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The Hidden Cost of Free Returns

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Wilfrid Laurier chapter.

Let’s be honest here, who doesn’t love online shopping? Even if you’re not a regular fan of the quick check out, you’ve likely purchased at least one item online before. Not to mention, online shopping allows you to view all the various versions of a product and lets you compare prices between online stores. You’re likely able to price match by yourself and subsequently save money on your purchase, and the product reviews are a bonus too. A quick skim over the reviews can tell you what the biggest problems with the product are. Sometimes it’s good to know if the pair of leggings you want to buy fit tighter than the expected size. 

Besides having the luxury to add more items into your virtual cart than in a physical shopping cart at a store, many online stores offer low or no shipping charges and usually free ship-to-store options that arrive within the next few days. Online stores are always open, there are no lines to wait in, saving gas is a plus and there are always some flash sales going on. 

Of course, the best part of online shopping is the option for free returns. Maybe you returned a clothing item with the free return shipping label because you weren’t sure which size fits better, so you bought both. But have you ever wondered what happens to an item that gets sent back? There’s no doubt that online shopping has many advantages, but the environmental impact is the most expensive hidden cost of all. 

Most of the time, returned purchases don’t end up back at the store or warehouse, contrary to what you probably think they would. The hard truth is that most returns end up in the landfill and are not resold to other customers again. It’s not only clothes that end up in the landfill. All other items do too. But why? Because big corporations, including Amazon, can’t be bothered to hire extra employees to manage returns and redeliveries. Returned items require hiring additional employees to sort them, and retailers also need extra space within warehouses to store these items. Furthermore, most of these resold items would need to be examined to see the condition, and the price would need to be adjusted and marked down accordingly. In general, it’s cheaper for retailers to throw returned items away rather than check if they could be repaired or resold. 

Since the online shopping craze isn’t slowing down or going anywhere anytime soon, there are a few ways to make more environmentally conscious choices when you shop online. If you don’t need products urgently, try to gather a list of all items and purchase them all at once in a bundle. Most websites allow you to store items in your virtual cart and won’t disappear even if you leave the website. If you order all products together, they’ll most likely come in one package instead of many smaller ones.

Many retailers are beginning to realize the harmful environmental impact of delivering products, especially by offering shorter wait times for buyers. Some of these retailers have committed to using less plastic and cardboard and instead use more reusable packaging options and zero-emission or electric options to deliver packages. If you’re trying to become more sustainable for our environment, pick up your packages from a nearby store or postal office. Lastly, try looking for items listed online as open-box or refurbished because these items are typically cheaper but still near-perfect quality. 

There are many ways retailers and you, as a consumer, can reduce the environmental impact of online shopping. Next time you’re about to make a one-click impulse buy, maybe think about it first. Keep the item in your cart and add a few more later before purchasing. Or read a few extra reviews to make sure you can buy the right size the first time. Avoid returning items and happy shopping! 

Melissa Huen

Wilfrid Laurier '22

Melissa is in her 4th year at Wilfrid Laurier University, studying Music Therapy with a minor in Psychology. When she's not busy raving about her hometown, Vancouver, BC, you can find her baking, travelling, or checking out the newest restaurants in town.
Chelsea Bradley

Wilfrid Laurier '21

Chelsea finished her undergrad with a double major in Biology and Psychology and a minor in Criminology. She loves dogs way too much and has an unhealthy obsession with notebooks and sushi. You can find her quoting memes and listening to throwbacks in her spare - okay basically all - her time. She joined Her Campus in the Fall of 2019 as an editor, acted as one of two senior editors for the Winter 2020 semester and worked alongside Rebecca as one of the Campus Correspondents for the 2020-2021 year!