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What Happens to Online Returns?

Updated: Sep 5

The convenience of buying nearly anything from the bed, kitchen, car, office, or park—virtually anywhere with cell service—has made online shopping incredibly common. It’s become so prevalent that 15% of all retail purchases are online, down only slightly from 19% during the depths of the pandemic.

However, with this convenience comes a less visible consequence: the staggering amount of waste emissions generated by e-commerce returns. Slowly but steadily, though, this massive issue is getting more attention; outlets like Fortune, The Atlantic, and the BBC have all reported on the financial and economic costs of returns.

While there’s a lot to bemoan, retailers do have an innovative option for ditching the dump and extending their products' lives—and it costs less than landfilling returns and unsellable items.

But both consumers and retailers first need to understand the urgency of the returns-and-waste situation.

A photo shows a pair of hands holding three pairs of blue jeans above an open cardboard box.

Destined for the Dump: E-commerce Returns are Piling Up

Consumers may love the convenience of free returns, but the environmental impact is often overlooked. Annually, consumers’ returns amount to around 9.5 billion pounds going to landfills, a staggering figure that not only pollutes the environment but also exacerbates the landfill crisis.

This waste doesn't come without a hefty financial burden either; retailers are literally throwing money away. Between paying for shipping to return, warehouse, restock, and transit returns to the landfill (not to mention landfill fees), consumers cost retailers over $816 billion in 2022.

And returns aren’t just discarded products, but wasted resources, energy, and labor that went into manufacturing, packaging, and shipping them. This includes not only the direct costs of processing returns but also the hidden costs of environmental damage and the need for innovative waste management and circular economy infrastructure: In 2022, the returns process pumped out roughly 24 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Online Returns: A Costly Conundrum for Retailers

Returning items to manufacturers or reselling them at full price isn't always feasible for retailers due to various reasons, such as damaged packaging, minor defects, or “outdated” products. Sending these items back to the landfill might seem like the easiest solution, but it's far from economical. In most cases, retailers can expect to spend an average of $15 to landfill a $22 item.

Retailers incur costs at every stage of the returns process, from the labor required to inspect and sort returned items to the transportation and disposal expenses associated with sending them to landfills. Additionally, the resale value of returned items often drops significantly, forcing retailers to write off losses. This entire cycle not only puts a dent in profit margins but also adds to the overall environmental burden.

But retailers no longer have to throw away money, returns, and excess inventory.

How Retailers Can Save Money and Resources on Their Online Returns

The cycle of online returns has far-reaching consequences, from environmental degradation to financial strain on retailers. The current trend of sending returned items to landfills is not only terrible for the environment but also economically unsustainable.

Fortunately, retailers can now save money, track toward their ESG goals, and build brand loyalty—all by donating their returns with LiquiDonate. By partnering with retailers to redirect returned items that would otherwise end up as waste, LiquiDonate uses its Matching Algorithm to match retailers’ returns with nonprofits.

And it’s easy for retailers to take advantage of LiquiDonate’s Donation as a Service API. By integrating with their POS system, retailers can give consumers initiating returns the option of donating their returns through LiquiDonate. Retailers can issue a refund once the nonprofit has received the item. Alternatively, retailers with bulk returns can use LiquiDonate’s Bulk Donation Tool to upload hundreds of thousands of items for donation.

Retailers also don’t need to sweat logistics. LiquiDonate handles all logistics, ensuring seamless pickup, shipping, and delivery to local nonprofits in all 50 states.

Simply put, by choosing to donate returns through LiquiDonate, retailers save significantly.

Ditch the Dump and Donate Online Returns with LiquiDonate

Consumers and retailers alike have to contend with a warming climate and limited resources. While online returns are just one piece of the complex climate puzzle, getting returns and excess inventory to those who need it most saves retailers money, cuts carbon emissions, and includes consumers in their efforts. It should be an easy decision for retailers looking to cut costs, pursue their ESG goals, and simply be better stewards of the resources they require to keep their businesses moving.

Book a demo today to see how easy it is to save money and make an environmentally conscious decision.

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