Blog, Our Thinking

The Returns Dilemma for Fashion Brands: Balancing Sustainability and Cost


  1. Precision Through Technology: Brands like Zara lead customers to more precise online shopping with their size recommendation tool, boasting 92% accuracy. 
  2. Authenticity Redefined: Retailers like John Lewis embrace genuine imagery from real people, providing an authentic view of fit and quality. 
  3. Sustainability Through Community: Innovators like This is Unfolded drive sustainability resulting in a 10% return rate, they foster a sense of responsibility, shaping a sustainable future in retail.


In today’s retail landscape, online shopping offers unparalleled convenience but also presents a significant challenge: returns. It is not uncommon for customers to encounter situations in which they are uncertain about what size to select when purchasing an item of clothing online. Usually, this results in customers adding both size options to their cart and proceeding to checkout, knowing that one of the options can easily be returned. This trend, compounded by factors such as fit issues and discrepancies with product descriptions, poses financial and environmental concerns for both consumers and retailers.

A study by Statista found that 2 of the main reasons why customers return clothing are; that the item doesn’t fit (75%) and the item doesn’t match the description on the website. Online shoppers want the reassurance of free and easy returns for clothing purchases, which can lead to larger basket sizes. However, for brands, this mandatory hassle-free return service is a costly and growing challenge. 

The UK fashion industry lost a staggering £7 billion in returns in 2022 (Delivery X Returns Report). This has led some larger retailers to implement a cost per return, which is deducted from the customer’s refund. Whilst this helps the brand claw back some of the returns cost, it could be hurting their growth with a recent study by Appinio reporting that 71% of UK consumers would avoid shopping online if they were required to pay to return the items.

The cost is not just financial, environmentally returns are devastating and unsustainable for brands (and the planet), with 3% of all returns not able to be resold and 50% of all returned items ending up in landfill (Delivery X returns report). So how can brands help consumers to get it right the first time, and reduce the need to return items?



Brands such as Zara use technology to tackle sizing issues. They offer a size recommendation tool to help customers find the best fit. When a customer adds two different sizes of the same clothing item, the tool automatically appears on the screen and users are prompted to try it. To use the size recommendation tool, a customer simply inputs their metrics and personal information, the tool will then provide an estimated size. Impressively, the Zara reports that 92% of its customers who utilise the tool purchase the appropriate size.




Brands are finding new ways to address the issue of returns by offering genuine images of clothing worn by regular people. This approach helps buyers get a more accurate idea of how the clothing looks and fits, as well as the quality of the material. To do this they are embracing content from their community and surfacing it on category and product pages. Video content is also key for brands to ensure they provide the most realistic view of the item.

John Lewis uses authentic content from their community to help inspire viewers and give them a more realistic view of what the clothing will look like.



A clothing brand aiming for sustainable practices throughout the entire production process, is This is Unfolded, who are on a mission to fix the broken fashion industry. They have a unique approach that involves creating a limited range of clothing based on input from their Unfolded community regarding their preferences. They then take orders, meaning they are only making clothing they have sold prior, eliminating massive amounts of waste from unsold clothing. The clothing is delivered directly to customers, reducing their environmental footprint by eliminating the need for warehouses to store and ship the clothing.

In addition to reducing their returns rate through utilising their community, they have also created a platform for swapping items that don’t fit or suit customers. This has helped them to reduce their returns rate to 10% vs the retail average for Women’s clothing of 23%, whilst also ensuring the customer has a positive outcome.

Returns are a massive problem for the retail industry both from a cost and sustainability perspective. In the quest to reduce returns and stimulate more sustainability in retail, innovation is key. Brands like Zara demonstrate this through technology-driven size recommendation tools, while retailers such as John Lewis leverage authentic imagery to provide shoppers with a realistic view of products. Meanwhile, disruptors like This is Unfolded champion community-driven initiatives, fostering not only sustainability but also consumer engagement. By embracing technology, community collaboration, and sustainable practices, brands can navigate the challenges of returns while empowering consumers to make confident purchases, reshaping the future of retail.