Product Lifecycle – What happens to returned products?

The Retail Product Lifecycle

If you are an environmentally-conscious consumer, it is important to understand every life cycle stage of the products you purchase. Even the ones you don’t keep. The product lifecycle describes the process that a retail product goes through, from raw materials to end-of-life disposal. Lifecycle thinking is about considering a products impact beyond simply its manufacturing process, instead considering its environmental impact over its entire life cycle.

retail product lifecycle

Some products do not even reach the product use stage as the consumer returns the item. Product returns is one part of the lifecycle that many don’t consider. 88% of consumers assume that their returns are simply re-sold to another customer. Despite living in the most environmentally-aware society ever, product returns are a hidden cost adding to our carbon footprints. Some businesses even neglect this part of the product lifecycle, instead concentrating on more “visible” forms of sustainability that consumers are more likely to notice.

Buy-and-try culture

This stage of the product lifecycle is more important than ever, considering the rise in popularity of online shopping. The e-commerce return rate sits at around 30%, compared to just 8.89% for physical stores. This is partly due to our buy-and-try culture, where many of us will over-purchase with the intention of returning most of the items. We now expect retailers to provide us with easy and free returns processes, which further encourages a flippant attitude to returns and over-purchasing. In fact, in 2020 almost two thirds of shoppers bought multiple varieties of the same item with the intent of returning some of them. As these habits grow so will returns, with the volume of product returns rising by a huge 95% from 2014-2019.

The environmental cost

What exactly happens to product returns isn’t clear, with many retailers being secretive with how they handle returns. Some are resold by the retailer, or to discounters, some are recycled or given to charities, and some are sent to the incinerator or landfill. But even without in-depth data, we know returns have a big impact. 5 billion pounds worth end up in landfill yearly, and that’s in the US alone. This emits 15 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere, equivalent to the annual emissions from 3 million cars! This adds to the huge environmental impact that’s already caused by waste.

Why aren’t all returns resold?

You may be wondering, why would my return end up in landfill if it is in perfect condition? Well, it is not as simple as the retailer simply sticking it back on the shelf. For example, you order a new toaster online. It arrives, and you decide that you don’t like the colour as it doesn’t match the photo. So, you package it up and send it back. A staff member would then need to open this return, thoroughly check its condition and maybe even plug it in to make sure that its working. This costs companies both time and money, especially if they are handling large volumes of returns. On top of that, the box has been opened. This means it can’t simply be re-sold as brand new.

So it’s fair to say that product returns can cause a bit of a headache for retailers. It can actually cost twice as much to get a return back on the shelf, than it costs to sell it the first time! This is why some just don’t bother, and instead find it easier and cheaper just to send returns, even those in perfect condition, to landfill or the incinerator. This is not something that we as consumers even consider as part of the purchase or returns process. We live in a time where people are more aware of their carbon footprint than ever before, but you may be unknowingly undoing your efforts if you are making frequent returns.

Clothing industry

The clothing industry contributes the most to this issue. A shocking 84% of returned garments end up in landfill or the incinerator! Even high-end brands like Burberry have admitted that returned items that don’t sell well were burned instead of resold, with £90 million worth of goods being destroyed over 5 years. H&M also admitted to burning 15 million tonnes of clothing that were not in good enough condition to be recycled. Over-purchasing is also particularly bad with clothing, as people will buy multiple colours or sizes of one item. Textile waste is a nightmare for the environment, with over 17 million tonnes generated yearly in the US alone.

How we can reduce returns

Estimates show that 20-25% of online retailers environmental impact comes from returns. Whilst returns are not completely avoidable, there are ways to reduce these. The most common reason for returns (excluding damage) is that the item did not match the description. A significant 64.2% of consumers gave this reason. Here at Fairwayrock we recognise this issue, and strive to reduce returns waste by giving customers all the insights and information that they need to make an informed decision. We want to fight against the culture of waste and encourage more thoughtful and informed shopping decisions.

As a consumer, there are ways you can shop more sustainably. You can look carefully at products descriptions, photos and measurements. This should help you make the right decision, instead of buying multiples of the same item and needing to make a return. You can also make an effort to shop with companies that commit to sustainability and reducing waste. Our environmental policy is here.

We hope that this blog has shed some light on what could be happening to the products you return, and how you can shop more consciously!

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