returned items making their way to landfill.
“There’s an assumption that returns are repackaged and resold, but many brands are still sending returns to landfill,” said Timo Rissanen, an associate professor of fashion and textiles at UTS. “Amazon has been caught doing it and other labels.”
To combat fashion waste, Jung has created a loyalty program called On Fleek, rewarding shoppers for not returning goods and educating them on the environmental cost of their actions. Launched three months ago, the program has already partnered with more than 50 brands and retailers including Country Road, Aje, Zimmermann and Farfetch.
“A lot of the focus on sustainability so far has been directed to the brands themselves, but we want to look at the customer,” Jung said. “It’s about educating and empowering individuals and getting them to think about the overall cost of their purchases. We all like receiving things in the mail but that dopamine rush has a price.”
By shopping mindfully and not returning items, On Fleek users earn points, which can be redeemed for gift vouchers or used to plant trees through the charity One Tree Planted. A virtual forest tracks shoppers’ commitment to offsetting carbon emissions.
For businesses such as Country Road, the partnership is an effortless extension of their own green endeavours.
“We know our customers care about the world around us, and we believe our community partnerships and sustainability initiatives will also resonate with the community On Fleek aims to bring together,” said Fabia Pryor, Country Road, brand and impact manager. “We recognise On Fleek’s mission to make a difference and feel this activity holds a strong alignment with our existing sustainability-focused partnerships. It helps conscious customers find us, and us find conscious customers.”
The loyalty program was a last resort for Jung who had tried combating the growing return rate for her business by improving images, sizing information and product descriptions on the Soon Maternity website.
“We tried everything,” Jung said. “Unfortunately, the statistics show that 60 per cent of people don’t read the descriptions. We want to engage people, and give them information but understand that they need motivation. ‘What’s in it for me?’ seems to be most shoppers’ mindset.”
“It’s not entirely shoppers fault. Many online stores are designed to get customers to the checkout as quickly as possible. We want to work towards making the whole experience a more considered one.”
That consideration can begin with people reflecting on whether they really need an item before clicking the checkout box.
“Activist Livia Firth is a great believer in the ‘Will I wear it 30 times’ rule,” said Rissanen. “If you don’t think you will wear it 30 times perhaps you can purchase it secondhand, rent it or borrow from a friend.”
“We need to be more aware of how we live with our clothes. Many of us have pieces in our wardrobes that we still haven’t worn. I have an Alexander McQueen piece that is still waiting for an outing. If we stop and think, returns might not be as big of an issue.”