In a world where convenience often trump’s environmental consciousness, the rising trend of online shopping has undeniably reshaped our buying habits. But there’s a dirty secret lurking behind the ease of those virtual shopping carts – the staggering environmental impact of online returns. As we click away, a hidden tsunami of waste is building up, and it’s time we take a closer look at the true cost of the return economy. So… when you stick the returns label of your parcels, what is the price we really pay? While it may seem free for us at the time, what is the real cost of the return economy?
The Harsh Truth
Well… the numbers speak for themselves. The EU and Switzerland alone generated a whopping 7 million tonnes of garment waste in 2020, with this figure expected to soar to over 8.5 million tonnes by 2030. A shocking 70% of this waste ends up in landfills or incinerators, releasing harmful toxins into the environment. The remaining 30% might find its way to charity or vintage stores, but a significant portion of it, as highlighted by Changing Markets, ends up as pollution in rivers or burned as toxic fuel in the global south.
The traditional approach of visiting high street shops could be a game-changer in curbing this environmental disaster. Imagine the reduction in returns if more customers actually go and see, feel, and try on items before purchasing. The physical shopping experience might be the antidote to the ever-growing mountain of online returns.
How Much do we Return?
In the UK alone, customers return £7 billion worth of internet purchases annually, with over a fifth of online clothing purchases being sent back. The return rates are even higher globally, especially for e-commerce in the US, where 20-30% of online purchases ultimately make their way back compared to 8-10% of physical shop returns. This surge in online returns is not only hitting retailers’ bottom lines but is contributing significantly to the environmental toll.
The problem is not confined to customers wanting a change of heart. There’s a thriving online network of “refunders” engaging in fraudulent returns, adding another layer to the complexity of the issue. However, blaming customers alone is a shortsighted approach. Companies need to reevaluate how they present products online, addressing issues like sizing discrepancies and unclear imagery that contribute to the high return rates.
What Can We Do?
Efforts are being made to tackle the return conundrum. The Product Returns Research Group is exploring ways to change customer behaviour by highlighting the environmental impact of returns. Sizing guides and accurate product imagery are steps in the right direction, but societal change is also needed. Embracing models that reduce the environmental cost of production, such as renting clothing items, might be the key to a more sustainable future. Or an easy one which we can all do, is to physically go into a shop and buy clothes there once you know they fit and you like the look of the items.
The consequences of our return habits are overwhelming. In 2022, UK returns were estimated to have generated about 750,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions, a significant portion of which comes from the reverse logistics processes associated with returns (e.g. dry-cleaning and repackaging). The environmental toll demands a reevaluation of our approach to returns and how we can help combat the issue going forward.
So, the next time you consider clicking that “return” button on your next online purchase, think about the true cost. Perhaps a visit to a physical store, where you can make more informed decisions, is not only good for you but for the planet too. And it’s a pretty easy change that most of us are able to do. It’s time to rethink the way we shop and return, for the sake of a healthier planet and a more sustainable future.
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