We’re heading into the busiest shopping season of the year, where brands will try to convince us we really need their wares through hard-to-resist deals and sales. But in a few weeks, consumers will return many of these purchases.
Free returns are widespread in the retail industry, but they come at an enormous cost to the planet, accelerating climate change and clogging up landfills. Shipping returned inventory across the United States generates an estimated 15 million tons of carbon emissions every year, the equivalent of three million cars’ annual emissions. After these returned products arrive at warehouses, retailers will dump five million tons of it in the trash, since this is often cheaper than trying to resell it. Many of these returns happen after the Christmas holidays; more than half of all consumers expect to return unwanted holiday gifts within a month of receiving them. Last year, USPS processed an estimated 1.9 million returns on January 2nd alone.
If you care about the fragile state of the planet, avoiding returns is one way to help. It requires planning ahead to strategically consider what you’re buying for yourself and your friends and family over the next few weeks. Here’s a guide to making smart purchases that will reduce the need to return anything.
Destigmatize gift lists
Laura Wittig, cofounder of the conscious consumerism brand Brightly, points out that there are lots of arbitrary rules around gift-giving. In many families, people feel like they need to surprise one another with thoughtful, beautifully-wrapped presents that reveal how well they know the other person. But often this means receiving a gift you don’t really love or won’t use, prompting a return.
Wittig says one solution is to encourage everyone in your family to create a holiday gift list and share it. It doesn’t have to be particularly fancy: Wittig creates an open Google sheet with items she wants, along with links, and a column that people can tick when they’ve bought the item. “I’ve found that older family members are particularly resistant to this because it goes against their ideas about gift-giving,” she says. “But over time people get used to it and appreciate it.”
As someone who has done it for several years, Wittig says it’s smart to have a wide variety of products and price points on the list, to give people choices. She rarely puts fashion or clothing products on there, since sizing can be so complicated. And she also makes a note at the top that these are just general ideas of what she wants, and the gift-giver can feel free to purchase something similar if they prefer.
Focus on consumables
Being stuck at home during the pandemic has revealed to many of us how little space we actually have. So rather than buying more stuff that will clutter up your home or someone else’s, Wittig recommends focusing on things that can be consumed. Use the holiday season to give treats that someone likely wouldn’t buy for themselves, like a special bottle of wine or fancy candies. Last year, a friend got me hand soap from the luxury perfumer Byredo, which I have used and enjoyed for an entire year—and likely would not have splurged on. “These are things that you or your loved one will enjoy using and are unlikely to return,” Wittig says. “Then eventually, it will stop taking up space in your home.”
Rethink buying clothes
Clothes are a big culprit when it comes to returns, particularly when bought on the internet. One survey found that 40% of all online fashion purchases are returned. This is partly because it is tricky to figure out whether an outfit will fit, or whether it is good quality, when you’re buying it online.
When buying yourself clothes over the holidays, consider going to a brick-and-mortar store or boutiques where you can try outfits on. If you’re buying online, it makes sense to buy brands you’ve already bought and know you’ll wear, rather than exploring new brands where you may not know the sizing.
Purchasing clothes for other people as a gift is even more difficult. Many people choose to buy scarves and hats to make sizing easier, but you never know if your friends and family members really need these accessories. Ultimately, buying a gift card to a brand a loved one shops at might be your best bet. Again, this might mean overcoming a gift-giving stigma, but if your family member is a big fan of Everlane or Madewell, they will likely appreciate the opportunity to shop for themselves or perhaps save the gift card for a time they really need a new coat or bag.
Outsmart black Friday
Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals tend to be the best ones of the year, so it’s entirely reasonable to want to make the most of them. But this is also the time of year when brands use their best techniques to convince you to buy as much as possible, says Ashlee Piper, sustainability expert and author of Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet. “The psychological wizardry of marketing during Black Friday is strong,” she says. To counter this, she recommends asking yourself some basic questions like, Do I already have something like this? Do I really need a duplicate? Would I buy this if it wasn’t on sale?
One strategy is to take advantage of these sales only to stock up on items you use frequently throughout the year, like beauty products or coffee. Before heading into the sales, you might make a list of things you buy regularly and see if you can get these products at lower prices. This will lower the odds that you’ll have buyers’ remorse and want to return products.
Better returns and swaps
If you do end up having to make a return, there are some strategies to reduce the impact. If you bought the item online, try not to simply pack it up and return it by mail, says Piper. “Opt for the most high-touch option, like Amazon kiosks or brick-and-mortar stores,” she says. “This can help cut down on shipping materials and attendant emissions.” Sometimes, these products get shipped to a distribution center anyway, so it is not an ideal solution, but it is worth trying to lower your environmental footprint.
There are also many booming “Buy Nothing” groups on Facebook and platforms like NextDoor where people share products they want to get off their hands. Many of these groups are in particular communities, allowing you to exchange items with your neighbors. So rather than shipping an item back to a retailer where it may end up in a landfill, it’s worth trying to do a trade with someone who really wants that item. You might end up getting something you really want in return.