If you're a big shopper, you may also be a big return-er. And while "returns culture" has certainly helped make things easier for busy shoppers, it's done no favors for the environment. Between the emissions associated with mailing back returns and the common corporate policy of destroying returned items, relying on returns is not the best move for Mama Earth.
Fortunately, we have plenty of tips for avoiding ever having to make a return again, as well as advice on alternatives to returning gifts and other purchases.
How to avoid returning unneeded products:
Many people rely on returns as part of their shopping experience, especially when stores offer free returns. It’s not uncommon for someone to order the same shoes in three sizes, try them on, and return the ones that don’t fit; for someone to buy a fancy new TV, watch a few movies, and return it a week later; or for a hungry shopper to buy too many ingredients, and return unopened ones to the store the next day.
However, the returned items in these cases are often thrown away, and mailing them back will contribute to emissions.
Of course, it’s understandable why people might engage in the above behavior — some people don’t have time to go to the store and try on shoes, and others cannot afford to buy and keep a flat-screen TV. But for those who are able to avoid the above actions, we recommend buying intentionally, and never buying anything that will need to be returned.
Before making a purchase, do your research to make sure this item is exactly what you want or need, and ask yourself if you’re confident you’ll get a lot of use out of it. Also, consider shopping from smaller, ethically-minded businesses.
And as gift-giving holidays approach, consider encouraging your loved ones to share wish lists. That way, no one will get a gift they don’t like, therefore lowering return rates.
Here are some alternatives to returning unwanted items:
Start out by calling the company and ask what happens with returned items. Turn on your customer service charm, and maybe the representative will issue you a full refund and tell you to just keep the unwanted item. If that happens — or, if you can afford to forgo a full refund and you choose not to return your unwanted item — you have a few other options besides returning it.
If it is something perishable (such as fresh or frozen food) or inexpensive and unexciting (like household or office supplies), consider giving it away on your local Buy Nothing group on Facebook, or to a friend or neighbor. For nicer or more expensive items (like furniture, clothing, or jewelry), you could try selling them on a secondhand website. And for anything in-between, perhaps you could hold onto it and regift it later.
Sometimes, you will have no choice but to return an item. In those cases, rather than mailing it back, consider bringing it back to the store (ideally, next time you already have a trip planned there, to save on transportation emissions). This way, you’ll at least avoid the shipping emissions.
Basically, until corporations are held legally accountable for throwing away their returned products, there will be no perfect solution to the very imperfect returns culture. But in the meantime, the above tips should help you rest assured that you aren't contributing to it.