Contributor III

Holiday Returns and its Toll on the Environment


Written by Rebecca Wang 


During this locked-down holiday season, retailers are making it easier than ever for customers to shop online. Expanding the shipping and return policies is definitely one of the most applied strategies. But the convenience brought by the growth of e-commerce comes with hidden environmental costs. The carbon emissions produced by billions of product returns further the negative impact climate change has on our planet. As you read, you will learn more about this issue and what we, as main contributors, can do to lessen its impact. 


How many goods are returned each year? 


Each year, consumers return about $380 billion worth of goods - $90 billion of which are processed during the holiday. Only a fraction of these returns ever gets resold. Most items often end up in a thrift store, or even worse, sent straight to landfills. It can cost twice as much to process an online return back to the shelf as it does to sell it the first time. Therefore, nearly 5 billion pounds of retail returns eventually end up in landfills. This is a shocking number to consider. 


How is clothing returns particularly harmful to the environment? 


Many online shoppers will buy many sizes/colours of one article of clothing and plan to return the ill-fitting garments. Research conducted by Sharon Cullinane, professor of sustainable logistics at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden who has lectured, published and researched in the field of the environment and transport policy around the world suggests that, on average, a quarter of clothing purchases made online are returned. Like all other returned products, more than half of the clothing ends up in landfills, resulting in the increase of harmful gas, pollution and loss of biodiversity. This increases the impact of climate change on our Earth’s already-frail environment. 


Explaining the carbon footprint of holiday returns 


Holiday returns are shown to generate huge amounts of carbon emissions during the shipping process of returned items. It is estimated that in the United States alone, the shipment of returned products can generate 15 million tons of carbon emissions every year. The amount of carbon emissions trapped in our atmosphere is one of the main contributors to climate change. This can lead to devastating effects on our already fragile environment. 


To help, what can you do before deciding to buy something? 


Take this informational and important quote from Sharon Cullinane as a point of insight: 

“Think before you buy, don’t order the things that you don’t particularly want [and] try and look at the information on the website so that you’re not ordering something that surprises you when it arrives.” 


What are some further tips you can follow to reduce the pressure put on our environment? 


Tip #1: Try to buy from companies that ship locally rather than from international warehouses. 

Tip #2: Donate the products you wish to return to local charities in your area to prevent the goods you wish to return from ending up in landfills. Charities to consider include The Salvation Army, Canadian Red Cross, Goodwill and Habitat for Humanity.


Holiday returns and their impact on our planet can seem overwhelming, but by taking these tips and educating yourself on the issue, you are already taking part in lessening its effects. Together, we can make changes in how we buy and return things to make a difference. 


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Sanicola, L. (2017, December 26). There's a good chance your holiday returns will end up in a landfill. CNNMoney. Retrieved January 3, 2022, from https://money.cnn.com/2017/12/26/news/retail-returns-landfill/index.html

Vermes, J. (2021, November 28). Cyber Monday deals may be fuelling carbon emissions: experts. CBC. Retrieved January 3, 2022, from https://deacy.jerseysandhat.com/-/Cyber-Monday-deals-may-be-fueling-carbon-emissions:-experts/

Xaxx, J. (2019, November 22). The effects of solid waste disposal. Sciencing. Retrieved January 3, 2022, from https://sciencing.com/list-7431070-effects-solid-waste-disposal.html


1 Comment
Révolutionnaire Team Révolutionnaire Team
Révolutionnaire Team

This is so interesting, I've thought a lot about being mindful this year - but never considered the waste from returns, which I'm definitely guilty of doing too much.