Returns and sustainability – is it viable?

wood cubes with sustainability symbols

wood cubes with sustainability symbols

Online Retailer Study 2022 Returns and sustainability – is it viable?

Published on 06.12.2022 by Alexis Chappatte, Digital Commerce Consultant at Swiss Post

Recycling and environmentally friendly packaging have long been pressing topics in online retail. More and more companies are also looking to produce their products more sustainably. Online shops are acting on their own initiative, but also because customers are increasingly demanding sustainability.

E-commerce vs in-store retail

Online retail also causes emissions: parcels have to be delivered and lots of packaging material is needed. Returns in particular are often seen as a major problem in the context of sustainability. And of course, they have an unfavourable impact, for instance in terms of CO2 emissions. Nevertheless, the results of online retail are good compared to in-store retail. In a meta-analysis, Logistics Advisory Experts GmbH compared the impact that in-store retail and online retail have on the climate. It has been shown that, in many cases, online retail has a much less harmful impact on the environment than in-store retail. Individual transport to high-street shops in particular generates a lot of CO2. In addition, sales outlets also cause more emissions than the mail order infrastructure.

It is therefore too simplistic to demonize returns from a sustainability perspective, because they are an integral part of online retail. And in many cases, the alternative of shopping in a high-street shop leads to significantly more emissions than the shipping of online orders.

Consumers expect a sustainable approach

Sustainability has become a hygiene factor and a growing requirement among customers. Today’s customers are well informed and ask critical questions. This is also clear in the results of the 2022 trend indicator: 77 percent of respondents would like information on the origin of products. For this reason, it’s a good idea for companies to produce, sell and ship their goods in the most environmentally friendly way possible. An online shop, for example, makes it possible to identify sustainable products as such and for customers to find them easily using filter criteria.

This represents an opportunity for online retail to help make the economy as a whole greener. But here too, less is more – carbon-offset shipping, environmentally friendly packaging and reducing the number of returns. An important initial building block for sustainable products is the packaging design. Choosing the right packaging can reduce CO2 emissions and, by taking on responsibility, also appeal to new segments of environmentally conscious shoppers.

Returns and sustainability

How does sustainability come into play here? When choosing packaging, care should be taken to use environmentally friendly materials in order to minimize any harmful effects. But transporting returns also leads to emissions. And lastly, emissions are generated when returned products are destroyed.

Considering sustainable shipping options

When compared to in-store retail, online retail has the advantage of reducing the harmful environmental effects caused by driving to the store. Environmentally friendly packaging can also contribute to sustainability. But shipping also has to take responsibility when it comes to reducing greenhouse gases.

Many logistics companies, such as Swiss Post, offer carbon-offset shipping, in which the emissions generated are compensated again. In the case of Swiss Post, every parcel is delivered CO2-compensated. Reusing already used cardboard boxes for parcels can also reduce environmental costs.

Returns transport

Besides the packaging, the transport of returns is also harmful to the environment. In many cases, this effect is less drastic than you might expect because existing logistics routes can be used – for example, the delivery van that picks up packages for shipping can also bring the returns back to retailers.

Sustainable logistics and packaging options are increasingly becoming a high priority on the company agenda. This is because as the online market grows faster, the greater impact there is on the environment and criticism of the e-commerce industry increases. It remains to be seen which innovative ideas will prevail in the long term and make the shopping experience a “greener” one in the future.

Alexis Chappatte, Digital Commerce Consultant, Post CH Ltd

Alexis Chappatte, a Digital Commerce Consultant at Swiss Post, has many years’ experience in consulting and implementing digital transformation projects for customers ranging from SMEs to the public administration. He helps them develop sustainable digital strategies, taking new consumer habits and end customer expectations into account.

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