Close up of african american woman sitting on the couch using credit card and laptop to shop online from home. Copy space.

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Chances are that you’ve “bracketed” your purchases online, even if you’re unfamiliar with the term. Maybe you’ve ordered several pairs of shoes at once, knowing that you’ll return the ones that don’t fit. Or perhaps you’ve purchased a T-shirt in a few colors, picked out your favorites, and sent the rest back. This online shopping strategy presents little downside to the consumer, who can simply return what they don’t want at little to no cost. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say. But it’s wreaking havoc on the environment — not to mention companies’ pocketbooks.

Bracketing, Explained

Bracketing has seen an uptick in the past few years, accelerated in part by the surge of e-commerce during the pandemic. The practice is also bolstered by the many retailers that offer gratis returns, and some, like Amazon, that encourage the practice with “try before you buy” policies. In fact, bracketing is now so widespread that, to the environment’s detriment, most online shoppers in the U.S. bracket their online purchases., with 63% of shoppers taking advantage of the shopping hack in 2022.

Bracketing’s Environmental Impact

When we return something, we’d like to think that the retailer simply restocks the item. But the truth is much more disturbing. Of the $212 billion worth of online returns in 2022, billions of pounds have landed in incinerators and landfills (usually in other countries), with one industry expert estimating that 25 percent of returns are simply thrown away.

That's because the logistics industry just isn’t cut out for returns. After a retailer receives an item, they have to open the boxes, inspect the product, repack the product, and return it to the fulfillment center. After accounting for all that — the labor, storage, and handling — the cost of a return can add up to around 66% of the item’s original price, according to Sean Henry, CEO of the logistics company Stord. In other words, it’s a time- and labor-intensive process that isn’t worth the expense.

“When you start calculating that, you see why more and more brands say ‘Why don't you keep that item, or destroy it, or show us proof that you donated it, and we’ll provide you a credit because actually processing it back in is very inefficient,’” Henry explained in an interview with Vogue Business.

And while the fast fashion industry is particularly egregious when it comes to destroying their own products, companies like Amazon have been caught burning returned refrigerators, dishwashers, mattresses, smartphones, tablets, and more, some of which were perfectly usable.

Even if we hone in on just one product, say a polyester shirt, the waste is truly staggering. Its life begins deep underneath the ground at an oil field, where a company like Exxon burns fossil fuels to extract more fossil fuels. Once unearthed, the crude oil is then refined and transformed into polyester fibers. Finally, some underpaid factory worker sews the shirt together, only to have it returned to the fulfillment center, reprocessed, and incinerated thousands of miles away.

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Heavy machinery shredding garbage in an open air landfill. PollutionPhoto credit: ABBPhoto/istockphoto

What You Can Do To Help

If you’re horrified by what you’ve read, here are a couple of things you can do to reduce your environmental footprint.

  • Don’t Bracket: Shop the old-fashioned way and try on clothes at the store. Or put in the effort to measure yourself and read sizing charts. Either way, remember that each item you return could end up in the incinerator.

  • Shop at Retailers With Secondhand Stores: Retailers like Patagonia and REI sell some of their used gear rather than condemning it to a landfill.

  • Support Regulation: Ultimately, it’s companies and not consumers who are responsible for incinerating their lightly-used products. So if you get a chance to ban the practice of throwing away used goods — France passed a landmark law in 2020 — then organize your community to support such regulations.

The Bottom Line

On the surface, bracketing seems like a clever shopping hack. But once you dig a little deeper, it becomes clear that bracketing contributes to a profoundly wasteful system that refuses to manage returns in a sustainable way. However absurd it seems to sell and then incinerate a perfectly good shirt, it makes sense given that our current economic system is driven by profit, not environmental justice.

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