The vast warehouse is the size of four football pitches. Inside, it’s a riot of noise and colour. More than slightly surreal, it is a scene that could have come straight from the vivid imagination of Roald Dahl.
At one end a woman is nose-deep in the armpit of a green, velvet dress at what she jokingly terms the ‘smelling station’.
Behind her, a colleague furiously steam-cleans a sticky stain from a beige, linen shirt. Elsewhere, robots press shirts into crease-free perfection and stacks of sequined dresses disappear into a ‘sanitisation chamber’. Fleets of perfectly ironed waistcoats fly overhead on a long and winding conveyor belt.
All the while, workers beaver away to the sound of clanking machinery.
This is a laundry — but one like no other. Welcome to ACS Clothing, the factory leading the way when it comes to helping retailers hoping to solve the problem of the UK’s returns mountain — the vast quantity of often fast-fashion that is bought online each year and then sent back to the retailer for a refund.
Clothes lines: Returns stacked up in the warehouse near Glasgow
Giulia Crouch poses beside items in the ACS warehouse (pictured)
It is estimated that now, on average, one in three fashion items that are bought online is refunded. Returns are costly to the retailers, and shopping this way threatens our High Street.
But with around 50 per cent of returns never making it back on sale and often having to be binned, there may also be an unintended cost to the planet.
Last week — with shocking photos to illustrate the scale of the problem — it was revealed that garments from the UK were among the 39,000 tonnes of Western clothing that has been dumped in Chile’s Atacama Desert.
This comes just two years after a mountain of rotting clothes was brought to light on the edge of the Ghanaian capital of Accra.
Among the detritus were items bearing labels from High Street stalwarts such as H&M and M&S; clothes donated by Brits with the best of intentions for the second-hand market or recycling but which, thanks to unscrupulous clothes dealers, had become a blight on another country.
What you may not realise is that our growing returns culture is also contributing to the issue of clothes pollution because if returned items can’t go on to be resold, they too could end up on a similar shaming heap, in some other unfortunate corner of the world.
Pictured: A worker examines an item in the warehouse
With just a few clicks of a mouse, it has never been easier to order clothing online, but it’s unlikely to be just one dress or jumper that goes into our virtual shopping basket. More likely, we will order items in a variety of sizes and colours to enable us to pick the best fit and most flattering shade before packaging up the rejects and sending them back.
But, while returns may be relatively quick, easy and often free for us, the consumer, are they as pain-free for the brands — and the planet?
And with Covid having dramatically changed the way we shop —pushing even the most technology-averse towards the internet — the volume of returns has gone, as one industry expert puts it, ‘absolutely nuts’.
It’s not so much of a problem with goods returned in store — these can be processed and be back on the rail within minutes. But handling returns remotely is inevitably a more time-consuming, multi-stage process that makes it harder to get items resold.
The volume of returns for 2021 was up 44 per cent on the previous year, says ReBound, a returns specialist for big retailers.
Pictured: An item is steam cleaned and spruced up in the warehouse by a worker
It’s a habit that’s costing British retailers a whopping £7 billion per year, according to research by KPMG, and threatening smaller online and bricks-and-mortar retailers who can’t afford to process such large quantities of returns.
One study found that it costs retailers an average of £20 for every package that is returned.
However, there are also serious implications for sustainability.
For a start, millions of packages travelling the length and breadth of the country every day throws up obvious ecological issues from vehicle emissions.
One study found that it costs retailers an average of £20 for every package that is returned. Pictured: The ACS warehouse
While a shop assistant might cast a beady eye over the item being returned and reject it back to the consumer if unsellable, it’s less clear-cut with remote returns. Pictured: A line of clothes returns
And with fashion having such a short shelf life (the sparkly Christmas party dress you send back in January is unlikely to be bought again), an estimated 50 per cent of returns never make it back into a clothing company’s inventory and, in the worst cases, go on to be incinerated, to landfill or into the hands of clothing dealers who send them on to places such as Accra and the Atacama Desert.
It is no wonder that the UK has been found to be the fourth largest producer of textile waste in Europe, according to one study.
A major factor is that clothes are often returned in a — shall we say — less than pristine condition.
A worker steam cleans an item at the ACS warehouse near Glasgow
While a shop assistant might cast a beady eye over the item being returned and reject it back to the consumer if unsellable, it’s less clear-cut with remote returns. It varies from retailer to retailer but while minor damage, which could have potentially happened in transit, might be overlooked, they will still likely refuse to refund items with more extensive stains and rips.
Luckily for the retailer, if the clothes can be rehabilitated and resold, they can still make a financial return on them — rather than losing out if they send them to landfill — albeit having to offset the cost of cleaning and repair. Also, many brands are now aware that customers are beginning to care about the eco-credentials of where they shop.
This is where the factory ACS Clothing comes in.
Pictured: A worker inspects an item at the ACS warehouse near Glasgow
From red wine-spattered dresses and lipstick-stained T-shirts to pungent shirts and blouses with rips in them, it is the job of the 180 staff here in Glasgow to rehabilitate damaged garments to as good as new in as short a time as possible so that they can be resold by the retailer.
The length of time spent on an item depends on how damaged it is — from two minutes to sew on a missing button to a day spent removing stains and doing complicated repairs.
But the aim is to do it as fast as possible to enable brands to operate a ‘circular fashion’ model rather than a ‘linear’ one. This means that the clothes re-enter a retailer’s inventory rather than going in the bin.
Workers are seen sewing items inside the ACS warehouse
The 200,000 sq ft operation, 20 minutes from the city centre, is the only one of its kind in the UK and Europe, and counts the likes of online giant ASOS, as well as High Street brands Hobbs and Whistles, among its clients.
It can process a huge amount of clothing — just last week it sent back 50,000 restored items to one brand alone and at the time of writing there are 3 million items on site.
The company began in menswear rental 25 years ago and in 2018 realised it had the facility and expertise to get into the returns industry, too.
Now, it handles damaged returns for seven major fashion brands, though it is very coy about who they all are. ‘A lot of brands don’t like anyone to know they use us, so we operate behind the scenes,’ says marketing manager Danielle Moran. Some brands, she explains, prefer to give the impression they deal with it all in-house.
Giulia Crouch stands next to rails of internet returns inside the ACS warehouse near Glasgow (pictured)
Since the pandemic forced shoppers online more and therefore increased the number of returns, ACS has been very busy and often has to take on more staff to keep up with demand.
Inside, it’s a fashionista’s dream. There are seemingly endless rows of jackets, bagged up shoes, cashmere jumpers, silk shirts, leather coats with fluffy trims and even wedding dresses. Impressively, everything is electronically tagged — meaning that it can be located at any time.
In terms of damage, fake tan is the offender staff see the most. ‘It’s really stubborn and hard to remove. I know some factories try to get it off using just a wipe, but here we do things properly,’ says Danielle. Fake tan would be tackled with a powerful cleaning agent, a steam gun and a dry or wet wash, depending on the fabric.
But all items start in the same place — the sinister-sounding sanitisation chamber, which is pumped with an enriched oxygen which rids the clothes of odours, bacteria and viruses — including coronavirus. It is the same process that hospitals use to sterilise equipment.
Giulia Crouch stands next to the piles of returns inside the ACS warehouse near Glasgow (pictured)
‘Our garments are much cleaner than those in the shop,’ says Piotr Szymczykiewicz, warehouse manager for 16 years. ‘If you buy something from Primark, someone’s probably touched it before you. In fact, loads of people probably have. Those garments are not clean — these ones are.’
Piotr has seen some remarkable transformations. ‘We want to make everything look brand new. Sometimes it’s a challenge. We had a dress once that had been returned to a brand covered in red wine and ripped very badly. Normally, things like this end up in the bin.
‘But we have fantastic seamstresses that work miracles with the garments and our cleaners are so expert that the dress ended up looking brand new and was resold quickly.’
Pictured: A worker studies an item inside the warehouse
Then it’s on to the inspection and spot-cleaning station, which is where I meet 51-year-old Jacqueline Forrest, who has worked here since last summer, and jokes: ‘This is the glamorous part of the job.’
It’s not a job for the faint-hearted, she adds. ‘Some of the smells make you gag. But I absolutely love working here.’
If they do pong, they are doused in a cleaning agent before going to the dry or wet wash, depending on the fabric.
‘You really have to know your fabrics and chemicals,’ says head of cleaning Angela Grant, 57, who has also been at the company for 16 years.
Silk, for example, would be ruined by being dry-cleaned and needs an ultra-delicate wash. ‘You could never put this coat in the dry-cleaner either,’ she says, gesturing to a pleather (plastic leather) number. ‘Not unless you want to be left with only the lining.’ Once again, the item would need a light wet-wash.
Shirts are seen being pressed at the ACS warehouse near Glasgow
Stains are first removed with the steam gun. ‘It just helps things along,’ says Angela, demonstrating the powerful machine for me.
Once the clothes are cleaned, they may need repairing, too. That’s where the army of seamstresses come in. Piotr says: ‘Many have worked for major fashion labels before. This is really where the magic happens.’
Some jobs are quick and simple, such as repairing a small rip, but some are long and complex, such as hand-sewing on rows of missing buttons.
Elsewhere, stacks of clothes trundle through a steam tunnel, coming out perfectly ironed the other side, and endless white shirts are in a queue to be pressed using a machine that rapidly blows hot air into them. More delicate items are ironed by hand. The items are then repackaged and sent back to the brand as quickly as possible.
Depending on the size of the batch of clothes, the process can take a week to four weeks. But it can sometimes be achieved in 24 hours. If they can be resold, instead of going to landfill, then, in most cases, it’s cost-effective for the retailer and good for its PR.
Workers are seen at the ACS warehouse near Glasgow
Of course, sometimes it’s too late. Once ordered, a customer generally has 28 days to return an item and then it can take time to get it back into the supply chain — sometimes as long as a month. That can result in excess stock being left over at the end of each season.
There is also the unscrupulous trend known as ‘snap and send back’, where customers buy hoards of garments simply to photograph themselves in for social media before returning them.
A survey by Barclaycard found that one in ten shoppers confessed to doing this.
Retailers have started to work this out. ASOS has threatened to block suspected perpetrators and M&S has said customers with unusually high return rates will be contacted.
One thing is for certain. The numbers of returns are unlikely to drop any time soon.
‘I don’t think we can ever expect return volumes to drop back down to pre-Covid levels,’ says Laura Gee, ReBound’s returns expert.
‘Online shopping is no longer a big and scary world that the older generation were afraid of. Everyone does it now. And without the option of trying things on in store, more online shopping means more returns.’
Regardless of the ease and convenience of sending back clothes bought online, experts say there must now be a shift in shopping habits and retailers’ policies to avoid more shocking scenes of fast-fashion mountains like we have seen in Chile.