Online shopping returns lead to almost five times more packaging waste than in-person shopping, emit up to 24 million metric tonnes of CO2 annually, and often end up in landfill due to increasing financial burden on retailers, a new report from CleanHub claims.

Online shopping is said to generate 4.8 times more packaging than brick-and-mortar stores. Returned products can make additional contributions to packaging waste by requiring extra plastic and cardboard, with some retailers encouraging customers to apply extra materials in the returns process.

CleanHub raises the example of e-commerce platform Shopee – which, in the event that the original packaging gets damaged, instructs shoppers to “securely tape the products and wrap them with at least 1-2 rolls of bubble wrap.”

According to the report, an average of 30% of products bought online are returned by customers, CleanHub states. Online shopping is said to result in nearly three times as many returns as in-store purchases, with US consumers listing clothing (26%), bags (19%), shoes (18%), accessories (13%), consumer electronics (11%), and food and beverages (11%) among their most commonly returned items.

Fast fashion and ‘wardrobing’, or buying a garment for short-term use and returning it under false claims for a full refund, are said to result in the highest return rates for the fashion industry. With the average return rate for clothes reaching 32%, the report states that up to 40% of garments are sent back after purchase – and fast fashion returns are feared to generate the same emissions as three million cars in the US.

Any product that is sent back to retailer warehouses can generate more plastic packaging waste when the product is unwrapped, processed, and repackaged for resale. In turn, 91% of this waste is said to end up in landfill.

Yet retailers are thought to have simply disposed of over 9.5 billion pounds of returned products, which CleanHub explains can be more cost-effective than attempting to resell the product. US retailers are calculated to have lost $816 billion to returns processes in 2022 – and the pressure builds during the holiday seasons, at which point it is believed that 1 million returns are made every day.

Clothes can also be difficult to resell once they have been tried on. As such, they often end up in landfill or open-air dumping sites, such as the Atacama Desert in Chile. Over 741 acres of deserted land are now thought to have become clothing junkyards.

Additionally, clothing is often made from polyester and other cheap materials. This can lead to plastic particles entering the environment and contributing to microplastic pollution.

Beyond the materials alone, CleanHub states that transporting returns typically increases a product’s delivery emissions by 30%. Processing them can take up to three times the initial delivery time, with parcels often travelling internationally and contributing to 3% of the shipping industry’s overall emissions.

While traditional, in-store shopping processes are thought to generate twice as many emissions as online alternatives, e-commerce apparently results in more returns. The exact figure varies by industry but is said to reach a high of 40% for e-commerce, while only 5-10% of all in-store purchases are said to be returned.

In turn, 7% of the emissions from in-person retailers are attributed to returns, whereas the same process constitutes 25% of the e-commerce industry’s emissions.

CleanHub’s research suggests that 66% of shoppers surveyed in 2023 want to engage in more sustainable practices and believe that returns process should be improved for an enhanced customer experience. Yet the company asserts that consumers and businesses alike must make changes to drive down the environmental impacts of e-commerce.

It explains that only 20% of products ordered online are returned due to damage, and suggests that consumers move away from harmful trends like wardrobing and buying products in multiple sizes. They should purchase durable, high-quality items, CleanHub adds, and familiarize themselves with a retailer’s return policies and ESG commitments.

Businesses, meanwhile, should optimize their return processes and bring the impact of returns to consumers’ attention. The benefits are set to be both environmental and financial; in the United States, returns constituted an average of 16.6% of total retail sales in 2021. These were thought to cost $4.583 trillion in total, marking a 6% increase since 2020.

As 91% of businesses are seeing the rate of returns grow faster than their revenue, CleanHub recommends that retailers transition into sustainability-minded packaging materials, reduce their packaging to its essential parts, and instruct customers to reuse packaging for returns.

Additionally, incentives can be put in place to drive changes in consumer behaviour. While 49% of retailers are still offering free returns in a bid to attract customers, 40% of retailers charged customers for their returns in 2023 – and new technologies like ‘virtually trying on’ clothes are set to cut down on the number of products being sent back to warehouses.

“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,” said Nikki Stones, vice president of Marketing at CleanHub. “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. Whether it’s reducing the amount of plastic packaging, electrifying their delivery fleet, or even finding ways to cut back on returns altogether, companies should be more active in reducing the impact of their e-commerce.”

In 2022, packaging providers DPack looked into the impact of returns and how retailers were handling them. It cited a BBC interview in which a returns department stated that “roughly 95%” of returned products passed damage and reusability tests first time, and warned that “piles of technically pre-owned stock” often “need additional legwork to be sold again”.

One of its solutions was to encourage delivery companies to consider how its products were being transported, and whether their packaging is strong enough to protect items from being damaged in transit.

On a more optimistic note, e-commerce giant Amazon has announced new steps taken in pursuit of more sustainable packaging processes. Back in October, it joined forces with SMEs Mum & You, The Cheeky Panda, and BUSHBABY to deliver products in their original packaging and cut down on waste.

It has since announced that 100% of its box, bag, and envelope delivery packaging in Europe is now recyclable.

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