Unsurprisingly, as e-commerce increasingly claims the market share of brick-and-mortar retail, and consumers are unable to see, touch, and try on merchandise before purchasing, the rate of retail returns is climbing. And as companies have competed to offer the most convenient possible shopping experience, the prevalence of “free returns” has secured returnability as an uncompromisable expectation for American shoppers. Research from Optoro, a technology company that helps retailers process returns, reveals that 97% of shoppers consider the returns experience to be a determinant in whether they will patronize a store.1
We’re all humans, and when our lives are made a little more carefree, it’s hard to question whether these conveniences are ultimately good. But the ease with which we buy and return is, well, not good.
The problem with returns
One major element of the environmental toll of returns is shipping. Transporting returns is estimated to produce 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year.1 To put that in perspective, that’s about the equivalent of the carbon emissions from 3.2 million passenger vehicles. Or framed differently, emissions from the transport of retail returns represent about .2% of the U.S. total carbon emissions per year inclusive of energy, transportation, industry, and agriculture.2
Another disturbing truth about the environmental impact of returns is the likelihood that perfectly intact returned goods will end up in the landfill. Optoro reports that 88% of consumers assume that their returns will be restocked and resold.1 In reality, the majority of returns will not be resold as new, and a sizeable portion of those goods will be thrown away. About 5 billion pounds of returned goods end up in U.S. landfills each year.1 Again, to put that in perspective, that's equal to the trash footprint of about 3 million U.S. individuals.
Other environmental factors that are difficult to quantify include the additional packaging required to ship returned goods, and the processes required to return an item to stock (like inspecting, cleaning, and steaming).
What individuals can do
You'll be more likely to return an item if you don't really need it. So challenge yourself to buy less. Only purchase an item when you need it and know you will use it right away.
Reject the "buy-to-try" mindset.
If you're considering a purchase and expect that you may decide to return it after seeing it, feeling it, or trying it on, stop yourself. Read the reviews and trust what the reviewers say. If you have a question that wasn't answered, send a message to the company and encourage them to address your question in the product description. Instead of buying a garment in two sizes, take the time to measure yourself and compare against the posted size guide. Some companies will even offer personalized advice based on your measurements. Take advantage of every bit of information available to you before making the purchase.
Adjust your expectations.
Companies have competed to offer the most convenient possible return experience because it's a strategy that wins customers. Be a different kind of customer and support companies with policies that consider the environment.
What companies can do
Write comprehensive product descriptions.
If your customers know exactly what they are buying, they will have no reason to be unsatisfied when the product arrives at their doors. Write your product descriptions to be as accurate and comprehensive as possible, and make sure your customers know that you are available to answer additional questions. Keep a mental (or formal) log of the questions received, and adjust product descriptions accordingly.
Allow customers to share reviews.
Reading through product reviews is an invaluable tool for making an informed purchase decision. Enable reviews and encourage customers to leave reviews by offering an incentive or sending a reminder email. Welcome negative reviews, because they may help you avoid product returns, thereby saving you money and giving our planet a little reprieve.
Reconsider offering free returns.
The easier it is for a customer to make a return, the less likely they are to think about the impact of that return. Make the reality of the return process more transparent by sharing some of the costs with the customer. This might mean having the cost of shipping and restocking deducted from the refund. Or it might mean disallowing returns as a general policy.
Be upfront about your stance on returns.
Have a return policy easily accessible on your site so that customers are not caught off guard. If you elect to have the customer pay some of the cost of returns, or if your policy does not allow returns at all, share the reason. It's never an easy decision for a business to enact a policy that may detract from your customer's shopping experience, but you might be surprised by how many individuals are eager to prioritize the environment over convenience. Plus, it's always good business to do the right thing and to have policies that reflect your values.
It may come as no surprise that we at Way of Being do not allow returns as a general policy. (Read our shipping & returns policy here.)
Sources: 1| The Hidden Environmental Cost of Your Free Holiday Returns, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/02/as-americans-send-back-millions-of-holiday-gifts-theres-a-hidden-environmental-cost; 2| Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions, United States Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions