The Environmental Impact of Returning Online Products

By Tamara Davison on February 16, 2024
The Environmental Impact of Returning Online Products
Tamara Davison
Tamara Davison

Tamara Davison is a journalist who specializes in sustainability and the environment. Reporting from around the world, she's seen firsthand the direct impact waste is having on coastal communities and our oceans. As a diver trained in ecological monitoring, the changes Tamara has seen in marine habitats inspired her to action. She's previously written for The Guardian, The Independent and the Evening Standard. She's also produced environmental documentaries for EuroNews.

On average, customers return up to 30% of products bought online (Shopify, 2024), placing a vast and unnecessary strain on the environment.

Buying products online is easy and convenient, resulting in a booming culture of click-and-collect and next-day deliveries. This has also led to the normalization of online returns — a process few customers think about once they’ve popped their unwanted products back in the post. 

While many retailers offer free returns to attract more customers, our planet is paying the price. Up to 24 million metric tons of CO2 emissions are attributed to ecommerce returns each year (Optoro, 2022).

It’s time to put the environment over convenience when shopping — this means reassessing online returns and celebrating ecommerce processes that are kind to the planet. 

At CleanHub, we’re committed to helping brands take ownership of their environmental impact. Want to get involved? Partner with us on Shopify, and your business can add a ‘verified plastic recovery’ feature on checkout, show real-time evidence of your impact, and have free marketing tools to kick-start engagement.


A bird's eye view of cardboard boxes in a warehouse


What’s on this page?

01 | Key takeaways 
02 | What is the environmental impact of online returns?
03 | Why is returning online products bad for the environment?
04 | Why do some returned products end up in landfills? 
05 | Which industry has the most online returns? 
06 | Online vs brick-and-mortar store return rate
07 | How to reduce the environmental impact of online returns
08 | Summary 



Key takeaways

  • Some retailers send many returns directly to landfill instead of reselling them because it’s more cost-effective. In 2022 alone, companies sent over 9.5 billion pounds of returned products straight to landfill.
  • The volume of returns varies depending on the product. The fashion industry recorded the highest returns, with customers sending back up to 40% of garments in 2018.
  • Online shopping leads to almost three times as many returns as store purchases. There are also substantially more emissions and waste linked to online returns. 
  • An average of 66% of customers want to shop more sustainably, suggesting companies should start improving returns processes to build a more positive customer experience. 


What is the environmental impact of online returns? 

Returns significantly affect the environment because they require extra shipping and packaging, which adds to more emissions and waste. Fuelled by the rise of fast fashion, clothing returns alone release the same emissions as 3 million cars in the US. 

Also referred to as reverse logistics, some products must also be cleaned, re-packaged, or repaired, further ramping up the energy required. In some instances, returned items are sent straight to landfills, meaning there’s more pollution and environmental damage, too. 

We live in an age of over-consumption. Exacerbated by commercial holidays like Black Friday and shifting post-pandemic shopping trends, the online retail market has grown continuously year on year. This has also led to a rise in online returns, with 16.6% of all US purchases sent back to stores in 2021 — a 6% increase from the year before. 

Many of these products didn’t have to be purchased in the first place, complicating online returns even more. Around 49% of retailers offer generous free returns, and customers take advantage. 

Known as bracketing, customers increasingly exploit return policies to try products they don’t plan to keep, adding another layer of unnecessary emissions. Two-thirds of customers bought multiple sizes and colors of items in 2020, intending to send many back


Why is returning online products bad for the environment? 

There are many reasons why customers return an item they bought online. Perhaps the customer received the wrong order, wanted to try multiple sizes, or the product was faulty. 

Unfortunately, most online returns are bad for the environment — we’ve highlighted the key reasons why below.  

Transport and logistics

The carbon emissions associated with returns typically add up to 30% to the emissions of initial delivery. Returning online products speeds up climate change because it contributes to harmful emissions that can impact human health and the environment. 

What’s more, processing returns can take up to three times the initial delivery time. When you return a product, it will be posted or collected by couriers in trucks before being shipped back to retailers. 

Many retail warehouses are overseas, meaning return parcels often travel internationally to reach their destination. It’s no secret that these shipping containers greatly strain the environment, with international shipping amounting to 3% of the world's total carbon emissions in 2022. 

Return processes will vary depending on the retailer involved, and it’s difficult to find much information online about how each retailer processes returns. Amazon tells its customers it can take up to 30 days to receive and process the return package but doesn’t provide much information about the destination of its returns.

Excess packaging

Online shopping generates 4.8 times more packaging waste than brick-and-mortar stores. On top of that, returned products will often require extra plastic or cardboard packaging, which contributes to increased waste. 

While retailers encourage customers to use original packaging for their returns, some also provide guidance for extra packaging materials. Shoppee, for example, tells customers that if the original packaging is damaged, “securely tape the products and wrap them with at least 1-2 rolls of bubble wrap.”

Once returned to warehouses, workers unwrap, process, and often re-package products for resale. Some 91% of all plastic packaging waste will eventually end up in landfills or polluting the environment, highlighting the detrimental impact of unnecessary packaging. 

Find out what you can do by visiting our page on how to reduce plastic waste.



Products ending up in landfill 

In December 2019, courier UPS collected 1 million return packages daily in the United States. When return items are received, processing teams decide whether it is financially worth reselling them. Unfortunately, there’s a growing trend to simply discard the items altogether. 

In 2022, 9.5 billion pounds of returns were sent straight to landfill, according to Optoro.

The trend for discarding returns also varies depending on the industry, with fashion being one of the biggest culprits. There is an average 32% return rate for clothing compared to 7% for consumer electronics. Customers who try on clothes (or even wear them once before returning) make it difficult to resell the items, meaning they often get sent straight to landfill. 

Manufacturers create many garments with synthetic materials like polyester, meaning these discarded clothes will gather in landfills for decades — emitting plastic particles and polluting the environment. 

In some cases, return products don’t even make it to landfills. Some retailers sell returns to businesses that buy products in bulk — before disposing of any undesirable products. There are a growing number of instances documenting open-air dumping sites, such as in Chile’s Atacama Desert. Reports claim there are over 741 deserted acres that have become clothing junkyards


Why do some returned products end up in landfills?

In an ideal world, returned products eventually find a new home after being resold. That's what many companies have led customers to believe. However, the reality is a lot different. 

Returns cost US retailers $816 billion in 2022, which The Conversation points out was twice as much as the cost of returns two years earlier. The price of processing returns is one of the biggest reasons companies send items to landfills. There’s little regulation that stops companies from doing this.

After return shipping, retailers must pay laborers to clean and repackage returns. In some cases, items require repairing, which isn’t cost-effective for retailers. As a result, it’s become standard practice for some businesses to send returns directly to landfill. 


A woman holding a parcel and a phone


Which industry has the most online returns?

A study from March 2023 found that the most returned items in the US were clothing (26%), bags (19%), shoes (18%) and accessories (13%). This is followed by consumer electronics as well as food and beverages. 

The least returned items, according to the survey, were stationary.

Exacerbated by the rise of fast fashion that plugs off-the-rack, ill-fitting designs at minuscule prices, the online fashion world has normalized returns processes as part of the consumer experience. So, it’s unsurprising that fashion sees the most returns.

We’ve already mentioned bracketing as one of the practices that makes online returns more challenging. There’s also wardrobing, when customers buy and wear an item once before returning it to the seller. 

Customers may return these items stained or damaged, but lax return policies mean they can still get their money back. Around 43% of 16-24-year-olds surveyed in 2022 said they intended to continue wardrobing in the future


Online vs brick-and-mortar store return rate

Comparing the sustainability of online shopping versus shopping in stores is complex. One study found that traditional shopping contributes to twice as many emissions as online shopping. However, there’s also a higher volume of returns derived from online purchases.

The percentage of returns from online purchases varies by industry but can be as high as 40%. Meanwhile, returns account for just 5-10% of all in-store purchases because the process isn’t as easy and requires customers to travel back to retail outlets. 

When it comes to emissions, returns amount to a much more significant part of the ecommerce industry, amounting to 25% of total emissions. This compares to just 7% of emissions linked to returns for in-person stores. 


How to reduce the environmental impact of online returns

Current online return processes are far from sustainable, but they don’t have to be this way. Both retailers and consumers have a role in improving returns processes and helping protect the planet — and here’s how. 


The best way consumers can reduce the impact of online returns is to stop unnecessarily returning products. Just 20% of online products are returned because they’re damaged, meaning most of the time, people have other reasons for sending back their goods. 

Take a moment to think about whether returning your purchase is necessary — or whether there are alternative ways to keep your product in circulation.

At least 66% of customers also consider sustainability when shopping, underscoring the rise of the conscious consumer. Getting educated about return processes is one of the most impactful steps customers can take, as this knowledge allows them to support brands that are making a difference. 

Investigate the returns policies of your favorite brands and support retailers with a clear ESG policy that addresses their commitment to sustainable returns. 

Most importantly, it’s time we ended harmful environmental practices linked to bracketing and wardrobing. Shop with sustainable clothing brands, committed to making durable clothes instead of cheap, easily damaged items. And, instead of buying three of the same item in different sizes, check out the measurements guide to be sure. 


Studies have found that around 91% of businesses are seeing the rate of returns grow faster than their revenue. Optimizing return processes and educating customers about the impact of returns isn’t just good for the environment — it’s also a good financial move.

There are several ways that businesses can optimize their returns processes, such as clearly explaining to customers how to reuse packaging when returning their products. Swapping plastic packaging for more sustainable materials or reducing the size of packages can similarly go a long way. 

While many customers prefer shopping with brands with good returns policies, research suggests that they might be open to changing their online return habits if incentivized by retailers. 

Around 31% of retailers charged customers for their returns in 2022 — and that number rose to 40% the following year. Swapping lucrative free return policies for a fee can help deter customers from bracketing, wardrobing, and unnecessary returns while making them more aware of the environment. On top of that, technology will likely play a key role in the future. For example, letting customers virtually try on garments may reduce bulk buying even further. 

Companies can also partner with several reverse logistics companies that can help reduce unnecessary waste and reduce emissions. Happy Returns, for instance, uses reusable containers to minimize waste and enhance bulk shipping of box-free returns.  



Online returns have been overlooked for too long, contributing to a mounting problem in ecommerce and retail. However, given that sustainability is of growing importance to business leaders and consumers, it’s time to change how we view online return processes. 

Implementing eco-friendly returns practices can help businesses reduce their environmental footprint, while aligning with sustainably minded customers. It starts by being open about the emissions and waste generated through returns and raising customer awareness about the environmental challenges. 

With each unnecessary return, we edge one step closer to a more environmentally conscious world. By prioritizing practices that are kind to the planet in the ecommerce space, we can help build a more environmentally positive retail industry. 

Want to reduce your business’s plastic footprint? We can help. All you have to do is get in touch with our in-house team. Once we’ve received your details, we can arrange a call to discuss which plastic recovery plan best suits your business needs. 



Is returning items bad for the environment?

Returning online items uses more emissions and generates more waste, meaning it’s not very good for the environment. Unfortunately, many returns are also sent to landfills, exacerbating our planet’s waste crisis. 

What is the environmental impact of a product?

Extracting raw materials, manufacturing processes, shipping, and logistics contribute to a product's environmental impact and carbon emissions. That is before we even look at end-of-life processes, which see many products going to waste unnecessarily. 

What is the environmental impact of Amazon's return?

Considered one of the biggest ecommerce companies in the world, some reports have linked Amazon's returns to ‘killing the environment.’ In 2021, the company was accused of destroying ‘unsold products by the thousands,’ adding to already mounting waste around our planet. 

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