PURCHASE WITH PURPOSE: Every Brightly Shop Purchase Supports 1% for the Planet!

The Environmental Impact of Returns Is Worse Than You Think

What actually happens to returns? The truth is most don't make it back into the market. This is the environmental impact of returns.

Written by
Kristine Nguyen

You bought something, and it wasn't quite what you expected. Or you received a gift you don't love. Whether it's a dress that doesn't fit right or makeup that isn't in your exact shade, it happens to the best of us. Whatever the case may be, you don't want it... and returning it seems to be the only option.

Mishaps like this are bound to happen—especially when shopping online. But while most people assume a returned item goes back on the shelf, that's unfortunately not the case. But if it doesn't get resold, what actually happens to that return? And what are all those returns doing to the planet? Let's dive in.

Where Do Your Returns Go?

You would think returns would go right back out into the market, but that's rarely the case. According to a 2018 report, returns account for five billion pounds of waste sent to landfills and 15 million metric tons of carbon emissions every year in the United States.

In order to return items to store shelves, they first need to be assessed and repackaged. Because of the cost that goes into that process, many retailers trash returned products, as doing so is generally cheaper than reselling them. Many of the goods returned to retailers are also used or damaged, which also affects the selling price. All in all, a past survey found only 48% of returns can be resold at full price.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates 146 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) was landfilled in 2018. And the more items we return, the more we're contributing to that insanely high number. A number that only continues to harm the planet, as "MSW landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States."

The Fate of Your Returns by Type

1. General Goods

Ever wonder what happens to all those returned Amazon orders? While two-day shipping and free returns may be convenient, it's not doing the planet any favors.

According to HuffPost, an undercover investigation unveiled around 300,000 items were tossed out at an Amazon warehouse in France in a span of only three months. This leads experts to believe that Amazon is throwing out around 3.2 million manufactured items per year in just France alone.

In addition, a UK Amazon warehouse is said to destroy 130,000 items a week, which included "returned items in good condition." In Canada, secret trackers showed a brand-new backpack was sent straight to the landfill. Sadly, these are only a few of the many reported incidents.

Past data has shown people are twice as likely to return items they bought online vs. in a store, but those in-store returns tend to have less of an environmental impact. So while avoiding returns completely is the best way to help the planet, making in-store returns is a more eco-friendly way to go about it.

"With e-retailers, there’s no store to drive to," Miguel Jaller, co-director of the Sustainable Freight Research Center at University of California, Davis, told The Guardian. "A person drives to UPS, the product is then shipped to a warehouse. That return requires several different movements, whereas with a traditional retailer, that product will likely stay at the store."

Unfortunately, there's still no way to tell whether that purchase will wind up back on store shelves or in the garbage. Considering there are entire Instagram accounts of dumpster-divers pulling thousands of new items out of the trash, you can never be too sure.

2. Clothing

It's not uncommon to buy multiple different sizes of clothing to get the right fit, but the clothing items you return might head straight to a landfill.

The fashion industry is infamous for its destruction of returned garments. Big brands like H&M and Burberry have admitted to burning hundreds of millions of dollars worth of their products. Many brands—especially luxury ones—would rather toss out their products than resell them at a lower price at the risk of tarnishing their image.

Luckily, some are making moves in the right direction. Burberry, for instance, has now moved toward donating and repurposing returned goods. It's still a rarity in the industry, though, and hopefully other brands follow suit.

To keep clothing out of landfills, we recommend trying items on in-store so you can get the perfect fit the first time, shopping secondhand when possible (in person or via online thrift stores), and buying from sustainable brands that handle returns responsibly.

3. Beauty Products

If you're considering returning makeup, skincare, haircare, or another beauty product… don't. Last year, an Ulta employee revealed those products are often thrown out or destroyed. (This isn't anything new; it happens at other retailers, too.)

While there are instances where new and sealed products can be resold, oftentimes it's not sanitary to put these items back out on shelves. And the quickest and cheapest way to get rid of something is—you guessed it—the garbage.

Even though many retailers offer free returns on beauty products—opened or not—consider gifting them to a friend instead. Because if it goes back to the store, the chances of it not winding up in the trash are very low.

What to Do Instead of Making a Return

First thing's first: It's important to really think about what you're purchasing before you actually buy it. Make sure you're only buying what you really love and need.

Now that you know the truth about what's happening behind the scenes, the thought of returning something may leave a sour taste in your mouth. Luckily, there are other ways to let go of your unwanted goods without having them sent straight to a landfill.

1. Regift It

Maybe you made a mistake and bought a beauty product you don't like, but you know your best friend would love it. Why not surprise them with it? Save the product for a special occasion, or gift it to them out of the blue. You're keeping an item out of the trash and putting a smile on someone's face in the process.

2. Donate

If there are local organizations in need of clothing or other goods, give your items to them instead. Many nonprofits will happily take them off your hands. Instead of going to a landfill and sitting there for hundreds of years, they'll be given to someone who actually needs them.

3. Try to Fix It

If you notice a flaw in your new computer or in the waist of those jeans that are just a little too big, try taking it to an expert instead of sending them back to the store. Head to a local tailor or repair shop. Or, check YouTube for a tutorial you can follow along with. You might be able to save the product before it's kicked to the curb.

4. Resell on Your Own

If you're still wanting to get some money back on those products, try reselling them yourself. With the huge amount of online reselling platforms today, it's never been easier to get some cash back on items you would have returned.