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How To Reduce Your Carbon Impact For Returns

by Emily Cotterill

Copy of Page Headers-3If you’re in the fashion industry, we’ve got some bad news:

According to some reports, you are in the second-most polluting industry in the world.

Fashion accounts for a staggering 10% of global emissions, with around 2.1 billion tons of CO2 produced each year.

With return rates upwards of 30% in the fashion industry, it is no surprise that 15 million tonnes of CO2 are released from returns alone in the US. With retailers falling under the microscope as a result of increased governmental pressures and legislations, there is more pressure than ever for retailers to reduce their environmental impact.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s a lot retailers can do to reduce their carbon footprint – especially when it comes to their unwanted goods.

Why are returns such a problem for the environment?

Most retailers have a pretty good grasp of the delivery side of their businesses.

They know the exact volumes and movements of everything they ship – and crucially, they’re aware of the routing it takes.

But when it comes to returns, most retailers are running blind.

For retailers still utilising pre-printed returns labels, or the even more outdated returns address on websites, there’s no visibility on the return journey of their goods – and that means no control over the effects they’re having on the environment.

So how exactly are those unchecked returns creating problems?

Returns are going nowhere

An estimated 50% of returned items don’t get restocked. Some retailers are better than others at extending the product lifecycle of returns by selling them on to jobbers or donating them to charity. However, on average a large proportion of returns are still left with nowhere to go, and that leads to a worrying result:

25% of all returns end up in a landfill.

Instead of being fed back into a circular economy that maximises value and minimises waste, your returns are on a linear path – with a final destination that’s polluting the planet.

And with online fashion having return rates upwards of 30%, we’re looking at an industry thats having a massive effect on the environment.

They’re burning through carbon

We already know the effect of mass production on our carbon footprint. And when 25% of returned goods end up going nowhere, that’s a huge amount of needless emissions.

But there’s a whole other side to out-of-control returns – and that’s the excessive carbon emission from transport and logistics.

When returns run rampant, and retailers are blind to those returns - all kinds of extra steps could be added to a product’s journey, and the retailer would be none the wiser. Goods may be moving from the shopper to a collection point, from the collection point to a warehouse, from the warehouse to the retailer – and finally from the retailer to a landfill in many cases.

And what’s more, when retailers are blind to returns, items typically can’t be consolidated and that means you’ve got individual parcels separately making their way back to you on lots of different flights - racking up unnecessary airmiles or carbon emissions in the process.

How does the fashion industry measure up?

The short answer?

It’s not looking good.

With the massive growth of online sales (especially during the pandemic), shoppers are returning more items than ever. 

Shoppers are returning more than ever for a few reasons: 

     1. There’s been a massive growth in online sales (especially during the pandemic)

     2. Nobody knows their sizing any more. It’s been over a year and half since people have had a reason to wear party dresses or          dapper suits - and with the pandemic turning us all into fitness fanatics or couch potatoes, the chances of those still fitting are slim. 

So, some shoppers are ‘bracketing’ on the clothes they’re buying – intentionally ordering a size above and below to find the right fit, and returning what they don’t need. This is essential turning their bedroom into the fitting room - upping their chances that something they’ve ordered will fit. 

AdobeStock_283130865But it’s not just the shoppers who are driving returns:

Retailers are guilty of driving their own return rate. 

More retailers are offering a ‘try before you buy’ service – encouraging excessive deliveries and returns with more items than shoppers really need. Plus, excessive marketing promotions could be pushing returns to an astronomical level too. 

And with the ongoing ‘fast fashion’ approach to retail, we’re creating an industry with a throwaway mindset – where garments and styles aren’t meant to last.

What can retailers do to reduce their carbon impact?

If we’ve painted a stark picture of the carbon landscape, don’t worry:

There’s still hope.

More and more retailers are starting to scrutinise the impact of every part of their supply chain – including their returns.

The recent COP26 Conference at the United Nations has brought climate change back to the forefront of public awareness – putting more pressure on retailers than ever before, and forcing larger companies to start disclosing their climate impact.

And already, we’ve started to see exemplary progress from some of the big players in the field:

Fashion giant ASOS has been working with us at ReBOUND to plot their emissions, understand their returns, and start taking positive action – leading to an 80% reduction in emissions in Russia by switching from air to road freight for their returns.

Similarly, fashion retailers PrettyLittleThing saw a 38% reduction in their USA emissions by switching from air to sea freight during the pandemic.

But it’s not just the big players who can see big results:

Retailers of all sizes can start to make positive changes to their carbon footprint – taking their returns online to get the visibility they need to make smarter choices about their returns journey.

So what should a retailer do to improve their carbon impact?

It’s about 3 simple steps – Understand, Reduce, and Offset.

1.   Understanding your returns

Before you can start to make positive changes, you need to get to the root of the issues.

Why are returns happening? What items are coming back – and what’s not working for your shoppers?

By taking your returns online – with a consolidated return model like our own here at ReBOUND – you’ll get the full visibility and data you need to thoroughly understand your returns.

You’ll know exactly what’s being returned, why it’s being returned, and where the issues are popping up.

And with the right understanding of the complete returns picture, you’ll be able to spot the problems and fix them and put a halt to problem products ever leaving the door – reducing your returns, and reducing your impact on the environment.

2.   Reduce your return journeys

You can’t prevent every unwanted item. But you can prevent the carbon impact that comes with the journey.

So for every return that occurs, you can ask “Do we need this item back?”.

If you don’t need it, you could instead divert it to a service that’s closer to the shopper, like an in-country recycling service or charity.

It’s all about feeding the circular economy – getting unwanted products out to places that need them, and minimising the waste of their production and transport.

And that’s exactly what our returns model at ReBOUND can do. We can divert your unwanted goods to places that can use them – making the most of every product, and reducing the carbon impact of your returns.

3.   Offsetting your returns

With your returns volume minimised and your cycled goods maximised, you now know the true impact your returns are having on your carbon footprint.

And that means you’re ready for the final step – aiming to balance the impact you’re having by offsetting your carbon footprint through projects such as reforestation, investing in greener energy, and contributing to eco-friendly endeavours.

Untitled design (8)-Dec-16-2021-03-54-50-66-PMReady to start a new environmental return journey?

It’s a long road ahead – and for many retailers, reducing your impact on the environment is a daunting task.

But with the right tools and teams on your side, you can start to make the positive changes the world needs while reducing your carbon footprint (and the cost of your returns!) along the way.

If you’re ready to see how a modern returns model can make a huge difference to your business and the planet, take a look at what ReBOUND can do to make returns more sustainable  – or talk to our Head of Sustainability, to find out more. 

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