Online returns: an ecological and economic challenge

The rise of e-commerce

Over the past decade, e-commerce has radically transformed the way consumers shop. The world has become a marketplace accessible at the click of a button. Gigantic platforms such as Amazon, Alibaba and eBay dominate the landscape, but thousands of smaller online stores have also emerged.

Some revealing figures

  • In 2021, more than 2.14 billion people worldwide will have made an online purchase– almost a quarter of the world’s population.
  • According to a study by Statista, total e-commerce sales volume reached US$4.2 trillion in 2020, up from just US$1.3 trillion in 2014.
  • It is estimated that by 2023, almost 22% of global retail sales will be made online.

Convenience at the heart of growth

The main reason for this boom is convenience. Consumers can browse a multitude of products, read reviews, compare prices and order with ease. All without leaving the comfort of their home. What’s more, with the arrival of smartphones and dedicated applications, online shopping has become even simpler. By 2021, 73% of online sales will be made via mobile devices.

The other side of the coin: returns

However, this convenience comes at a cost. One of the biggest challenges of e-commerce is the high rate of returns. According to a study by the National Retail Federation (NRF) in 2020, the average rate of returns for online purchases was 30%, compared with 8-10% for purchases in traditional shops. This has major implications, both in terms of logistics costs and environmental impact.

Economic and ecological consequences

Product returns are costly for companies: shipping costs, returns processing, restocking or even destruction of items. What’s more, the environmental cost is enormous. Greenhouse gas emissions from transport, packaging waste and the destruction of returned items have a significant impact on our planet.