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Article: When Convenience Comes with Hidden Costs

When Convenience Comes with Hidden Costs

When Convenience Comes with Hidden Costs

It's not something I talk about often, but "free shipping and returns" is my Roman Empire. Let me explain: While mindlessly scrolling the other day, I clicked on an interview with Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson—a marine biologist, policy expert, and conservation strategist—about a typically depressing topic: The Climate Crisis. Stay with me, because listening to her talk through the sober reality, somehow I felt... almost optimistic.

"Climate action needs way better vibes."

–Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

In her new book, Dr. Johnson asks visionaries What If We Get It Right? Through essays and conversations, we get to see possible futures where our collective actions bring about a future that we love. Imagine that! This existential-but-positive reframing got me thinking...

As an e-commerce business owner and online shopper myself, I'm doubly aware that what started as a perk has become an expectation (and sometimes even a dealbreaker). And as a bleeding-heart biologist, I see how the true environmental and ethical costs go unseen or are overlooked. But instead of feeling the usual fear, anger and overwhelm, what if I lean into cautious optimism and consider where I fit into the equation? 

The costs behind "free" shipping and returns

In this one-click-away world, most of us are are able to add to cart, receive, unbox, and often return with little to no monetary cost associated with these efforts. It's not your fault for appreciating the convenience, and you're certainly not alone in enjoying a little cash savings! Shopper-centric platforms like Amazon and Zappos have normalized ordering multiple items in one click, often with the intention of returning most of them.

The team at Second Nature did some great reporting for their recent podcast episode "The Prime Effect: How Amazon Has Us Hooked on Convenience." It turns out, this kind of convenience comes with hidden costs. Author and law professor at Columbia Law School Tim Wu describes it as the Tyranny of Convenience

"Modern life has given us a lot of convenience. At the tap of our smartphone screen and without ever leaving our house, we can order a car to our door, or a hot dinner, or even replenish our toilet paper supply. Yes, life is good in the 21st century. But what if there’s such a thing as too much convenience?" –Art of Manliness, Episode #400

As I become more aware of the over-consumption fallout, I recognize my role as a product maker and online seller. Specifically, seeing behind the return curtain has had a big impact on my online consumption habits—I'm far more careful with my upfront research, I'm more likely to try to find it locally first, and I'm less likely to order multiple shipments or rely on being able to return something. Why? 

"Free returns have become the norm. But managing them can get costly for retailers—so much so that many items are simply thrown out. In 2019, about 5 billion pounds of waste from returns were sent to landfills, according to an estimate by the return technology platform Optoro. By 2022, the estimated waste had nearly doubled to about 9.5 billion pounds." –Fast Company

At Distil Union, the returns we receive put us in a position of responsibility—and frustratingly with Amazon returns, our hands are often tied as we're unable to provide the personal customer support at each stage of the experience (which helps reduce return rates). While we leverage the tools that Amazon offers sellers like us, we've committed to offsetting impact on the planet wherever possible by adhering to our 3 Responsibility Standards and enabling our customers to shop mindfully. 

The Guardian article "Castoffs to catwalk: fashion show shines light on vast Chile clothes dump visible from space." By Sarah Johnson. Photos by Mauricio Nahas.

The tidal wave of fast fashion has normalized over-consumption (think sites like Shein, which releases upwards of a thousand new items daily), and no one is immune to its negative impacts. The carbon culprits are hiding in places you may not expect... As revealed in the "Fast Fashion's Dirty Little Secret" episode of How to Save a Planet, roughly two-thirds of all of the world's clothing is made of oil.

Not only that, as we ship materials back and forth across the planet, the fossil-fuel consumption steadily increases. Every returned item contributes to carbon emissions. According to FastCompany, the return process—with multiple modes of transportation and repackaging—generated about 24 million metric tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide in 2022. 

Unfortunately many returned items don't make it back to the shelves to be resold, but instead end up in landfills or are incinerated (further contributing to waste and pollution). Let's take for example the tens of thousands of tons of returned apparel that end up in the Atacama Desert in Chile annually:

"Draped in layers of denim, Sadlin Charles walks the catwalk of sand between piles of discarded clothes and tires in Chile’s Atacama desert. His outfit has been made from items found in the surrounding heaps of rubbish, which are so vast they can be seen from space. Almost all of this waste has come from countries thousands of miles away, including the US, China, South Korea and the UK.

In Chile it is forbidden to dump textile waste in legal landfills because it generates soil instability, so items that don’t sell are destined for the desert. Brands commonly found amid the sand include Zara, H&M, Calvin Klein, Levi’s, Wrangler, Nike and Adidas. Most of them are made of polyester, a plastic-based fabric that takes as long as 200 years to decompose. When these garments are incinerated, they release toxic fumes, damaging the soil, the ozone layer and the health of the local population." –TheGuardian; photos by Maurício Nahas.

So on top of the visible environmental degradation, local communities are exposed to harmful pollutants. When clothing-littered dunes are visible from outer space, the scale of fast fashion's impact becomes staggeringly apparent. The kicker? According to UN figures, Chile is only the third largest importer of secondhand clothes in the world.

What we can do today for tomorrow

While the convenience of free shipping and returns makes clicking BUY NOW tempting, it becomes easier to resist impulse buys once we recognize their broader impact and reflect on the question: What is important to me? What are my whys for wanting a livable planet? Because by shopping mindfully, we can collectively reduce our carbon emissions for a more sustainable future. 

View of used clothes discarded in the Atacama desert, in Alto Hospicio, Iquique, Chile Photograph: Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

View of used clothes discarded in the Atacama desert, in Alto Hospicio, Iquique, Chile. Photograph: Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

What excites us at Distil is creating problem-solving products that our customers love and use for a long time. Returns are unavoidable in our thing-making-and-selling livelihood, so we do our best to set your expectations before you order with plenty of photos, hands-on videos and long-winded detailed descriptions. We also recently expanded our Manufacturer's Warranty to three-year coverage against defects, ensuring you can trust in our products' quality and durability. That's our half of the equation; here are some tips to help you shop more consciously:

  1. Research Before You Buy: Take the time to read product descriptions, reviews, and watch videos to ensure the item meets your needs.
  2. Buy With Intention: Only purchase items that you genuinely need or truly desire. The goal is to turn impulse buying into a thing of the past.
  3. Consider Alternatives to Returning: If a product doesn’t meet your expectations, consider gifting it to a friend or donating it to someone in need instead of returning it—especially if you've already used the item.
  4. Packaging Matters: If you do need to return an item, ensure it is packaged securely to prevent damage during transit. This helps reduce waste and increases the likelihood that the item can be resold.

While we encourage mindful purchases to minimize returns and their impacts, of course we understand returns are sometimes necessary! That’s why Distil Union offers 30-Day Returns​​ with a service called Loop that walks you through the options—including a partial-refund option if applicable, or deducting the cost of return shipping if you've changed your mind. 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson during a TED talk in 2022. Credit: Gilberto Tadday/TED

Still wondering what can I do to address the climate crisis? Be inspired by Dr. Johnson's ikigai-flavored TED Talk How to find joy in climate action. Because we're driven by the maxim that #GoodDesignIsGoodForYou, we're committed to helping you make choices that are good for you and the planet. Here's to working together for a more mindful and sustainable shopping experience.

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