Retail’s Next Crisis: An Avalanche Of Returns Tests Brands’ Sustainability Creds

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It would appear that retailers booked a robust 2021 holiday season, except that the new year brings with it an old problem that’s gotten worse—

How to deal sustainably with the annual avalanche of returns?


Consumers love liberal return policies. They’re also paying closer attention than ever to how brands are dealing with issues like returns and waste in general. Amazon earned one of its many black eyes this past year when an undercover investigation by UK-based iTV NEWS discovered the company has been destroying millions of perfectly good, unsold stock items in the UK each year.

The good news is that, according to a Mastercard report, shoppers spent 8.5% more in 2021 than they did a year earlier, and almost 11% more than pre-pandemic, two years ago. The cheer is muted, however, by the startling 6.8% jump in the government’s Consumer Price Index for 2021.

The bad news is that experts estimate shoppers will set a new high in post-holiday returns.

When the count is final, the tally could surpass half a trillion dollars’ worth, about 10% of the nearly $5 trillion estimated for the year’s total U.S. retail sales. Estimates for this season include an increase of 13% year-over-year and a surge of 45% above the previous five-year average. Shopify, an e-commerce platform, reported in August that online merchants take the biggest hit with a return rate of between 20% and 30%. 


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