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The $100 billion reason not to return gifts this holiday season

90% of products returned during the holidays won’t be resold—and some will end up in a landfill.

The $100 billion reason not to return gifts this holiday season
[Source image: IconicBestiary/iStock]

It’s Christmas morning. You’re gathered with your family in the living room in your pajamas, excited to start ripping open the presents that have been accumulating under the tree. Maybe you get a couple of the things you’ve been eyeing for months—this book or that cashmere sweater, perhaps—but other presents you receive aren’t your cup of tea. And you know what happens next. By midafternoon, each family member pulls out his or her phone to begin surreptitiously looking up the return policies at various brands. By the 26th, many presents have already been boxed up, ready to be sent back.

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It’s not just your family: Returning presents has become a holiday tradition in the United States. This year, $100 billion worth of product is expected to be returned between Thanksgiving and New Year, up by $6 billion from last year. Companies are competing to make it easy to send these gifts back through policies such as free return shipping, in-store returns, and instant refunds.

But returning product comes at a staggering environmental cost. There’s an enormous carbon footprint associated with sending products back and forth across the globe. Optoro, a returns logistics provider that works with companies such as Ikea and Jet.com, says that 15 million metric tons of carbon are emitted because of returned merchandise every year. On top of this, Optoro has found that brands aren’t able to sell most of the returned goods through their website and stores. A mere 10% of products returned this holiday season will be restocked on shelves in an effort to sell it to new customers. The remaining $90 billion worth of product will never make it back to their stores or websites—instead, it may end up in landfills.

[Source image: IconicBestiary/iStock]

Why does this happen? Adria Vasil, an environmental journalist, recently explained to Canada’s public radio network CBC that it’s expensive for brands to assess the quality of a returned item.

“It actually costs a lot of companies more money to put somebody on the product, to visually eyeball it and say, Is this up to standard, is it up to code? Is this going to get us sued? Did somebody tamper with this box in some way? And is this returnable? And if it’s clothing, it has to be re-pressed and put back in a nice packaging. And for a lot of companies, it’s just not worth it.”

There’s now a whole industry devoted to helping brands monetize returned goods that cannot be resold through the brand’s own channels. One company, for instance, called B-Stock, is a marketplace for returned, excess, or liquidated goods. Companies such as Amazon, Target, Costco, and Home Depot ship these goods to B-Stock, where other companies or individuals will buy them. “Our buyers are buying in bulk and selling on Poshmark, TheRealReal and eBay,” said Marcus Shen, B-Stock’s COO, in an interview with Women’s Wear Daily. And much like Optoro, B-Stock’s data suggests that these returns are only increasing. “We might see upticks in returns from social and mobile purchases,” Shen told WWD.

But perhaps the most devastating outcome of a returned present is the landfill. Optoro estimates that 5 billion tons of returns end up annually in landfills. That’s 5,600 fully loaded Boeing 747s. Let’s take a moment to think about how crazy this is. Companies use the earth’s precious resources—water-intensive cotton, oil-based plastic, metals—then emit greenhouse gases to transport them to factories around the world, where they’re turned into products. Then, at the end of that long journey, a significant proportion of those goods will end up in a customer’s house for a few days only to be thrown into a landfill. Vasil, the journalist, has found that in addition to throwing returned goods into the trash, some companies will burn them, a process that spews carbon into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change. “They will literally just incinerate it,” she told CBC.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that holiday returns are a tragedy, one that is sending our planet to the verge of collapse. So what can you do to fight back against this scourge? I have some advice.

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First, don’t be shy about telling your friends and families what you really want for Christmas. You can use a tool such as Gift Hero to create a gift list, and brands such as Cuyana have handy “Hinting” options, so you can tell someone about a gift you’d really love. If you’re asking for a clothing item, be sure to give your accurate size. (If you aren’t sure what it is at a given brand, go to a store to try it out. Wrong sizes are a major cause of returns.)

But remember, most of us have far too much stuff. If you really don’t want or need anything, that’s great! Tell your family this. And if they feel the need to buy you something anyway, you can ask for a donation to your favorite charity or perhaps a gift card to a company where you buy everyday products, such as Grove Collaborative. If they feel the need to give you a tangible gift, you might request baked goods or your favorite dessert.

Second, when you do get a gift you don’t want, try not to return it to the store. Start by seeing if there’s someone in your life who would really use it. For instance, my mom is one size larger than I am, so when I get an item of clothing that’s too big, I give it to her, and since we have similar taste, she usually loves it. If my daughter gets two of the same book or toy, we save it for the many birthday parties she will be invited to over the course of the year.

If giving the gift away is not an option, consider donating it to a charity that will use it well. Organizations such as Dress for Success or Toys for Tots are in the business of collecting professional clothes and toys, respectively, then donating them to people in need. Another alternative is selling your product on a resale site such as TheRealReal or ThredUp. This way, people who really want that item will buy it and use it.

Finally, if you really need to make a return, consider waiting a few days to gather all the items you’re sending back. Ask your family members to do the same. Then make a single trip to the mall to return all your goods at once. While you can’t guarantee that the products you return won’t end up in a landfill, at least you can save some carbon emissions by efficiently returning them in a single trip.

It didn’t take long for us to end up in this wasteful pattern of returning goods. A decade ago, returns were far less common. This means it is possible for us to reverse the trend. And remember—’tis the season for many of us to spend a lot of time with friends and family during the holidays. Your loved ones may be inspired by your eco-friendly behaviors too.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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