Convenience of online returns resulting in more waste and GHG emissions

A report by CleanHub, a US-based plastic reduction start-up, highlights the environmental cost due to the convenience of sending online purchases back.

According to the research, up to 30 per cent of online purchases end up being returned by customers, resulting in an estimated 24M tonnes of CO2 emissions in the US each year. This contrasts with return rates of physical store purchases, indicating the environmental implications of the convenience offered by online shopping.

Packaging item for returnPackaging waste, already a significant issue with online shopping, is compounded by returns, which often necessitate additional wrapping. The report highlights how some retailers' returns policies unintentionally promote the use of excessive material, thereby intensifying the issue of waste.

According to CleanHub, in 2021, returned purchases represented 16.6 per cent of total U.S. retail sales, translating to a staggering $4.583 trillion, a six per cent increase from 2020. Furthermore, it estimates that in 2022, over 4.3 million tonnes of returned products were discarded as waste, due to the lack of cost-effectiveness over resale.

The fashion sector emerges as a major player in this scenario, with return rates for garments reaching up to 40 per cent. The environmental impact of these returns is comparable to the emissions from 3 million US cars. In particular, clothing, bags, shoes, accessories, consumer electronics, and food and beverages are among the most returned items, illustrating the prevalence of the issue.

However, the start-up notes there is increasing environmental awareness that has the potential to influence retailers, citing a McKinsey survey in 2023 that found 66 per cent of US consumers now say they consider sustainability in their purchasing decisions.

The CleanHub report examines the environmental impact in three primary areas: the transportation and logistics involved in returns; the excess packaging generated; and the disposal options of products.

Notably, the transportation of returned items can add up to 30 per cent more emissions than the initial delivery, often involving complex international logistics that contribute to global emissions.

One of the report's critical findings is the trend towards discarding returned items that are deemed too costly to resell, with an estimated $816 billion lost by US retailers in 2022 due to returns. This disposal practice, especially prevalent during peak shopping seasons, has significant environmental and financial implications, with the fashion industry being notably affected due to the challenges in reselling returned clothing.

Online shopping inherently requires packaging to protect items during shipping, but returned items often require additional materials when they are repacked for the return journey. This not only includes the outer packaging but also any inner protective materials, such as bubble wrap or foam peanuts, that are used to ensure the item's safety during transit. The report points out that this need for extra packaging materials can lead to a significant increase in waste, especially when considering the volume of returns processed each year. It notes that retailer policies may exacerbate this issue by encouraging consumers to use even more protective materials when returning items, increasing the amount of resulting waste.

Nikki Stones, CleanHub’s Vice President of Marketing, commented on the findings: "Online shopping is convenient for everyone – especially when it comes to returning products – but it's so easy for people to overlook how harmful it can be for the planet. This also isn't talked about enough, meaning most consumers aren’t aware of how much waste their online returns create or how they contribute to carbon emissions – not to mention the amount of returned products that go straight to landfill.

"Although more people are becoming aware of how their shopping habits can make a difference, brands need to be doing more to lessen the impact of returns."

The report underscores the need for a concerted effort from both consumers and businesses to address the environmental impact of online returns. It advocates for rethinking return policies, adopting sustainable packaging solutions, and encouraging consumers to make environmentally conscious purchasing decisions.