Unveiling the Environmental Impact of Product Returns: An Urgent Call for Circular Solutions

By Emily McGill

In the era of fast fashion and online retail, product returns have become an integral part of the consumer experience. However, the environmental repercussions of this practice have largely remained in the shadows. Therefore, recent research has been conducted in collaboration with ReBound and Makov lab at BGU University, which sheds light on the alarming environmental impact of product returns and the urgent need for circular solutions. 

The Issue at Hand: 

The lack of visibility surrounding product carbon emissions and the fate of returned products has emerged as a pressing concern. This research aims to unravel the environmental implications of returns and assess whether the emissions associated with production outweigh those of post-return processing. Post-return processing includes the transport, packaging, processing, and reconditioning of a returned product in order to extend its life cycle. These findings could clarify the environmental value of circularity services. 

At ReBound, we offer retailers comprehensive carbon reports, enabling them to understand the environmental impact of returns. In our collaboration with the University of Negev, this allowed us to contribute invaluable insights into the transportation emissions for the research. Once the item has been delivered back to the retailer, industry averages were used to determine what happened to the products once they had left Rebound’s control. The research further gathers and compares two pieces of information: the emissions generated from the production, distribution and returns of an unused product; and the emissions generated from post-return processing alone. The research explores the environmental impact of a T-shirt and an outdoor jacket, providing a representative range of research results.   

The Research Findings: 

The research, based on a comprehensive dataset covering over 630,000 returned apparel products, provides valuable insights into the environmental impact of textiles and returns. Key findings include: 

  1. Lifecycle Impacts of Returns: Between 22% to 44% of returned products never reach another consumer, highlighting significant inefficiencies in the current system.
  2. Reasons for Returns: Contrary to common assumptions, only a small fraction of returned products are unfit for resale due to damage, with the majority being returned due to fit or changes in buyer preference.
  3. Environmental Footprint: The greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production and distribution of unused products can be up to 14 times higher than post-return transport, packaging, processing, cleaning, and reconditioning emissions combined. This means we can return a product and access circular solutions up to 14 times, before the initial emissions that were emitted to produce and distribute the product is reached.
  4. Disposal Practices: 1 out of 4 returned products end up being discarded, emphasizing the need for circular returns management practices.

Industry Averages and Circular Solutions: 

Industry averages reveal that a significant portion of returned products never re-enter the market, instead ending up in recycling, incineration, or landfills. This underscores the urgency for circular solutions in returns management. ReBound emerges as a crucial player in this landscape, offering services to maximize product usage before products are returned to the retailer. By engaging with circular companies during the return process, the likelihood of unnecessary discards can be reduced, contributing to a more sustainable approach to retail. 


The research underscores the critical importance of adopting a full systems’ approach when assessing the environmental impact of product returns. Circular solutions, such as repair, cleaning, and reselling, are identified as essential strategies to mitigate the environmental footprint of returns. For ReBound, the fact that the greenhouse gas emissions associated with production and distribution of returned products can be 16 times greater than all post return transport, packaging and processing emissions combined, validate the significance of circularity services across all apparel categories. This further highlights the potential for reducing emissions and minimizing waste in the retail supply chain. 

The capacity of circular solutions to significantly reduce emissions cannot be overstated. By keeping products and materials in use for as long as possible through reuse and reconditioning, producers and retailers have a tangible opportunity to further mitigate climate change and create a more sustainable future. The main findings of this research should entail a call to action, as embracing circularity can lead to substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, conserving energy, and minimizing resource extraction.  

However, realizing the full benefits of the circular economy requires collective action. Governments, business, and individuals must work together to promote policies that incentivize circular practices, invest in innovative technologies and foster a culture of sustainability. Consumers also hold a considerable power in driving demand for circular products and services. By making conscious choices and supporting companies that prioritize circularity, we can accelerate the transition towards a circular economy. 

Would you like more information? Download the research paper here.

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