Fashion retailer Zara has announced it will begin charging for online returns. And although the £1.95 (US$2.41) it is to charge for these returns might seem small, it could have a tremendous impact on the environment.
With at least 30% of all products ordered globally being returned, online retailers are continuing to struggle with the sheer volume. Boohoo was the latest online retailer to witness this as its customers returned items faster than they had expected, sending its shares down by more than 15%.
The rate of returns is higher now than it was before the pandemic and not only is this making retailers’ bottom lines look pretty ugly, it is detrimental to the environment. Hence it is essential for retailers to start thinking about the environmental impact of the return flow.
Each returned package – regardless of which carrier picks it up – leaves a trail of emissions from the various trains, planes and giant trucks that carry it back to the seller.
That pollution contributes to climate change and worsens air quality. Many of the discarded items head to landfill. The environmental problem is only getting worse as e-commerce grows and free returns become the expected norm for shopping online.
Unfortunately, as much as consumers crave free returns, they come with a significant environmental cost and are just not sustainable in the long term. We, as an industry, should try to change the return mindset to make online shopping more sustainable.
Retail giants like Zara could and should pave the way here, because only big retailers are able to change the norm and make paid returns the standard rather than the exception. If the industry takes a clear standpoint here, we can make a real impact.
Changing the mindset from free returns to sustainable returns will however require an industry statement, as research suggests two-thirds (67%) of UK consumers would refuse to order online if they have to pay the return costs themselves.
We know returns are inevitable as online shoppers can’t try before they buy, and they need to know they can return products if they don’t fit, are the wrong size, or simply aren’t as the picture made them out to be.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean we should accept returns without question. Charging a small fee for returns could be a good way to trigger consumers to think wisely about their purchase behaviour in order to cut back the massive return flow.
The condition for paid returns however is that the return policy is clear, transparent and the process is easy-peasy lemon squeezy with a short refund period.
As much as retailers may think that hiding or over complicating their returns policy in an attempt to try and reduce returns will work, the exact opposite is true. Having a clear and simple returns policy can actually drive sales.
So although returns might seem a headache for retailers at first glance, a customer- and environment-first returns policy will pay off in the long-term both for the planet and the purse strings.