Returns by online shoppers creating a huge environmental problem

By our News Team | 2023

Researchers say e-commerce companies are simply throwing away items returned by consumers, rather than trying to resell them.

Fuelled by the stay-at-home-culture of the pandemic and the preferences of younger consumers in particular, online shopping has risen is popularity around the world. But academics and environmentalists are increasingly questioning its adverse impact on the environment.

A new study by researchers at Lund University in Sweden, for example, has found that many e-commerce companies are simply throwing away items returned by consumers, rather than trying to resell them. After interviewing businesses in the textile and electronics industries, Lund says the problem is “snowballing”.

Online Shopping

A European protest against ‘fast fashion’, which is viewed as a major source of pollution and wastage in the online shopping sector. Photo by Stefan Müller via Wikimedia Commons

“Internet shopping is increasingly commonplace, and with it comes more returns: previous studies have shown that digital commerce generates significantly more returned products than shopping in shops,” the research team notes.

“According to industry data, the trend of returning items looks to be on the increase, something that might be explained by the fact that shipping returns [are] usually free.

“High volumes of returns increase fossil-fuel emissions, thanks to more freight journeys. But it gets worse: what is not widely known is that companies – often ones who nurture a sustainable, carbon neutral profile – usually throw away the products that are sent back.”

The phenomenon is widespread throughout the electronics and clothing industries. Both are sectors with a large and varied range, and cheap products. The more expensive the products, the more likely they are to be repackaged and sold again.

Throwing returned products away is seen as more cost effective

“The blunt reality is that throwing things away is the lesser of two evils for the company, from a financial perspective. That applies particularly to goods that are cheap compared to the cost of examining, repacking and putting them back on sale again,” says Carl Dalhammar, Senior Lecturer at the International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics at Lund.

After their investigations, Dalhammar and his colleagues conclude that dealing with the problem is not that easy. A ban on throwing away returned items is not a straightforward solution.

If companies are forced to give away unsold products in as-new condition to charity or second-hand shops, the value of the companies’ ordinary product range is devalued.

One first step may be to introduce a compulsory fee on returns instead. “It has been established that consumers take advantage of free returns,” Dalhammar explains.

Certain clothing brands have already introduced fees on their own initiative. But, for the most part, return parcels remain free of charge.

This is because e-commerce companies quickly recoup the extra cost of returns, since in total the customers who make returns still generate more profit for e-commerce than those who do not send returns.

You can find out more about the research here.