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Rethinking Online Returns

The convenience of online shopping can’t be denied. It saves you from getting out of your pajamas and physically traveling to various stores, sometimes returning empty-handed. With the online alternative, you get on the internet, search for a product(s) that looks suitable, and enter your credit card information. In a week or less, you have what you want.

But sometimes what arrives isn’t exactly what you want. In that case, you package it back up and send it back to the shipper, moving on to find your more ideal product.

While the product you’ve just returned is no longer your issue, it adds to the growing amount of returned products that are an issue for our environment. A whopping twenty-five percent of returns are estimated to wind up in landfills. In 2020, this amounted to 5.8 billion pounds of waste and 16 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

Surprisingly, the vast majority of these returned products that are disposed of aren’t damaged. For some companies, it’s cheaper for them to simply throw away viable products rather than resell them because of the logistics involved in reselling returned merchandise.

So what can you do to reduce the waste associated with online returns?

Reflect on whether you really need an item and if so, buy according to the 3Rs

The three core principles of sustainable living—reducing, reusing and recycling (the 3Rs)—are your best environmentally-friendly practices to follow. To ultimately cut down on waste you produce with online returns, the easiest solution is to not create the waste in the first place by not buying something unless you really need it. And if you must buy it, purchase from a brick-and-mortar store where you can check out your desired product. In addition, make certain it’s durable, long-lasting, and what you ultimately want to avoid having to return it.

Only buy clothes and shoes in-store where you can try them on

A large portion of returns comes from the fashion industry where free return shipping has made it appealing for people to buy the same item in multiple sizes or styles to determine what fits and what they like best without having to deal with financial repercussions when items are sent back. Rather than using this tactic when you need new shoes or apparel, physically go to the store and try things on to determine what fits and looks best on you.

If you must buy items online, read expert and consumer reviews before purchasing

To increase the likelihood that the item you’re buying is what you truly want and will work for you, consult online reviews to see what others have to say about the product. Consumer Reports and the New York Times’ Wirecutter are great resources for unbiased reviews of myriad products. And for specific items that you’re considering, many online retailers have review sections on the product page for the item they’re selling that you should peruse. Oftentimes, reviewers will cover sizing issues, durability, and provide other insights that can help you think through whether this is a purchase you really want to make.


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