The Environmental Impact of Returns - Frequently Asked Questions(FAQ)

The Environmental Impact of Returns

April 5, 2022

In this article:

A significant proportion of packages ordered from online retailers end up back at the distribution centers they were shipped from only a few days later. As we have covered in previous posts, much of the emissions from online retail originate from shipping, and with returns, this back and forth of tonnage produces entirely unnecessary emissions. Here, we’ll review the problem and suggest some solutions. 

The rise of returns

According to one source, up to 20% of all orders placed online end up being returned. There is no doubt that the growing trend of companies offering free returns – like Amazon, Walmart, Zappos, and more – has played a role in this development. For reference, this rate of return is more than double that of brick and mortar retail counterparts. 

This trend of returns is particularly true for clothing and apparel goods. It’s quite common, in the current retail economy, to order multiple sizes or colors of a product with the intention of returning the ones that aren't quite right. This practice is known as bracketing.

Why is this a problem?

The rise of returns the retail economy has seen in recent years becomes a problem when we consider the environmental impact of shipping. 

Every box onboard a delivery truck is responsible for a small fraction of the carbon dioxide that comes out of the truck’s tailpipe. The same goes for the emissions from the freight ship that likely transported it from its country of origin, the train that hauled it from the port, and the truck that drove it to the distribution center. Ultimately, this is a lot of carbon dioxide emissions for a one way trip, and results in around 15 million tons per year from returns. 

On top of that, further environmental issues come from products that can’t be resold. 5 billion pounds of waste from returns end up in landfills. This is particularly problematic for clothes and packaging materials. 

Naturally, some returns of retail products are to be expected. Defective or broken products, incorrectly advertised or otherwise unusable goods need to be sent back to their sellers. This is not true of the majority of returns, however, which are made simply because buying and returning is easier online. The emissions from these needless returns are vast and dangerous. 

 Fortunately, there are steps retailers and consumers alike can take to reduce these emissions. 

Solutions for unsustainable returns

Here are just a few ways brands and consumers can reduce their emissions.

  1. Package products sparingly 

The lighter a box is, the less carbon is emitted to ship it. One great way to reduce emissions from returns is to make shipments weigh less, reducing their footprints even if they are returned. Cut down on shipping peanuts and plastics while you’re at it.

  1. Improve product descriptions and sizing

To cut down on bracketing, brands can provide more information about their products, including better descriptions of sizes and fits, and offering customer reviews. In this way, buyers will know exactly what they’re ordering, and are less likely to need multiple options. 

  1. Work with sustainable shipping companies

Companies that use third parties to process their orders and returns should look for sustainability-focussed competitors. 

  1. Look for the Neutrl badge

When shopping online, keep an eye out for the Neutrl badge. Odds are, if a company works with us, they’ve also implemented additional practices to lessen their environmental footprint, like sustainable sourcing or environmental philanthropy. 

To sum it all up

Everybody loves free returns–but nothing is ever really free–and enormous amounts of emissions are produced from returns made simply because it's convenient. Most of this carbon dioxide comes from products thrown in landfills and the transportation of shipments back to distribution centers. Brands and customers can both take steps to be conscious of their environmental impact, and reduce emissions from returns where possible. 


Want to learn more?
Sustainability of Retail Returns FAQs

What is bracketing?

When a customer orders multiple versions or sizes of one product with the intention of returning the ones they don’t like, they are bracketing.

Is returning items bad for the environment?

Yes, returns are bad for the environment, mostly because of the shipping required to get them back to their retailers.

Do returns end up in landfills?

Not *all* returns end up in landfills, but around 5 billion pounds of return-related waste do each year.

How much carbon dioxide comes from returns?

An estimated 15 million tons of carbon dioxide trace back to returns!!


RetailDive statistics on returns

Optoro report on returns

Vogue article on bracketing