The Environmental Cost of Free Shipping

Delivery man carting around boxes for delivery from online purchases

When it comes to shopping online and judging whether something is eco-friendly or not, the first thing we look into is the product description. Is the cotton organic? Were harmful chemicals used to dye the fabric? Were workers paid a living wage? Even if you research more than just the green credentials, the conversation instead revolves around retailers using too much plastic packaging. 

But as more and more of us buy online and the fashion e-commerce market grows (in part, thanks to giants like Amazon and Taobao) it’s likely we’re all guilty of missing one crucial piece of the puzzle: the pollution caused by e-commerce logistics. 

The Lure of Free Shipping & Returns

As consumers around the world are encouraged to stay home and avoid during Covid-19, many have flocked to social media and online shopping as a means to relieve frustration and boredom. Curled up on our couches or commuting back home, we casually scroll through social media until we see someone wearing a spectacular vintage-style dress or sporting some great white Keds. Moving our mindlessly scrolling from Instagram to e-commerce sites like Taobao, Amazon or ASOS, we begin the hunt for our next purchase.

Instead of waiting for weeks, it’s a mere matter of 5 to 7 business days (or less) before we get to tear open our resealable package and try on our impulse buys. Next, one of two things happens: we either love it and take pride in our purchase du jour, or we have the moment of realisation that it just looked better on Instagram. It’s time to face returning our failed purchase.

But daunting returns are a thing of the past! Today, most mass companies leave a free return slip in the resealable bag from the get-go. We just have to arrange it through the website, drop it at the post office or arrange a pickup, and off it goes without any other thought (except waiting for the refund).

Our Unwanted Purchases: The Big Polluter 

But have you ever wondered what happens after you’ve made an online return? Does it head back to the retailer who unpacks and puts it neatly back onto a shelf waiting for the next purchase? Sadly, the reality is often far from it.

Often, after a transport journey back that’s racked up even more carbon emissions, our package sits under hundreds of other returns and goes back to a warehouse where it has a higher chance of being dumped back into landfill unused than back in stock. This may happen for a number of reasons: sometimes the item has already clearly been worn, cheekily returned and couldn’t be bought by another customer. Sometimes it’s faulty. Sometimes it’s damaged. Either way, it’s not just the clothes that we choose to throw out that may end up polluting our earth.

"When it has become so easy to send our purchases back, have we become less considerate about what we’re buying?" 

If we’re to be more mindful about consumption, it’s probably counterintuitive to fall back on the safety net that is free shipping and returns. While convenience plays a huge factor in driving consumerism, we might need to take two steps back and wonder how inconvenient it is in the long run for our planet. When it has become so easy to send our purchases back, have we become less considerate about what we’re buying? 

Online Shopping Is Great But…

Don’t get us wrong, there’s lots of perks to online shopping. You can avoid crowds and queues, can purchase remotely in the comfort of your own home (and your PJ’s). From an eco-conscious perspective, you’re not taking any form of transport to get from a to b. Online brands themselves consume less electricity and water, they require less space and don’t have monthly overhead charges to worry about. Thanks to smarter logistics, shipments can be collated and hundreds of deliveries can occur in one trip. There are pros on either side, but there’s still a lot of hidden facts about the world of e-commerce we should be aware of.

Given the availability of free same-day shipping on single products, more and more packages are going out on trucks less than half full. What does that lead to? Deliveries that can’t be consolidated and more delivery vans repeat routes that could’ve been done more efficiently if they were able to wait for a few days to ship them out. Part of the fault for this lies in retailers offering those services, but a big part of it has become our consumer expectations.

While some purchases may be urgent, it’s safe to say you don’t need your socks to be delivered to your doorstep overnight. Our “see now, want now” attitude is what grew fast-fashion into this mass manufacturing machine, but it’s also the networks of deliverymen whole end up paying the price with quotas to deliver (sometimes) up to 300 packages a day. The reality for many of these drivers is appalling, there’s not time for bathroom or even food breaks, as this insight into Amazon delivery drivers shares.

Piles and piles of boxes from e-commerce shipping

The Solutions

So how do we fix this when our returns are a big eco-issue? In the US alone, returns create 5 billion pounds of landfill waste and 15 million tonnes of carbon emissions annually, equivalent to the amount of trash produced by 5 million people in a year, according to Optoro. Going cold turkey on online shopping is likely unrealistic, so should we try shopping more locally instead? Often, there aren’t a lot of quality options available and many brands - sustainable versions included - don’t have a physical presence. Shopping on your local high street means running the risk of temptation from fast-fashion too. Beyond shady ethics, clothes sold in most international stores have been shipped around the world in some form or another.

Next time you shop online, here are simple ways to be more conscious: 

  1. Reduce fast/express shipping. When fast shipping is selected, your item gets on a flight instead of a cargo ship, resulting in more carbon emissions.

  2. Ask for in-store pickup or pick a centralised option to walk, bike or take public transport to get your delivered item. This reduces the number of trips a courier van will have to take.

  3. Be more careful about measuring your size. Don’t guesstimate! Before getting too excited about free returns, think about the specifics of the item you’re purchasing. Check your size and ask as many questions so you won’t need to buy multiple pieces, from which some will end up going back.

  4. Group your orders. Instead of buying one or two items every time you purchase something, try to collectively buy what you need in one go so that there are fewer trips and less packaging. Even buddy-up and bulk order with some friends!

  5. Rent for short-term desires. If you want to buy something with the idea to return it after 30 days, why not rent? You could save some cash and not have to worry about any tags sticking out of your dress.

  6. Buy less. You would’ve expected this, but the fact remains - you probably don’t need to buy so much. If you have quality pieces that will last you a longer time, it will save you more money and effort in the long run than shopping online for fast fashion every other weekend. 

Above all, purchasing less frequently and buying quality is one sure way to reduce the problem. If you have to buy new, support more slowly made, circular or ‘zero-waste’ brands that should be more conscious of the waste they make. Support innovative companies who move past typical wasteful manufacturing processes and create exciting, alternative products. Support small, local ethical brands that aren’t churning out thousands of clothes like their mass-manufacturing counterparts - companies that are more conscious about their impact on people and the planet. 

Thankfully, some companies are opening their eyes to how free returns equate to lost profits, increased labour costs and time-intensive processing - and oh, of course, the burning planet (although we still feel this tends to be an after-thought). If big companies like ASOS could rethink their return policy and shift their stances to acknowledge how existing business models need to change, consumers can rethink their relationship with the online shopping concept of ‘buy now, buy more’.

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