Last year, almost 90% of shopping in the UK happened online. Along with that comes more returns of unwanted items—CNBC calculated that 40% of apparel purchases are returned. Whether that’s because we change our minds, something doesn’t fit, or we’re ordering multiple sizes of something with the intent to return one, it’s worth noting that returning purchases has an impact on the environment. Along with that, more retailers are offering free returns to online shoppers, which is also contributing to the spike.
Of course, all of this leads to an added environmental impact beyond the usual production and shipping of what we’re buying. Read on to learn more about the impact of returning purchases and what you can do.
In 2016, the number one producer of carbon dioxide emissions shifted from power plants to transportation, with 25% of that footprint coming from the trucks that pick up packages from a plane or a ship to take them to a warehouse. Another contributor is the fact that, unlike the days when trucks brought goods to a big shopping centre, they’re now going to residential addresses. What makes all this worse is when you choose the fastest delivery option available. That means more plane trips, emptier trucks for that last stretch of the journey, and a bigger footprint. When you order and then return something, you’re doubling all of that and doubling the footprint.
Packaging is a big problem for the environment, with the retailers continuing to use un-recyclable things like bubble wrap and styrofoam. Online orders often show up in this kind of unsustainable packaging, adding to that item’s footprint. And, sometimes the decision to return something doesn’t happen until after that original packaging has been thrown out. Factoring in the ever-increasing extended return policies retailers are implementing to remain competitive, that’s a common situation. When that happens, you might have to go get a new box (or worse, bubble mailer) to send that item back in. That means one item has now produced twice the packaging waste.
If you think that when you return an item it will be resold to another shopper, think again. A lot of brands can’t resell returned goods, because a part might be missing, or it might take too long to process the return. When that happens, that unwanted item often ends up in a landfill. According to BBC Earth, returns produce five billion pounds of waste every year. That’s because the returns system at most retailers is flawed, and it becomes too expensive to properly restock those returned items. So, the cheapest way of dealing with them is sending them to a landfill. When we’re so focussed on the sourcing of materials and the production of an item, we quickly forget what happens at the end of its life, or at least the end of its life with us.
Although it is up to retailers to rework their return policies and systems for the planet’s sake and their own bottom line, there are things consumers can do. First, do your best to sort out what size you are. Read the brand’s size guide, measure yourself, and compare that item to other similar things you’ve purchased. If the item fits, you’ll be less likely to return it. Then, carefully consider whether or not you actually need what you’re about to buy. Will it fit into your wardrobe? Will it go with your current decor? You could even consider leaving the item in your cart for a day, then coming back to it when you’ve had a chance to really think. If you’ve still decided to buy the item, make the best shipping choices. Pick the slowest option, request the minimal amount of packaging and if you’re ordering multiple items, select to have them all shipped together. All of these decisions will minimise both the environmental impact of your online shopping and, if it’s unavoidable, your return.
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