You indulge in a pair of shoes on Cyber Monday. They arrive at your doorstep seemingly by magic, and you eagerly unbox them. You slip them on and… Shoot, they’re a bit small. But no matter, you can ship them back and exchange them.
They’ll just get resold to someone else with slightly shorter feet. Right?
Or they could end up in a landfill.
Yesterday, Americans spent a record 11.3 billion dollars on Cyber Monday. And as online shopping has exploded in recent years, so too have returns. While the return rate for items bought in the average brick-and-mortar stores is in the single digits, items bought online have a return rate of 15-40 percent, with the highest rates for clothing. Last year, an estimated half-trillion dollars’ worth of goods was returned in the U.S. alone. About a quarter of that was returned post-holiday season.
With the ubiquity of perks like free shipping and free returns, online retailers have made their shopping process virtually frictionless to the consumer. And consumers are behaving accordingly. Not sure which size to order? You can just order a few and send the others back. Not sure which color will look best with your skin? Same thing. It’s free, so why not?
If this seems like an unsustainable business model built on wildly inefficient and environmentally deleterious processes, it’s because it is.
The problem lies in the reverse logistics, which are decidedly thorny. Follow the box you dropped off at UPS, and you’ll see why.
First, it will be shipped to a sorting facility, where workers will unpackage items and try to determine whether the thing in front of them a) is in fact the thing that was purchased in the first place, b) has been used or worn, and c) has any salvageable parts. Items like swimsuits or underwear will be automatically destroyed for sanitary reasons, even if they are unopened and unused.
Over 25 percent of returns are discarded.
For the rest, the future is variable. Even if the item is in pristine condition, the likelihood that it will make it back into the original retailer’s inventory is low. The costs of sorting, freight, repackaging, and facility overhead are simply too great. Especially for cheap items from large retailers – it just isn’t worth it.
For this reason, large retailers may tell you not to even bother with a return. They’ll refund you for the t-shirt you decided you don’t want and tell you to donate it. This may seem generous, but it’s more cost-effective for them to pass off the task of disposal to the consumer.
Some intact goods that aren’t sent back to the seller are sold in bulk to deep discount retailers (think Big Lots). A returned refrigerator may get resold on B-Stock, where returned goods are auctioned in bulk, often by the truckload. Technology could also be sold for parts, and unwanted clothing and goods may be shipped overseas to wholesale as fresh merchandise. If it’s unwanted overseas, it will get trashed or burned.
Not all merchandise is destined for discard, however. High-end apparel is more likely to be restocked and resold, with a rate around 70 percent. Higher end department stores, which carry a wide variety of brands, may be able to return items to the original brand for a partial refund.
But there are so many points along the supply chain at which a return could be scrapped that it’s impossible to know the scale of the problem. These practices are essentially unregulated, and companies can do whatever they deem to be most profitable. And especially once items have been shipped out of the U.S., no one is keeping track.
There’s no denying that online shopping is incredibly convenient. But it is also conveniently opaque, the impact of each of our purchases obscured by our distance from its dirty logistics. Our seemingly innocuous actions (a few clicks, a trip back to the post office) are the inputs to a half-a-trillion-dollar trash heap.
It’s probably unrealistic to advocate the denouncement of online shopping altogether, though it’s always better to opt for second-hand items or hand-made gifts. But for those online deals you just can’t pass up, try to commit to selling unwanted merchandise directly (and ideally locally) on any number of resale marketplaces– Facebook Marketplace, craigslist, e-bay, Depop, etc. (This is preferable to donating to a thrift shop charity, where 80-90 percent of clothing donations are typically sold to textile recyclers.)
Assuming this tiny ounce of responsibility for our purchases can make all the difference. Those too-small shoes can find a Cinderella fit; or, after consuming vast quantities of fuel and labor, they can be relegated to a trash heap, their lives over before they began.
By: Sara Sherburne, Sustainability Program Analyst
The Nasty Logistics of Returning Your Too-Small Pants (The Atlantic, 2021)
From living rooms to landfills, some holiday shopping returns take a ‘very sad path’ (NPR, 2022)
That sweater you don’t like is a trillion-dollar problem for retailers. These companies want to fix it. (CNBC, 2019)
Here’s What Goodwill Actually Does With Your Donated Clothes (Huffington Post, 2016)