Returns, The Guilty Pleasure Damaging Our Environment

Written by The Heat Team

07 Dec 2020

Is there anything better than checking out your basket to see free shipping and returns? At the click of a button, you can order several pieces of the same clothing in different sizes and colours knowing that all you have to do is stick the unwanted clothing back in the post, free of charge. It’s easy, it’s efficient, and many of us are guilty of it. Whether it’s ordering a piece of clothing in multiple sizes to gauge the best fit, or adding items to your cart to qualify for free shipping with the intention of returning the bulk of it, it’s a practice which is so embedded in modern consumer behaviour; it’s acquired its own term, bracketing.

A 2019 report by Pitney Bowes found that 51% of shoppers bracket their purchases, consciously overbuying knowing that they can return unwanted items. Despite brands being aware of this, the large majority offer a fuss-free returns policy to keep customers happy. A 2018 report by U.K. based Rebound found that 60% of 18-25-year-olds said a negative returns experience would result in them not shopping with that retailer again. Consequently, a lax return policy is a standard which has been adopted en masse by e-retailers, who can’t afford not to match the competition. 

Today’s tech-savvy customers like to do their research, with many considering fast delivery, free shipping and returns as an important factor before a purchase. The Global Web Index reports 80% of shoppers in the US and UK check returns policies before they place an order, a statistic that is evidenced by results, as e-commerce return rates have spiked by 95% in the last five years. But keeping customers happy comes at a huge cost. RSR Research retail analyst Paula Rosenblum says retailers lose a third of their revenue to returns. In 2018, Revolve generated $499 million in sales but spent $531 million on returns, after taking processing costs and lost sales into consideration. That number does not account for the cost of shipment for returns either.

But more alarmingly, beyond the loss of monetary profits, the true cost of returns lies in its contribution to environmental damage. Every year, 3.5 billion products are returned in the US alone, incurring 5 billion pounds of landfill waste and 15 million tonnes of carbon emissions throughout the process. A closer look shows that contrary to belief, returned clothes aren’t always listed back for sale. Returns require additional warehouse space and human resources to handle rigorous inspection and cleaning processes. It’s a time-consuming process, which results in lost time and increases the risk of returned garments suffering further reductions. This subsequently adds additional strain onto retailers, and the easiest and cheapest solution is to send products to incinerators or landfills. Tobin Moore, CEO of Optoro, a reverse logistics technology company estimates “retailers end up throwing away over 25% of their returns” a number that’s likely to grow at this current rate of consumption. 

It doesn’t stop there. On top of fashion scraps and returned products, landfills are also filled with packaging waste, amounting to nearly 87 million tonnes in the EU alone. This is largely due to an abundance of single-use plastic materials, which are difficult, if not impossible, to recycle. The amount of packaging is easily doubled, if customers return or exchange an item. 

The advent of 'National Returns Day' and 'Free Shipping Day', (holidays created by the retail industry to promote more sales) only further encourage excessive consumption, leading to a spike in regretful returns. Earlier this year, 1.9 million package returns were deposited into the UPS network on the aforementioned holiday. While it may seem like harmless fun on the surface, such occasions are actually encouraging a damaging consumer mindset, who are unbeknownst to the damage they are actively contributing towards by setting back-and-forth shipments in motion with a single click of a button.

The lesson learnt here is that there is no such thing as a free return. As a shopper, you don’t tend to pay much attention to what happens after you checkout, as long as your parcel arrives on your doorstep a few days later. Although we are all pro-convenience; relishing in quick delivery and option of free returns, it’s worth noting that gluttony of any kind has never been rewarding. The question is how can we tackle this? Would placing restrictions on returns drive consumers away from e-commerce retailers? It’s certainly an issue deserving of discussion and until a solution comes to light, it’s worth re-evaluating our careless returning habits. 

Returns, The Guilty Pleasure Damaging Our Environment

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