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How sustainable are product returns?

by Stef de Bont, on Jun 7, 2017 9:41:27 PM

Recently there has been a lot of debate about the fact that product returns are far from being sustainable. Many will say that returns are not sustainable at all and should always be avoided. Let’s have a closer look at the product returns phenomenon and reverse logistics in relation to sustainability.

The general picture

With the growth of global e-commerce product returns are often associated with consumers buying and trying products at home and returning these without reason within 14 days after purchase. These are the returns that are considered unwanted and being a burden for the merchant. These are the returns that do not add any value and should just be avoided. These are the returns that are not sustainable at all. No doubt, that is true.

But knowing that these returns exist (like taxes and many other unwanted things) how can we make the process to deal with it sustainable? At the end of the day these returns are sometimes wanted as they are part of the shopping experience and customer service offering of a brand or retailer. Can we make these sustainable? Yes we can!

Utilizing the mobility of the consumer

The answer can be found in utilizing the mobility of the consumer to execute the “first mile” of the returns process. If the consumer returns an unwanted pair of jeans to a drop-off location or shop there is no additional transportation other then the customer going to the shop anyway. From a transportation (read sustainability) point of view what is the difference between trying at home and trying in the fitting room of the shop? Both options result in a return without additional transportation besides the customer executing the first mile to the shop.

Nobody likes commercial returns in e-commerce but the mobility of the consumer can have a substantial contribution to these returns being at least a bit more sustainable.

The other picture

In the other picture we should in fact embrace returns as an opportunity to maintain the value of existing products or to unlock their remaining value in other (new) products. In the other picture returns contribute to avoiding the shocking picture above this post and can be a sustainable answer to resource depletion on one side versus landfill on the other side.

Returns are an enabler for sustainability

In the other picture returns enable repair, refurbishment, re-manufacturing, parts recovery and recycling opportunities. In this picture products, that once have been created with craftsmanship from natural resources, keep their value in any shape or form. This avoids these products losing their value and ending up in dark hidden corners of the supply chain or landfill.

How sustainable are product returns?

It looks like there is no simple yes or no to this question. But knowing that returns exist and can contribute to sustainability we should feel obliged to develop and implement a Reverse Supply Chain that is sustainable in itself.
Topics:returns managementproduct returnscircular economy