Are Retail Sustainability and Ecommerce Returns Mutually Exclusive?

With another year around the sun, Earth Day challenges us to think about our carbon footprint once again. There has been a noticeable shift in consumer behavior as more people aim to adopt sustainable shopping habits. 

In fact, internet searches for sustainable goods have increased by 71% in the last 5 years, with most of this volume coming from younger generations of consumers.  

Shoppers are quick to condemn wasteful or environmentally harmful businesses, which can tarnish a brand’s reputation, making it nearly impossible to rebuild.  

With retail sustainability holding such a high weight to consumers today, what could retailers do to minimize their impact on the environment?

The Truth About Retail Sustainability Initiatives

An obvious solution for retailers looking to play their part in protecting the environment would be to sell more sustainable products.  

However, unless your brand specializes in sustainable solutions, learning to design, produce, and deliver green products for the first time can:  

  1. Hurt the quality of the products due to the lack of knowledge of using sustainable materials 
  2. Cause confusion on the brand’s purpose and mission and 
  3. Frustrate consumers that feel that such green products are only being released to stay on trend (which they kind of are).  

Protecting the planet is important. But it’s also important to remember that creating more green products to put on the market isn’t necessarily limiting waste.  

There’s a much more viable way to tackle sustainability practices within your business. And it starts with looking at your returns. 

Sustainability in Ecommerce

Sustainable Returns Management

Here’s the thing, producing products can be wasteful. But so is returning them.  

In 2020, consumers returned over $428 billion worth of products. With only about 50% of returned products making it back on the shelves, that means half of that ended up in landfills.  

Simply put, you could make sustainable products all you want. But they’re just as wasteful if they end up at the dump.  

Not to mention, each processed return requires wasteful packaging and burning fuels as the product moves back up the supply chain and to the landfills. 

Retailers can’t control what their customers return. But the responsibility of reducing returns waste still ultimately falls on retailers. 

To truly limit your business’s negative impact on the environment, the real goal is to keep your products in the hands of your customers. 

The New Role of Returns in the Customer Journey

While returns have existed as long as retail has, they didn’t always poise such a problem.  

There was a time when something was only returned if there was a big enough issue with the product that it warranted the customer wanting their money back. 

Nowadays eCommerce is a main channel for shopping and consumers make online purchases with the intention of returning some of the products.  

Examples of this would include bracketing, buying multiple sizes of the same item, or “wear and return” behavior, where shoppers will buy an item specifically for an event and return the product once they have reaped its benefits.  

Flexible return policies and hassle-free returns culture contribute to the high return rates in ecommerce as shoppers have found ways to abuse convenient returns. 

However, hassle-free returns have become an expectation of online shopping. In fact, ecommerce merchants without flexible return policies could lose out on customers as shoppers boycott companies who don’t offer such convenience.  

This means retail sustainability initiatives are all but pointless when high return rates are still producing enough waste to harm the environment.

It seems like returns are a lose-lose situation for retailers: the options are to have a flexible return policy that can hurt your bottom line and the environment or don’t have one and struggle to acquire any customers at all.  

Seems like quite the Catch-22.  

Can Retail Sustainability and Ecommerce Returns Co-Exist? 

Return rates in retail have reached an all-time high and the planet is paying the price. We can never expect return rates to drop to zero, but that’s no excuse not to try to limit its effects on our environment. 

If retailers want to lower their carbon footprint, then looking at how they manage their returns would be the proper next step.  

Having a returns management solution that prioritizes optimizing the reverse supply chain can limit the negative impact processing returns has on the environment. 

This can be done by partnering with third-party returns management solutions like ReturnLogic which specialize in collecting and analyzing returns data.  

Companies like this work with ecommerce retailers to provide insight on their returns performance so they can make more insightful sustainable business decisions. 

Consumers will never love everything they buy, every single time. Returns happen, but that does not mean our planet should suffer because of it. We’re at a point in history where the way we shop and how we create sustainable business practices are more important than ever 

Protecting the planet will take initiatives from shoppers and retailers alike and it starts with getting in control of ecommerce returns.  

Together, we can encourage more conscious commerce and leave a positive, lasting impact on our planet.

Happy Earth Day everyone!