When that ill-fitting swimsuit you ordered online goes back in the box for a return, it sets out on a little-known journey.
Once returned to the retailer, the swimsuits face inspection and sorting before three main pathways emerge – resale, recycling, or the landfill.
Returned suits deemed resalable may get shipped to another buyer, outlet store, or discount resellers.
But quality concerns often block resale, and sending suits to textile recyclers, and swim fabrics present challenges for recycling too. Blended materials must be separated – it can be a costly process.
That’s why so many returned swimsuits end up in the trash.
This wasted wardrobe of returns takes an environmental toll through emissions from shipping and textile waste in landfills. But innovative technologies like virtual fitting and greener recycling methods could improve the fate of returned swimsuits.
First, let’s dive into the return journey to understand where all those shopper rejects end up.
We are part of the rising tide of swimwear returns
Returns are swelling like a wave in the fashion industry. As online shopping explodes, so do order volumes – and the number of packages sent back. E-commerce has made buying easier. But fitting rooms have gone virtual.
Some of us now order multiple sizes to try on at home. Keeping what fits and returning the rest.
Return rates vary by category. In the US, clothing bought online gets sent back 26% of the time, it’s the highest among all categories. For swimwear, the tide runs even higher. Bikini returns often exceed 40%. (Statista)
Fit issues make returns rise. Finding the right style and getting the right size is hard without trying in-store first.
Swimsuits have more measurements to match. Tops and bottoms must align. Comfort also counts. Underwire bras can poke. Bikini coverage can cut in. Strings untie. Liner pads bunch. The perfect suit is elusive.
Buying bikinis online adds more uncertainty. Pictures don’t match real life. Lighting hides flaws. Models don’t mirror customers. Zooming only goes so far. Mirror shots and flat lays don’t show fit. Fabric drape and stretch are mysteries.
As consumers, we have to guess.
Easy return policies help sales and also returns. We click more freely knowing items can go back. Some brands even foot return shipping costs. They are further enabling us to buy and decide.
When we know returns are free, keeping products drops. Research shows paid return shipping cuts return rates. Retailers now optimize policies to balance sales versus returns. They are using data to find the sweet spot.
Swimwear sizing is inconsistent between brands.
A medium here may fit like a large there. Trying each brand anew leads to more returns. Standardizing would help, but progress is slow. So shoppers order both sizes then choose what fits best.
Bathing suit styles vary. Our favorite brands change each season. New trends come in waves. Shoppers try fresh designs and brands hunting for their perfect suit. Ordering multiples then pruning down.
Shopping bikini tops and bottoms separately can be nice tactic, but getting both to fit well doubles the work. Styles that appeared compatible online may not coordinate in person—leading to more splits.
Swimwear produces extreme waste when returned. Just trying on can prevent resale. Hygiene concerns limit reselling of used suits. And recycling swim fabrics is difficult. Our returns sink many swimsuits into the trash.
Why so many swimsuits get sent back
Fit is the number one reason swimsuits get returned.
Bust, waist, hip and cup sizes can vary widely amongst brands and styles. Finding the optimal combination across top and bottom requires precision.
Mixing and matching separates doubles the challenge.
Online sizing charts try to help. But listed measurements don’t always match real life. And body shapes differ – same hip size but different distributions.
Some reviews note sizing irregularities, but deciphering the meaning proves difficult. Trying before buying in store provides the best fit knowledge.
Different fabrics offer different fits.
Stretchy fabrics like spandex can run small. But they also contour better with wear. More structured fabrics hold shape but restrict movement. Photos don’t convey feel and drape. Leading many of us to guess and misjudge.
Style elements change the equation too. Underwires, padding, and adjustable straps shift the fit. High-waisted or low-rise bottoms sit differently on the hips. Skimpy suits need more accuracy.
Online images fail to tell the whole story for us. Lighting, models and poses don’t mirror reality. Zoomed in photos hide flaws. Product shots emphasize aesthetics over functionality.
Trying suits on elicits subjective reactions that are hard to predict. Our comfort, confidence and coverage preferences vary. Underwire poking, fabric chafing and tan line concerns can emerge in the fitting room, but not with online shopping.
We tend to buy multiples in different sizes or styles knowing some will go back. Returns become part of the process. Trying items at home replaces in-store fitting rooms. But shipping back rejects increases costs and emissions.
Second-guessing style or color choices after seeing in person leads some of us to bail. Or realizing practical needs like tummy control or bust support weren’t prioritized, our motivation to get the swimsuit right dwindles easily in situations like this.
No formula guarantees swimsuit success. The online experience remains rocky.
Back to the warehouse: the long journey your returned bikinis took
Once a swimsuit gets packed up and shipped back, its journey is just beginning. The returned item travels to the retailer’s warehouse where an intricate process unfolds.
First, an inspection checks for defects and damage. Signs of wear, stains, or tags removed would deem it unsellable. Items passed move to sorting and storage stations.
The condition of the swimsuit impacts the next steps. Lightly worn returns join new inventory for online relisting or shipment to outlets. Defective items get flagged for refund or exchange. Irreparable ones head for disposal.
They get categorized.
Systems scan barcodes and color codes to identify details. Then automated conveyors route swimsuits to the appropriate area.
In the warehouse, products wait in limbo. Online purchases tend to have higher return rates than in-store. So e-commerce sellers plan more excess space for returns.
Return processing requires extra labor costs. Workers photograph items, inspect quality, document issues, and restock shelves. Their effort keeps returns moving efficiently.
Returned swimwear joins other seasonal items in storage. Once demand drops post-summer, suits sit longer before reselling. Taking up space is expensive for retailers.
Liquidating through resellers is common. Overstock and returns get packaged in bulk and sold at discount. Resellers then resell to discount chains and small shops.
Donating unsold apparel may seem like a good option that helps retailers clear inventory while giving back. But strict rules apply to swimsuits. It’s a bit difficult to get used personal wear items like suits and underwear donated.
Recycling involves separating elastic, nylon, polyester, and spandex blends. It takes specialized facilities and gets costly. Visual defects also prevent the recycling of textiles into new fabrics.
Landfills overflow with fast fashion waste. According to TheRoundUp‘s stats on the global fashion industry, “87% of the materials and fibers used to make clothing will end up in either incinerators or landfills.” Returns contribute to the mounting waste as recycling struggles to keep pace.
The reverse supply chain powering returns is riddled with pitfalls.
The fate of your returned bathing suits
After going through processing and inspection, returned swimsuits face a fork in the road. Retailers have options when deciding the fate of these fashion flops.
Relisting for resale is the ideal outcome. Lightly worn returns deemed in sellable condition get folded, hung, and shipped out for online reselling or to outlet stores.
And since many savvy shoppers peruse outlet racks hunting deals. The retailer offloads returns at a discount while recouping some margin, even though quality concerns limit what gets resold.
Liquidation sells bulk return items to resellers. Discount chains buy the batches for low prices to resell in their stores. Liquidators also handle web closeout sales to move unsellable returns.
Recycling takes specialized facilities, chemicals, and water. The costs often exceed profit potential, so recycling is limited.
That’s why upcycling breathing new life into old suits gained traction as a greener option. Creative sewers transform damaged or outdated suits into bags, headbands, or other accessories.
Incinerating is a last resort for unsellable swimsuits. But burning spandex releases harmful gases. And the textile waste could have been recycled or upcycled instead.
There’s still room for improvement in creating a circular economy.
While investments in recycling would allow more reprocessing of what does get returned. Retailers and shoppers both play a role in reducing the waste churn of returns.
The challenges of reselling swimwear
At first glance, reselling returned swimwear seems straightforward – just clean, inspect and relist lightly worn returns in good shape. However, unique quirks of swimsuits as a product category make reselling far more difficult than it appears.
One major obstacle is the lack of standardized sizing across different brands and styles of swimwear. With no uniform size chart to follow, matching returned suits back up to the available inventory in order to resell proves challenging.
Retailers can’t guarantee a consistent fit when the same labeled size, say a medium, may vary drastically depending on the brand and cut of the suit.
This deters resellers from investing in resale due to uncertainty over whether a suit will fit the next customer or simply boomerang back for another return.
The delicate nature of swimsuit fabrics also hinders resale potential. Swimwear is designed for performance in the water, using lightweight, stretchy synthetics and spandex blends.
Those same fabrics degrade far more rapidly compared to regular apparel when exposed to pool chemicals, saltwater, sweat, oils and sunscreen. The cumulative wear and tear from usage shows through quickly as pilling, loss of shape, and breakdown of fibers.
Even the most gently worn returns can exhibit material damage that renders them unsellable for full-price resale.
Beyond physical concerns, perceived hygiene issues create additional barriers to swimwear resale. Shoppers tend to have greater reservations about purchasing used intimates and swimwear compared to reused everyday apparel.
Trying on a swimsuit inevitably raises questions about sanitation and whether thorough cleaning was done. These consumer concerns around potentially unhygienic used clothing force retailers to carefully navigate policies and practices when reselling returns. Special cleaning processes could help ease worries but add more costs.
The short seasonal cycles of swimwear fashion also constrain resell opportunities. Silhouettes, patterns, colors and details quickly go out of style. Yesterday’s hot bikini is likely to be deemed outdated by next season. This accelerates the depreciation of returned suits, making older inventory a much harder sell at full price compared to perennial classic apparel styles.
Returns may initially appear in good, resellable condition based on the retailer’s photos and product descriptions. But upon inspection back at the warehouse, subtle flaws and signs of wear may appear invisible in those images.
If product photos fail to show these defects, the returned items can misleadingly make their way back to the sales floor or site, only to disappoint the next buyer and boomerang right back for another return.
Return shipping also enables abuse. Some use then return swimsuits post-vacation. Retailers must check carefully for signs of wear from use and repair damage.
Returns are everybody’s problem
Returns require significant resources for retailers. From staffing to shipping to disposal, the reverse supply chain drains budgets. Yet generous policies drive sales. Finding balance is difficult but crucial.
Shoppers order extra comforted by easy returns. Spikes after holidays strain operations. Retailers adapt warehouses and staff to handle seasonal influxes.
Home try-on replaces real fitting rooms. Convenience has tradeoffs of more shipping emissions and costs.
Optimizing return window and shipping fee policies aims to curb abuse without sacrificing customer satisfaction. Retailers walk a fine line between generosity and sustainability.
Larger return volumes enable more recycling and materials recovery. Major retailers and brands have the scale in their reverse logistics pipeline to justify investments into reuse and recycling programs that recapture value from scraps, defects, and other rejects.
They can implement processes to divert these materials back into recycled fibers, upcycled products, or other circular supply chains.
However, small emerging brands lack the return volumes at the scale needed to make similar sustainability infrastructure economically viable. The costs and complexity of implementing recycling programs and waste diversion systems simply outweigh the limited material value smaller brands could hope to recapture from their comparatively small volumes of returns and unsellable inventory.
With analytics on return data, sizing inconsistencies, fabric issues, and construction problems come to light. Returns provide feedback to inform improvements.
Expectations to curb waste are rising. Brands that respond to these concerns gain loyal customers. Those ignoring calls for improved practices risk revenue declines if shoppers take their dollars elsewhere.
Armed with a clearer picture of the winding journey returned suits face, environmentally-minded readers may reflect on their own roles and purchasing choices within this interconnected system.