Minimise Returns, Maximise Sustainability & Brand Value

Minimise Returns, Maximise Sustainability & Brand Value

Julie Ribeiro

Julie Ribeiro

May 18, 2020

Today, more and more consumers are ordering clothes, cosmetics and even eyeglasses on e-commerce websites. The problem? It is not possible to try out these products. A customer will consequently order several models or sizes and then send back those that do not fit. The return rate for in-stores trade is 8% compared to 23% in e-commerce. This new practice, which replaces traditional in-store shopping, increases the number of trips of the goods and their impact on the environment. 

1. Free returns policy:

Free returns have become a standard, even though not mandatory, in the fast fashion industry and are intended to attract more and more consumers. However, in terms of air pollution, the return of a parcel is not totally "free".

In recent years, consumers have become more aware of the environmental impact of brands and tend to choose eco-responsible ones, which is good news for the planet. But, they often have a lack of visibility on the entire delivery chain of their command and the impact a return can have. 

I decided to order a pair of boyfriend jeans, this summer's trend, which I've been hesitating to buy for a couple of weeks. Online, It's hard to imagine myself wears them, from the high of my 1.65m, when the jeans are often worn by a model who is 1.75m tall. To be sure to get the jeans that would fit me perfectly, the reflex would be to order several sizes and several models. Then, to pick the one that suits me best and send the rest of my order back to the brand. 

This new " Try before you buy " trend is not without consequences from an environmental point of view. The numerous trips back and forth of marchandises caused a lot of CO2 emissions. Worldwide, Forbes has identified more than 17 billion returns produced each year, emitting 4.7 million tons of CO2 or the equivalent of one million Paris-Buenos Aires round trips by plane. 

The policy of free returns pushes people to buy only for an event. It was observed that some people bought a dress or suit to go to a party and return the item the next day. Even if, it allows customers saving money, it is a bad habit for the planet.

Some associations are trying to change the way fashion industry works. Fashion revolution Belgium has created a campaign focused on the effect of the free return policy, "the Highway fitting":

2. Product returns' pollutions:

The packaging: 

Let's tack back to our boyfriend jeans' example, let's imagine that one of the items I ordered is too small. So I decide to return it, there are 2 options: use the original package, but most of the time it has been thrown away, so I'll choose the second option: use a new packaging. The jeans that are too small, back at the warehouse, will be removed from this second packaging, then prepared again to be shipped again. It will have experienced 3 different packagings from my order to the return. This new common practice, leads to the multiplication of waste paper, plastic, cardboard ...

The journey: 

Returned jeans also have environmental consequences related to the multitudes of trips they do. Once packed, the parcel will be dropped off at the post office or at a pick-up point. It will then be carried by the shipping company to the warehouse. 

If the returned jeans pass the quality control, they will be put back in stock and are likely to repeat the same journey again and again until they find their perfect buyer. These round trips of goods caused greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion in urban areas.

Returned products: 

The product management varies from one sector to another, from one parcel to another, from the conditions of one product to another...

If you are not convinced of the color of your new Iphone offered by your aunt for Christmas, you can send it back. Apple will then recondition it before selling it as a new one. For our too small boyfriend jeans' example, there is a 50% chance that they will be put back in stock to be resold later. 

What is not communicated is that 30% of the returned products are destroyed. In 2018, Amazon suffered a scandal for choosing to destroy returns in perfect conditions to avoid "wasting" time checking them and putting them back online.

3. How to reduce these returns as a brand? 

Improve the product description:

A short and not very detailed product description can lead to customer returns. About 1 consumer out 4 returns a product which does not match its description.

A good way to reduce returns is to give as much details, about the product, as possible in order to minimize unpleasant surprises. For our boyfriend jeans, the important details are the materials (elastane, cotton...), the shape (slim, boyfriend...), the color (black, raw, faded...), the size of the mannequin wearing it...

As for sizes, in France, regulations are not strict and there can be up to 10 cm between the same size from one brand to another. The "Vanity Size" (or "flattering size") is responsible for this phenomenon. Fast fashion brands intentionally enlarge clothing sizes to flatter their customers. Results, a multiplication of product returns and a difficulty to find the right size in this panel of brands: nearly 1 woman out of 3 does not find her size

Few brands have clearly realized it and offer personalized guides, according to the size, weight and comfort preferences of the customer (wide or fitted).  

Asos has even developed a "fit assistant". First, the user enters his personal measurements then he is guided through the purchasing process. The fit assistant will propose the sizes adapted to the user's morphology.

Improving your product descriptions will guarantee a reduction of returns and have a positive effect on customer satisfaction. The products will be as expected and there will be no more unpleasant surprises at the reception.

Incorrect address: 

As an e-commerce brand, have you ever experienced a product return due to a mistake in the customer's address?  Automatic filling, typing mistake, wrong zip code... Mistakes can be numerous but easily avoidable. 

There are several solutions. You can verify an address on La Poste website for free, if you have any doubt, or you can hire a company to correct and validate the addresses in your customer database.

At Bigblue, we have developed an algorithm to avoid mistakes about the addresses. If there is any doubt, the brand will be notified or e-mailed to avoid unnecessary returns.

Checking all of your customers' addresses will help you to reduce your returns quickly and easily. 

The packaging: 

Some returns are inevitable, why not working on the packaging to reduce their impact? 

Certain brands have designed their packaging to allow their customers to reuse them. Nespresso delivers its capsules in packages that are reusable, transformable and recyclable, to send shoes that have been sold on Vinted for example.

As an e-commerce brand, a simple solution to reduce the impact of your returns, is to make sure you use recyclable and/or recycled materials for your packages. Results, a better brand image among your consumers and a reduction of your waste caused by customer returns.

You can find various companies specialized in the production of environmentally friendly and reusable packaging. Depending on your needs, you can work with companies such as Packhelp or Hoopie... 

To go further...

LinvingPackets, a French startup, is known for its innovative packaging. They have created an intelligent, and secure packaging made of polycarbonate that is endlessly reusable. It would prevent the production of cardboard boxes but also the use of paper labels and bubble wrap. This innovation considerably reduces the environmental impact of the packaging. Although, this solution is still in the development stage and difficult to apply to the current e-commerce market, but it is a great promise for the future. 

LivingPackets box

4. The transparency of logistics

Millenials are increasingly buying from eco-responsible brands. They are looking for organic, environmentally friendly products ... 46% of French people bought an eco-responsible product in 2019 according to a study conducted by the French Fashion Institute (IFM). But, consumers are not necessarily aware of the carbon effect of their parcel. E-commerce brands will have to "educate" their customers to reduce returns, their ecological footprint and thus improve their brand image . In other words, to inform their customers about the entire logistics process and why not give them an estimate of the gas emissions caused by their shipping order. For example, DHL offers to calculate the CO2 emission of a parcel by taking into account its dimensions, weight, the point of departure and arrival, and the transportation method. 

Offset your brand's environmental footprint by choosing partners who reduce their energy costs. For example, since 2012, La Poste group's mail/parcel service has achieved carbon neutrality. This means that all the CO2 emissions caused by this service have been compensated by their environmental projects, such as reforestation in French's regions.

Reducing returns also involves educating and raising the awareness of your customers. An estimate of the quantity of CO2 emitted for delivery and return of a parcel should be added on the payment page of the order and/or on the return slip. As a result, consumers will become fully aware of the impact of their order on the environment and perhaps double-check the size and/or color to avoid a return. 

5. In brief...

Millennials and Generation Z are now used to being able to return their orders of their favorite brands free of charge. As an e-commerce brand, you have to shake up their habits and reduce returns. This would have positive effects on your business: reducing your environmental impact, improving your brand image and reducing your return costs. The solutions, proposed in this article, are adapted to each stage of your company's evolution, starting with the correction of mistaken customer addresses and ending with innovative technologies and materials.

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