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How to make product returns better for shoppers, and the planet

September 3, 2021

More than previous generations, today’s shoppers are turning to retailers that align with their social and political concerns — from clean energy to gender equality to water conservation. They expect companies to do more than turn a profit and as a result, a growing number of businesses have adopted the triple bottom line. Triple bottom line expands the traditional accounting framework of profits to include two other performance areas: people and planet. It’s a holistic approach to business that sees profitability, social responsibility, and environmental impact as equal pillars.

In e-commerce, we’re seeing this become increasingly challenging when it comes to product returns. According to FedEx, e-commerce is expected to double to 100 million packages a day in the United States by 2026. With so many packages being delivered, returns are becoming a major issue.

Here are a few ways that retailers of any size can add green policies to their reverse logistics chain to make product returns friendlier for both shoppers and the planet.

Avoid return waste and shipping altogether

Data and technology are ushering in a new wave of sustainable solutions to reduce return waste entirely. Whether that’s using data to reduce the likelihood of returns, letting customers keep items that can’t be resold or encouraging local shoppers to bring returns to their nearby store (which eliminates shipping altogether), retailers have a number of options.’

As an example, Thinx, a leading women’s intimates brand (and a Returnly client) offers a “returnless refund” experience where select customers can be refunded without being required to return the original (non-resellable) item. This creates an unexpected experience for their customers, while eliminating the wasted resources that the return would create.

Eliminate label-in-box

Another way to inject green policies into your reverse logistics is to get rid of pre-printed return labels and the additional inserts that come with it. Often times, these labels get lost in the shuffle or accidentally thrown away and have to be re-generated regardless. Beyond the operational and cost benefits of moving this step online, eliminating the 70 percent of unused, pre-generated labels put your brand one step closer to zero waste.

Get smart about return routing

By routing returns to optimal destination points, you can reduce your carbon footprint as well. The logistics company, Optoro, uses data science to help retailers make this possible by determining the best path for each returned item (whether it’s resale, donation or recycling) and typically sees a 40 percent decrease in landfill waste as the result.

Offset emissions for forward and reverse shipping

More sales mean more shipping, and more shipping means more emissions. Right? Thankfully, that’s not always the case. One example is Allbirds. The eco-friendly footwear company partnered with Carbon Fund to put a self-imposed internal carbon tax which funds emissions-reduction projects. Meeting the increasingly high shipping expectations of today’s consumer poses a big challenge for retailers, but brands like Allbirds have proven there are ways to meet demand while staying true to your sustainability commitment.

Return packaging alternatives

Rethinking return packaging is another way that eco-friendly brands are moving the needle for a waste-free future. The industry standard most commonly used for return shipping is polybags, but these come at a cost to the environment. Mara Hoffman led the charge in sustainable packaging as one of the first brands to invest in a compostable version. Everlane has addressed the issue as well, vowing to only use renewed versions from here on out. Offering easy, eco-friendly return packaging is a big opportunity where retailers can and should follow suit.

Green strategies like these can help retailers of every size make meaningful social and environmental change while building trust, loyalty, and profit along the way.

Proof that the triple bottom line can, and does exist.

This article originally appeared in WWD.