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From Panic-Ordering to Customer Returns, the Country Is Dealing With ‘Stuff Syndrome’

Between over-ordering and the rate of returns, a surplus of stuff—and its environmental impact—is a cause for concern.

Written by
Calin Van Paris

A truth becoming clear in the commerce world: there is simply too much stuff. Corporations are reeling after supply-chain issues inspired them to over-order merchandise, to be stored in warehouse space that is quickly dwindling due to lack of customer demand.

According to Reuters via Descartes Datamyne, imports to retail-processing centers in the U.S. increased by 26% from pre-pandemic levels in the first half of 2022. But because of inflation and a struggling economy, consumers are spending less—and areas like one massive industrial complex in California, which contains 1.6 billion square feet of storage space (it can be seen from space, and counts Amazon as its biggest tenant), are nearing capacity.

The over-abundance is inconvenient, but also irresponsible on an environmental level. Container ships account for 3% of greenhouse emissions—one billion metric tons of carbon dioxide—annually. And this all becomes more problematic when one considers how much of this influx of merchandise is destined to be returned.

Let's Talk About Returns

While a product's journey to customers is indeed an issue, it's the journey back to the retailers that results in the most emissions—but that fact does little to slow down the rate. In 2021, around $218 billion of goods bought online were returned. (Click here if you've ever wondered where your returns actually end up. Spoiler: It's not back on the shelves.)

According to a 2018 report, U.S. returns account for five billion pounds of waste sent to landfills and produce 15 million tons of carbon emissions annually. Forbes did the math: "Assuming that there are approximately 750 million returns a year, packaging creates another 4,500 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions."

As detailed in the above figure from this 2021 study, reverse supply chains are significantly less efficient, and thus more damaging to the environment, than the forward actions that get orders to doorsteps as quickly as possible. How much less efficient? Returns result in an estimated 30% more carbon emissions than initial deliveries.

What's the Solution?

Buy Less!

While this won't solve any problems for the companies drowning in excess product, adopting a lifestyle that's a touch more thoughtful and less consumer-driven will eventually reshape the country's commerce model as a whole. Use what you have. Or, if you really need something new, rely on thrift stores or small businesses in your community.

But the most important takeaway? The time is now to revisit your reliance on online shopping. It may be convenient, but seeing and sampling goods in person reduces the chance that you'll need to make a return—and that significantly reduces your environmental footprint.