As firms try to reduce their environmental impact, and as part of the wider fight against the harms of fast fashion, socially and environmentally conscious policies are rapidly developing in the retail sector. However, one of the most recent – which involves imposing a customer fee when items are returned – may be impinging on consumer rights, enshrined in law. Undoubtedly, legislation will have to develop in order to protect the environment, but B P Collins LLP examines whether the rights of consumers may become less protected in the process.

Eco-conscious firms are now more aware then ever of their impact on the environment and the harm that their operations may be causing. This has come at a time of increased consumer-awareness of environmental issues, which has been building over the last three decades. Noticing consumer hesitancy towards companies with poor environmental reputations, has encouraged brands to make their environmental credentials a staple of their advertising. The result is that environmental credentials is proving to be a fruitful ground for competition and therefore is racing up the priority list of many businesses – not least those in retail.

With this new awareness, and the associated benefits to market share, firms in the retail sector especially are trying to show themselves in a good light. This is not without incentive. A study recently showed that 49% of under 24s avoided businesses which had a negative environmental impact. Additionally, with consumers so willing to boycott, companies need to be careful not to fall into the trap of ‘greenwashing’ (i.e., overstating their environmental credentials) in order to remain competitive. Examples of this change in practice include McDonald’s overhaul of its straws from plastic to paper, and ASOS reforming its shipping and packaging practices.

The latest approach from high street retailer Zara can arguably be seen as a step in the right direction. The fashion stalwart has followed Next and Uniqlo in announcing that it will be charging its customers to return items that were bought online. There are likely to be some clear benefits to this. Firstly, the environmental impact of shipping clothes from consumers back to stores will be reduced if more people keep their clothes. Secondly, Zara may spend the additional revenue on environmental policies. Finally, looking at it more systemically, this policy also tackles the ‘returns culture’ that has developed over the last five years or so. Returns culture is the idea that a reliance on online shopping has led to consumers over-purchasing in order to assess their options before returning the unwanted clothing, at the cost to the environment and the retailer. It is no surprise that consumers have been doing this more readily recently, especially during the pandemic, but the negative impact cannot be overstated. As such, it appears on the face of it, that Zara’s new policy could well be supported for its potential environmental benefits.

However, these changes may encroach on the rights of consumers under UK law, the most common source of which is the Consumer Rights Act 2015. This provides UK consumers with a range of rights and protections, including that goods purchased in this jurisdiction must be sold as described and fit for the particular purpose. There is a prescribed remedy for consumers when purchased goods fall below the specified standard – the right to return. This is an unambiguous right entitling consumers to give goods back if they do not fit the specified standard or meet their needs for the product in exchange for a full refund. It is easy to see how the new eco-focused policy may come into conflict with those rights. It a blanket policy is adopted to charge for all returns, Zara will arguably not be giving their consumers a full refund for their goods, and thus falling short of obligations under this legislation.

There are additional areas in which a blanket returns policy could be problematic. First, the assumption that monies raised will be spent on environmental causes. There is currently no legal provision to allow some practices based on a threshold of ‘environmentally beneficial expenditure’, and it seems unlikely this will change. Money could just go into the general operational budget, and have no direct impact on the environment. Furthermore, what of the potential accessibility barrier? During the pandemic, the nation’s shopping habits changed from browsing the rails to ordering a selection of goods which were tried and then returned at no cost, to ensure customers were happy with their purchases. Regardless of the impact of this trend-shift, is it necessarily right to restrict the choice element from those working on a tight budget – especially as the cost of living rises further? People will arguably be deterred from ordering a selection because of the financial toll of doing so. In this way, it seems possible that this policy, at least to some extent, could inadvertently disadvantage those with limited disposable income. So, despite best intentions, the new Zara policy may not be welcomed by everyone. Whether this is right remains to be seen.

For advice on environmental, retail or disputes in related industry areas, please contact B P Collins at or call 01753 889995.

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