Chances are, you’ve never been to Kantamanto, a two-acre maze of stalls, shops, and hawkers in downtown Accra, the capital of Ghana. More likely, something you’ve worn has.
On a recent morning at the vast marketplace, shoppers bent over towering stacks of wrinkled clothing, sifting through them with the speed and skill of prospectors. There were dresses with dried deodorant blooming across the armpits and sweaters dribbled with ancient, crunchy food stains. Old t-shirts implored passerby to “Help Save Ukraine” and “Let Love Lead.” Some customers shopped for themselves — seeking out cheap secondhand clothes they could baptize into a new life with a glug of bleach. But others plunged their arms deeper into the piles, feeling through layers of itchy polyester and overstretched jeans for something else: a tag.
“That is what our customers want,” says vendor Samira Mohammed. The diamond in the dust. The needle in the used clothes haystack. “Returns.”
On the other side of the world, on the floor of her glossy kitchen in the United States, Hope Allen was on the same hunt. Sitting in front of a dented cardboard box the size of a small car, she addresses the 4.3 million viewers of a YouTube video titled, “I bought Amazon RETURNS for Cheap! *disaster*.”
“It’s like a fancy version of dumpster diving,” she says in the video.Then, for more than ten minutes, she pulls item after item from the box, like some kind of archeological dig through the belle epoque of online shopping. Ugly Christmas sweaters. A still-wet shower curtain. A baby snowsuit. The ruins of a thousand late night shops from the couch.
If you’re anything like me or Allen, you’ve probably spent very little time dwelling on where the clothing you returned to online stores ended up. If pressed, you might say what she did: It gets sold to someone else.
“Every time I bought something [from Amazon] and then it didn’t quite fit right and I sent it back, I just assumed that item got put back on the virtual shelf,” she explains.
That seems logical. But it’s also very often not true. The reality, instead, is a choose-your-own-adventure novel through the dark back alleys of the clothing industry. It leads to overflowing liquidation warehouses in Texas, used clothing markets in Ghana, and recycling centers in Belgium where returned Nikes have been shredded to make gym floors. It leads to Allen, who learned that returned merchandise gets shoveled into enormous boxes and sold at auction to the highest bidder. To someone like her.
Americans alone returned $212 billion of goods they purchased online last year– and all of it had to go somewhere.
“There is no such thing as a free return,” says Nada Sanders, a professor of supply chain management at Northeastern University. And the price – for companies and for the environment – “is absolutely unbelievable.”
The reasons so many of your returned blouses and mom jeans are getting trashed, donated, or chucked comes down to one squirm-inducing truth: Most of them are nearly worthless. In the age of fast fashion, the average Western consumer buys dozens of cheap new pieces of clothing per year. The retailers who sell it traffic in volume and turnover. They want you to buy lots of things, often. What happens to it next is an afterthought.
“We have the technology to handle the churn of the clothing industry on the forward side,” Sanders says. “But going in the reverse direction, we don’t have it figured out at all.”
“There is no such thing as a free return.”Nada Sanders, professor of supply chain management at Northeastern University
Here’s a typical scenario. Imagine you’re an online shopper who likes to engage in a practice the supply chain people called “bracketing.” You see a balloon-sleeved, floral smock dress on your favorite clothing website that is going to be perfect for your sister’s baby shower. But it’s a little hard to tell how it’ll fit you. So just to be safe, you order your normal size, plus one above it and one below it.
When the box arrives, you rip open the dress in your size and awesome, it fits. So you slip the other two sizes – unopened – into a free return envelope and send them back.
Here’s where things start to get messy. You say you never wore those other two dresses, but H&M or Target or Amazon or whoever needs to confirm that’s true. If your dress passes the professional sniff test, “you’re now in the returns facility,” says Tony Sciarotta, executive director of the Reverse Logistics Association, an industry group that deals with returns.
How do you get from there back to the new product facility, which could be in another state? “The truth is, transportation costs are higher than the value of most clothing,” he says.
And so, rather than send that dress back, the retailer will probably soon be looking for a way to get rid of it.
Returns — even before the rise of e-commerce — have always been a challenge for clothing retailers. Seasons change. Trends become untrendy. And the things people bring back to clothing stores often exist in a strange purgatory: they’re not quite new, but they’re also often not really used either.
But at physical stores, customers can try things on, deciding before they buy if a purple snakeskin tube top is actually the vibe they thought it was. Online, we purchase all kinds of stuff we don’t know if we actually want. And, online stores make it easy.
It wasn’t always this way.
In the early days of online shipping, you had to pay to send the stuff you didn’t want back. Then, in the mid-2000s, an upstart shoe website called Zappos began marketing itself with a wild-sounding promise. If you bought shoes from them and the purchase didn’t work out – they didn’t fit, they looked frumpy, whatever – you could return them, no questions asked, for 365 days after purchase.
It worked, and other retailers scrambled to follow suit, setting off an arms race to make returns as easy as humanly possible. Free returns became a feature of the landscape. Anything less seemed like bad service.
And we love it. Return rates for clothing purchased online are as high as 50%. Coupled with the fact that we now buy clothes voraciously – there are 14 new garments manufactured each year for every person on earth – that adds up quickly.
“We’re at a point where customer demands around returns are impossibly high,” Sanders says. “They’re rabid. They’re crazed.”
That demand has a ripple effect across the globe. Back in Accra, about 15 million pieces of clothing originating in the West and China are disgorged from container ships from the city’s port every week and dragged across town on 18-wheelers to Kantamanto, which is West Africa’s largest market for secondhand clothes. City authorities estimate that about 30,000 people work here, from clothing importers stacking bales of compressed clothing in their warehouses, to the kayayei, or “head porters,” who carry those 120-200 pound blocks of clothing between stalls, to the traders trying to turn a profit on the castoffs.
On a recent Thursday morning, Mohammed watched customers shuffling through the mix of clothing she had assembled on a plastic sheet on the ground inside her small stall. An orange GAP sweatshirt surfaced from the tangle. It bore its original tag and a price: $44.99.
Mohammed can guess by the condition and the tag what is an item that has been returned to a store (some items are donated to charity new with tags as well, but those tend to be distinguishable from returns and other unsold merchandise because the tags and styles are older, says Liz Rickett, co-director of OR Foundation, which works on issues of clothing waste in Ghana). These, she explains, are her favorite thing to sell.
“Returns are of high quality,” she says. “The texture is different and comes with bright appearance. There are no traces of sweats at the armpits and the neckline area and the buttons are very clean without any stains.” And where a used shirt goes for around 80 cents, a new-with-tags item like the GAP sweatshirt can command ten times that, about $8.
Vendors in Kantamanto speak glowingly of returns, but also say they are becoming increasingly rare — even donating returned items to charity or a textile recycler is often too expensive for clothing retailers, Sciarotta of the Reverse Logistics Association says. “Unless they will come get it themselves, you still have to spend money to get rid of it,” he says. “Those costs can be prohibitive.”
Instead, retailers either trash items or sell them for pennies on the dollar to third-party liquidation companies, which then sell them to people like Allen, the YouTuber. Estimates of how much stuff gets thrown in the garbage or burned hover around 25%.
Much of the rest ends up on sites like Liquidation.com, where on a recent morning you could, for example, bid on 236 pounds of “assorted general merchandise” from Target. A set of blurry images showed a pair of dog pajamas covered in penguins, a red checked fleece, and an air fryer. The opening bid was $100.
For the past three years, TJ Lovelady has been buying up troughs of returns like this and reselling them online and at a physical warehouse he rents in his hometown in Texas — an endeavor he also documents on YouTube.
The work, he says, is a constant gamble. He’s found $900 Swiss watches and $1600 laptops. But he also once opened a pallet to find 500 identical pairs of flip flops inside. “We couldn’t give those away,” he says. Overall, he estimates he trashes about 15% of what he buys.
Companies pawn off goods they don’t want in other ways, as well. In recent years, retailers like Amazon and Walmart have started using software to determine if it makes any economic sense for them to accept a return. If it doesn’t, they sometimes refund a customer’s money, but tell them to go ahead and keep the item.
“That’s just companies outsourcing their carbon footprint,” Sciarrotta says. “They’re making someone else responsible for getting rid of their waste.”
But he is heartened to see that at the same time, retailers have begun trying to address the problem head on — by getting people to buy less haphazardly.
Walmart, for instance, now offers a “virtual try on” option where customers can superimpose clothes onto images of themselves to get a sense for the fit and style before they place an order. Other companies have begun prompting people to stop buying the same item in multiple sizes. And over the last several months, many fashion brands, including Zara, have begun charging for online returns (customers are usually told that they can return the item free if they take it to a physical store, where it is much more likely items will actually end up back on the shelf.)
Still, the original sin is the disposable way we look at our clothes, says Sanders at Northeastern. On average, people keep their clothing for half as long as they did 15 years ago. And once it’s out of our sight — in a Goodwill donation bin or in a UPS truck speeding off to an Amazon warehouse — we tend to stop thinking about it.
“Fundamentally, we have to slow down,” she says.
Kent Mensah contributed reporting from Accra.