Kill the free return
Returns are a business nightmare and a climate nightmare, and the days of free online returns need to end. Luckily, they are! Plus, a 7-seater EV recommendation for the big families out there.
All right, enough cheerleading and geopolitics. Let’s talk day-to-day, shall we?
Last month, Amazon confirmed it will start charging customers for some returns. It’s pretty lightweight, as charges go: $1 to drop off at UPS if there’s another free return option, like Kohl’s or Whole Foods, closer or the same distance away.
My response? Yes, please. More, please. This is a climate solution that also happens to be a business solution—the peanut butter and chocolate of opportunities.
From a business perspective, Amazon is trying to reduce its reliance on UPS, and also, returns are a huge expense and logistical nightmare for retailers. According to reverse logistics firm Optoro, via Business Insider, a single return can cost a company 66% of the original price of the product, once transportation, processing, discounting, and liquidation are factored in. Per the National Retail Federation, online shoppers returned $218 billion worth of online purchases in 2021, more than double the year before.
Returns are also a climate nightmare. In 2020, returns accounted for 16 million metric tons of carbon emissions, according to Optoro. That’s roughly equivalent to burning 18 billion pounds of coal. Yeah, ouch, right? It’s the output of 4 coal-fired power plants per year—or 8, assuming the emissions tonnage doubled year-over-year, too.
I can do more: the greenhouse gas emissions from retail returns in 2020 were the equivalent of driving 3.5 million gas-powered cars for a year, or the electricity use of 3.1 million homes.
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Here’s how that happens, per Fast Company:
Shipping things back and forth creates needless greenhouse gas emissions. Only 54% of all packaging gets recycled. And an estimated 5 billion pounds of returned goods end up in landfills each year. These piles of discarded items now sit in deserts around the world, from Ghana to Chile. Many retailers also burn, shred, and otherwise destroy returned items (alongside unsold ones) to make sure the value of their brands stay high.
And the thing about emissions based on returns is that it’s just a profoundly behavior-based way to blow 18 billion pounds worth of coal emissions into the atmosphere. (Or 36 billion, if you’re playing by 2021 numbers). It’s not like emitting a lot of carbon in service of staying warm or cool or getting food around the world or going to work to keep the economy going. It’s pretty much just … buying too much stuff pretty thoughtlessly and then sending it back when it isn’t perfect.
Yes, I’m trying to make you feel a little guilty.
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