Viveka Risberg’s Sustainability Insights: Did you make any bargains during Black Week that you regret and want to return? You’re not alone. But do you know what happens to many functional products when they’re sent back? The probable answer is that they get destroyed.
Viveka Risberg is a sustainability specialist and program director for the program Sustainable Production & Consumption. She is the chairman of ETI Sweden (Ethical Trading Initiative) and the former Chair at the Swedish amfori network.
Calculations from the European Environmental Bureau, EEB, indicate that the total value of returned textile and electronic products that were destroyed in the EU in 2022 amounted to 21.7 billion euros. That’s equivalent to Cyprus’s GDP for the year 2020.
The combination of easy clicks, low prices, free shipping, and free returns encourages extra purchases of unnecessary, low-quality, and wrongly sized items.
The unsustainable return culture is the ultimate consequence of a system built on cheap mass production and overconsumption of items we don’t need. It’s also consumer power at its peak – companies bend over backward to satisfy us, the comfortable online shoppers.
The combination of easy clicks, low prices, free shipping, and free returns encourages extra purchases of unnecessary, low-quality, and wrongly sized items. Simply put, we buy things we don’t need and clothes that don’t fit. We leave them unused, throw, or return them – because free returns are common. Up to every third ordered garment is sent back, or 40 percent of all online-purchased garments, according to an SVT survey from May 2023.
The most common shopping method during the 2022 Black Week was mobile online shopping. Almost eight out of ten consumers made some of their purchases online, and more than half exclusively shopped in web stores during this week. Of these, 69 percent received free delivery. The most popular items? Clothing, shoes, and consumer electronics. Precisely the items leading the return charts and getting destroyed, amounting to the same value as Cyprus’s gross national product.
Up to every third ordered garment is sent back, or 40 percent of all online-purchased garments. Photo: iStock
Costly for companies and the environment
For companies, e-commerce returns are a costly affair, yet absorbed as a cost of doing business. Free shipping is often standard in e-commerce, sometimes above a certain amount. With returns, it involves double transportation, with environmental impacts mostly “out of sight, out of mind”, to quote Makov Circular Economy Lab where researchers investigate material flows in Europe for e-commerce returns.
The worst are the online retail giants. A German investigation from 2022 reveals that a well-known American multinational e-commerce company destroyed 1.840 tons of unsold and returned products in Germany in 1.5 years. One logistics centre of the same company destroys one truck load of unsold products a week, including new electronics, at so-called “destroy stations”, according to Greenpeace. The list of reported examples is long.
Product destruction is simply the cheapest and easiest way for retailers and manufacturers to handle customer returns.
In comparison, Swedish companies do better. Nevertheless, a qualitative study from Lund University shows that even companies portraying themselves as sustainable and eco-friendly opt to discard goods that are returned. Product destruction is simply the cheapest and easiest way for retailers and manufacturers to handle customer returns. The alternative – inspecting, sorting, and redirecting products – is a labor-intensive and costly process whose expenses far exceed the mass production of low-value goods.
Statistics from the EU confirm that the problem is industry-wide and systematic. EEB estimates that 98,000 microwaves and 140,000 kettles are destroyed respectively each year. For these two products this represents 25,000 tons of CO2e, 690 tons of steel, 110 tons of glass, and 2 million litres of water annually.
Tough times leads to a shift in trend
For good reason, the unsustainable e-commerce return culture is scrutinized and there are glimmers of hope. Some companies have introduced fees for returns. Others are attempting to redirect their returns to physical stores. A recent study by Voyado, analyzing 132 million purchases made in Sweden between October 2022 and September 2023, shows a shift in trend: e-commerce returns are decreasing. The reason is believed to be a combination of increased consumer awareness and tough economic times, prompting consumers to think twice before clicking ‘Checkout.’
The question is whether the trend will reflect on the Christmas shopping. The Christmas shopping in 2023 is expected to decrease, so it likely means fewer.
Legislation on its way
So, what can be done about the unsustainable return culture? Some suggestions proposed include mandatory return fees, streamlined return processes to make it economically viable to handle returns, as well as increased awareness among consumers. But isolated interventions aren’t enough. Academic research and experts highlight the need for enhanced product quality and strengthened legislation.
The EU aims to implement minimum standards for nearly all products on the market to be sustainable, durable, and environmentally friendly.
France, Germany, and Belgium have already introduced laws to counteract product destruction. The EU aims to implement minimum standards for nearly all products on the market to be sustainable, durable, and environmentally friendly. The EU’s ecodesign framework for sustainable products encompasses requirements for repairability, energy efficiency, and recycling, as well as the prohibition of the destruction of unsold textiles, shoes, and electronics.
But don’t just wait for the EU. Consider that click, so you don’t regret your purchase.
/Viveka Risberg, Program Director Sustainable Production & Consumption, Axfoundation