The Dark Side of Retail Returns: Environmental Harm

Consumers have gotten somewhat spoiled by retailers’ improved ability to bring them enjoyable and personalized shopping experiences at reasonable prices in recent years. Now they’re expecting that same great service to carry over into returns.

Many retailers have stepped up to the plate and started offering very flexible return policies, making the process of sending products back easy and affordable – if not free. However, with 11.3 percent of purchases being returned in 2017 according to the National Retail Federation and online retailers seeing triple the return rates noted in physical retail, returns are quickly becoming a big problem from an environmental standpoint.

Contrary to popular belief, returned goods are not immediately put back into stock and sold again; this actually only happens approximately half the time. Reverse logistics can be a long and very complex process for retailers, and the journey of goods through that process is generally pretty inefficient and costly.

Landfill Waste and CO2 Emissions

Returned products in the U.S. alone create 5 billion pounds of waste for landfills every year. Some retailers are simply throwing away returned inventory to avoid having to deal with it, spurring a wave of dumpster diving behind retail stores by those who want to resell discarded returns for a profit.

A returned good can travel as far as 3,600 miles in length according to research carried out by
Optoro, with trucks burning around 1.6 billion gallons of diesel fuel and creating 15 million metric tons of CO2 emissions in the process. Repackaging returned goods also involves sealing and relabeling, impacting the environmental even further by adding to packaging waste. Indeed, recycling plants are reporting a rise in corrugated cardboard as some handle more than 100 tons of cardboard each day.

Consumers remain largely unaware of the problem, with 88 percent in the dark about the fact that returns are often sent to landfills. Some believe that consumer education could help lead to more ethical behavior on the part of consumers and help curb habitual returning. The burden is also on retailers, however, who need to find more efficient ways to manage their returns that don’t harm the planet.

This blog post was based off of an article from UPS Longitudes. View the original here.

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