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The Environmental Impact of Ecommerce Returns

Matt Blevins
Updated 05/08/20 7:48 PM

Ecommerce returns are costly. They cost you a sale. They incur additional expenses of shipping and handling. Returns may even cost you a customer.

As #EarthDay turns 50 this year, we pause to consider the staggering costs that ecommerce returns are having on our planet.

In this post we feature insight from several industry experts who bring a unique perspective on the environmental impact of ecommerce returns:

environmental-impact-of-ecommerce-returns-expert-insight

Recently, our team had a conversation with Nick Cook, Marketing & Partnerships Lead at Verbal+Visual. He affirmed the ramifications of ecommerce on the planet, and highlighted the role of environmental responsibility in the customer relationship.

environmental-impact-of-ecommerce-returns-verbal+visual-nick-cooks

The speed and convenience that shoppers have come to expect in ecommerce definitely do not come free. Returns and exchanges exponentially intensify the problem.

Returns in Ecommerce

Returns are often a neglected by-product of ecommerce. Without an established returns management process, many online apparel brands feel blindsided when 20% to 30% of the merchandise they sell comes back as a return.

The new reality of ecommerce is that returns are a part of business. The problem is, returns are a sphere that have yet to be optimized.

Quantifying the Damage

Across the industry, roughly 5 billion tons of returned products per year are thrown into landfills. It’s reported that less than half of the merchandise that is returned can be resold at full price.

We confirm that for one of our retailers, 30% of products returned in 2019 were not suitable for resale.

Packaging waste, particularly in the form of cardboard and plastic, is commonly cited as one of the most devastating repercussions of ecommerce.

Gulnaz Khusainova, Founder and CEO of Easysize, also emphasizes return shipping as an affliction to the environment.

environmental-impact-of-ecommerce-returns-gulnaz-easysize

Ecommerce, particularly returns, cause harm to the environment through scrapped products, packaging waste, and shipping emissions.

But, there is a lot we can do to lessen the impact.

How Can We Reduce the Impact of Ecommerce Returns on Our Environment?

Step #1: Supply Chain

Every journey begins with a single step. A good place to start is by evaluating your supply chain – both the forward supply chain and the reverse chain. Transparency, communication, and measurable accountability are key to driving improvements.

As Cook explains, innovations in fulfillment can offer a more tailored customer experience, and also lessen the effect that ecommerce has on the environment.

environmental-impact-of-ecommerce-returns-verbal+visual-nick-cooks-returnlogic

Cook continues, “Ecommerce brands that have access to a physical retail presence should consider implementing Buy Online, Pick Up In-Store (BOPIS).

This limits the amount of returns that are ultimately shipped back to a fulfillment center and restocked or discarded, all of which reduces the overall environmental cost.”

Dan Eblangon, Chief Marketing Officer of Bond, a customer-centric 3PL specializing in hyper-local storage and same day delivery, highlights the importance of low-emission delivery vehicles and neighborhood based fulfillment hubs.

environmental-impact-of-ecommerce-returns-bond-dan-eblagon

Truly optimal supply chains lower the costs of fulfillment, and cause less harm to the greater ecosystem. BOPIS options are a great place to start, and represent the beginning of powerful innovations in the ecommerce supply chain.

There is also your return packaging to consider. 

environmental-impact-of-ecommerce-returns-eblagon-from-bond

Step #2: Secondary Markets

Aftermarket solutions like B-Stock, Blinq, and BULQ provide retailers a competitive secondary market for returned or excess goods. This allows companies to recoup as much value as possible from returned products, and ultimately throw less away.

These marketplaces help retailers align their profits with their consciences.

Step #3: Reduce Return Rates

Additionally, aim to prevent returns before they occur. By reducing your return rate, you’ll reduce the emissions of returns shipping as well as the physical waste going to landfills.

To achieve a lower return rate, Good emphasizes the importance of the product page.

“Retailers should focus on their product content and messaging to ensure accurate information and set clear expectations for the customer.

This includes making sure your product description is detailing the materials, care instructions, and a sizing guide. Product photography can include the dimensions of the model and the size being worn.”

Information presented about your products needs to be consistent, accurate, comprehensive, and easy to understand. Otherwise, customer expectations will be misinformed, and excess returns will occur.

environmental-impact-of-ecommerce-returns-verbal+visual-nick-cooks-shopify

Moving Forward

Ecommerce can have severe negative ecological consequences. Apparel, especially, is a very resource-intensive category.

Product returns generate substantial waste in landfills and amplify shipping emissions. And shoppers increasingly pay attention.

With help from expert partners, we can make ecommerce a little bit greener.

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