Not so good returns

Dear Sam,

Reading all the posts on Nextdoor about “porch pirates” stealing peoples’ packages made me wonder about the sustainability of all the online shopping we do today. Is there a hidden impact?  




Dear Abby,

You have made a very keen observation. Yes, while convenient, fast, and easy, online shopping has several unfortunate negative environmental impacts. The most obvious impact is the carbon footprint of the packaging waste generated and the fossil fuels used to ship individual items to households. But I’d like to draw our reader’s attention to a lesser-known impact: the waste generated from all the online shopping returns.

I’ll limit our discussion to online clothing shopping. Still, please realize that this problem extends to all products sold online, from books to toiletries to furniture and tools. When you buy something online and then return it, it is just as likely to be thrown away as it is to be resold. Returns are complicated and expensive for retailers to deal with, so it is often cheaper to throw the item away. In 2020, 2.6 million tons of returned clothes wound up in landfills in the United States ( Why? Because 24% of clothing purchased online is returned. Suppose you buy an item in a store. You can try it on to ensure fit, making you far less likely to return it. When purchasing an item online, shoppers often buy the same item in multiple sizes to ensure the best fit and then have to ship back the sizes that don’t fit properly. It is estimated that shoppers are three times more likely to return an item bought online than one purchased in a store.

Larger retailers with more resources employ intermediary services called returns liquidators, who process returns for resale by the original retailer or liquidation to wholesale buyers (like Marshalls or TJ Maxx). Retailers will donate, recycle, or destroy (i.e., incinerate or send to a landfill) items they can’t resell. All of these options require more packaging and more shipping.

Keep in mind that, in addition to the potential waste of the item itself, returning an online purchase can require more packaging waste (save the packaging for reuse!), and the carbon footprint of shipping has now been doubled. Online returns create 16 million tons of carbon emissions every year (that’s the equivalent of 3.5 million cars on the road for an entire year) and 5.8 billion pounds of landfill waste ( Returns are one of several reasons clothing is the third most polluting industry (after construction and food). 

Like all waste-generating systems, reduction is critical. We need diverse ways for people to access items they need, such as clothing, including online shopping. But the next time you want to order something quick and easy online, be sure it is something you need and are unlikely to return. (Oh, and watch out for porch pirates!)



P.S. Readers: In case you are interested in reading more about this topic, here are links to an opinion piece, article, and podcast that I enjoyed. You will need a subscription or to sign up for a free trial to read the NY Times opinion piece and The Atlantic article. The podcast is free, and a quick listen. 

When You Return Those Pants, There’s a Price You Don’t See (NY Times) 

This Is What Happens to All the Stuff You Don’t Want  (The Atlantic)

Today, Explained: Many unhappy returns (Vox)