How to Reduce the Carbon Footprint of Return Shipping
Rebecca Fox

July 2, 2023

Return shipping generates a lot of carbon emissions, and only by understanding the environmental impact of returns can you take action to reduce your carbon footprint.

Here’s how you can reduce the carbon footprint of your return shipments by implementing best practices and strategies in areas like packaging, reverse logistics, and product lifecycle.

The Environmental Impact of Return Shipments

Before diving into some of the solutions to carbon emissions from returns, let’s take a closer look at the environmental impact of return shipments. 

Here are some of the main factors that contribute to the carbon footprint of returns:

Volume of Return Shipments

Online shopping has grown exponentially in recent years. Global eCommerce sales reached $5.7 trillion in 2022, and are expected to grow to $8.1 trillion by 2026. The growth of online shopping, however, is accompanied by a high volume of returns. 

The average return rate for online purchases is 20%. The more returns are shipped back, the higher the carbon footprint and environmental impact.

Energy Consumption and Gas Emissions

Shipping products from warehouses to customers and back uses a lot of fuel and electricity, which generate greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change and global warming. 

The biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions (CO2, the most common greenhouse gas) in the US is transportation, accounting for 38% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Packaging Waste

Packaging materials are essential for protecting products during transportation, but they also create a lot of waste and pollution.

Most packaging materials are made from plastic or paper, which are derived from non-renewable resources and require a lot of energy and water to produce. 

Moreover, not all packaging materials are recyclable or biodegradable, and many end up in landfills or oceans, where they harm wildlife and ecosystems.

Air and Water Pollution

Return shipments have a negative impact on air and water quality by releasing harmful substances into the environment. 

For example, burning fossil fuels for transportation can emit pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter, which can cause respiratory problems and acid rain. 

Packaging materials also often leach chemicals or microplastics into the soil and waterways, which can contaminate drinking water sources and aquatic life.

The Importance of Reducing Carbon Emissions

Return shipments have a significant environmental impact that cannot be ignored. 

Reducing the carbon footprint of your return shipments is socially responsible as well as being a smart business decision. 

Some of the benefits of reducing your carbon footprint include:

Mitigating Climate Change

By reducing the carbon footprint of your return shipments, you can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow down the rise of global temperatures and sea levels.

Preserving Natural Resources

Reducing your return shipments’ carbon emissions can help conserve resources and protect the environment, support biodiversity, and ensure resource availability and security for future generations.

Meeting Customer Expectations

Customers are becoming more conscious and selective about the environmental and social impact of their purchases. 

In fact, 78% of customers say their buying decisions are influenced by a business’ environmental practices. 

By reducing the carbon footprint of your return shipments, you can demonstrate your commitment to sustainability, and differentiate yourself from your competitors.

Reducing Costs 

Taking steps to reduce the environmental impact of your return shipments can help you save costs and improve your profitability by optimizing your packaging, streamlining your reverse logistics, and redesigning your product lifecycle.

Strategies for Reducing the Carbon Footprint of Your Return Shipments

Now that you know why reducing the carbon footprint of your return shipments is important, let’s look at some of the strategies that you can implement in your eCommerce business. 

There are 3 main areas you can focus on to reduce your return shipments’ carbon footprint: packaging, reverse logistics, and product lifecycle.

1. Optimize Packaging

Packaging is one of the key factors that affect the carbon footprint of your return shipments. By making your packaging more eco-friendly, you can reduce the amount of materials, energy, and emissions involved in shipping your products back and forth. 

Here are some tips on how to optimize your packaging:

  • Use eco-friendly materials – Instead of using plastic or styrofoam packaging materials that are harmful to the environment and difficult to dispose of, use eco-friendly materials that are made from renewable or recycled sources and can be easily reused or decomposed. 
  • Minimize the size and weight of your packages – Instead of using oversized or multiple packages for your products, use boxes that fit snugly around your products and minimize empty space. This can help reduce the amount of materials used and the weight of your packages, which can lower your fuel consumption and emissions during transportation.
  • Encourage customers to reuse packaging – Instead of throwing away packaging materials after receiving or returning a product, encourage customers to reuse or recycle them. You can also offer incentives for customers who use the original packaging for returns.

2. Streamline Reverse Logistics

Reverse logistics is the process of managing the flow of goods from customers back to merchants. 

By streamlining your reverse logistics, you can reduce the number and distance of return shipments, and improve their speed and efficiency. 

Here are some tips on how to streamline your reverse logistics:

  • Use a centralized returns management system  Instead of manually handling your returns, use a centralized returns management system like ReturnGO that tracks and analyzes your returns data across all channels and platforms. This can help you gain insights into your return rates and costs associated with your returns.
  • Implement a flexible return policy – Create a return policy that enables customers to choose the most convenient and sustainable return method (e.g. free returns, prepaid labels, drop-off locations). This can help you reduce the number of return shipments.
  • Work with eco-friendly carriers – Work with shipping carriers that offer low-carbon or carbon-neutral delivery services instead of fossil-fuel-based vehicles.

Chat with our experts to boost your customer return experience and LTV today.

3. Redesign the Product Lifecycle

The product lifecycle is the process of managing the stages of a product from design to disposal. 

By rethinking your product lifecycle and creating a circular economy, you can extend the lifespan of your products, reduce waste and emissions, and create value from your returned products. 

How to make your product lifecycle a circular economy:

  • Extend the lifespan of your products Offer repair, refurbishment, or warranty services instead of discarding or replacing your products when they are damaged.

This can help you reduce the number of products that are disposed of and go to waste.

  • Resell returned products – Instead of throwing away or destroying your returned products that are still in good condition, resell your returned products or donate them to charities that can give them a second life.
  • Recycle your unsellable products – Recycle or upcycle your unsellable products into new products or materials instead of sending your unsellable products to landfills or incinerators. This can help you reduce the amount of waste and emissions generated by your returns and conserve resources that would otherwise be used to produce new products or materials.

Be Part of the Solution by Reducing Your Carbon Footprint

By implementing best practices in packaging, reverse logistics, and product lifecycle, you can reduce your return shipments’ carbon footprint.

In addition to helping protect the environment and mitigate climate change, you can save money, enhance your brand reputation, and retain customers.

ReturnGO enables you to manage your eCommerce return shipments in a green and efficient manner, reducing your carbon footprint while improving customer satisfaction and retention.

Contact us to learn more about how ReturnGO can help you reduce the carbon footprint of your return shipments.

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