Why Your Amazon Returns Might End Up Being Thrown Away?

Last year, I shopped on Amazon 40 times and returned 5 items, which is a return rate of 12.5%. The reasons for my returns varied, with one being due to personal preference and the other four due to issues with the products. I consider myself a cautious consumer and try to avoid products that may lead to returns, but I am also a lazy shopper who doesn’t fuss over details, making my return rate lower than the average for e-commerce. The average return rate for e-commerce is 25%, which is three times higher than that of physical stores, making it a new tragedy of the internet age.


The Tragedy of Online Shopping

The high return rate in e-commerce is due to the fact that they do everything possible to get you to buy first and deal with returns later. They have also streamlined the return process to make it worry-free. Some of the items I returned had already been used for a month, and the packaging was long gone. One of the glass and copper hummingbird feeders I purchased started leaking after two months of use. Since it was during the Christmas shopping season, the return window was extended to three months. Amazon still allowed me to return the item with a plastic bag, and the return process took less than 10 seconds. They covered the shipping, packaging, and didn’t check if the item was damaged or if it was the original item purchased. Maybe I could have thrown in a few pairs of old slippers, and they would have accepted them too. Amazon trusts its customers so much that they have simplified the return process to make it easy for everyone. When I walked out, I felt pleased with myself, but also a sense of guilt: would anyone buy a used item that I had used for two months? But that’s not my problem. I’m just a consumer who has been taken care of.

This is a clever strategy. People can’t touch or see the products in front of their computers, but they still bravely click the confirm button. The key behind this is that returns are free and easy. The less consumers have to worry about, the more carefree they are when placing orders. If they don’t like it, they can just return it. This is Amazon’s biggest success.

However, behind this success is a disaster.

66 flights to the landfill every day for returned goods

There’s no such thing as a free return. The cost of free returns is ultimately borne by consumers, but that’s not the worst part. For the planet, it’s never free. Nearly 30% of e-commerce returns end up in landfills. The hummingbird feeder mentioned earlier is now too dirty to use and cannot be tested for leaks. Several other products are in similar situations and cannot be manually inspected or put back on the shelves. They have to be disposed of, and the only possible destination for these products is the landfill. They may have to be transported hundreds of kilometers, leaving a carbon footprint along the way, before they finally reach the landfill. Even worse, those with energy conversion value are incinerated, which sounds good, but it means turning waste into energy for power generation. How much toxic gas is released from these wastes? Plastic is ubiquitous in everyday life, and this is even worse than landfilling.

This kind of thing happens repeatedly. In the United States alone, 6 billion pounds of returns are sent to landfills every year, half of which come from Amazon. The numbers are too big for people to understand, so let’s put it in a way that everyone can understand: the cargo capacity of a Boeing 747 freighter is approximately 250,000 pounds, which is equivalent to “24,000” fully loaded 747 cargo planes flying to the landfill every year… that’s 66 flights per day, all year round, never closing. And that’s just in the United States.

The e-commerce era without reverse logistics

Why throw away returns? The reasons behind it are complex. Mainly, e-commerce logistics only focus on outbound shipments and not inbound ones. It’s a highly efficient one-way street, and the performance of each e-commerce company is tied to sales. They only care about shipping, not returns, and few people care about the efficiency of returns. From ordering to packaging, shipping, loading, and transferring, Amazon Prime can deliver to almost any doorstep on time within 48 hours. This complete process chain must be completed without error, but no one wants to invest in reverse logistics, and no one cares about the return journey. It’s like pouring water out of a bucket, and no one knows how to collect it back.

The cost of reverse logistics is 60% of the average product price, and this expensive reverse process has created an unfortunate return culture: it’s more cost-effective to dispose of returns.

Processing returns requires all kinds of unpackaged goods to be collected and sorted in the return center, and then inspected and processed according to the situation. This is entirely manual work, and there are no specific audit standards. Only unopened and undamaged goods are eligible to be returned to the shelves, but these are rare.

The Most Efficient and Cheapest Way to Discard

The first checkpoint is often AI. In a cost-driven mechanism, if the reason for return is a defective product with a low unit price, regardless of the actual situation, the computer will automatically choose to discard it. An employee at an Amazon return center once saw a brand new children’s book returned with the reason being “damaged during shipping.” He thought it could be put back on the shelf, but the computer did not accept it. The logic behind this is that if the unit price is low and the reason for return is damage to the product, discarding it is the only choice. In other words, the customer’s word is final, and it’s not worth verifying. This is the safest, most efficient, and cheapest way.

Even if the reason for return is not a product defect, if the cost of putting it back on the shelf is close to the selling price, the cheapest way is still to discard it.

After discarding what needs to be discarded, it’s up to the merchant to decide how to handle the rest. The options are limited to: returning to the seller, auctioning by weight, or discarding. What would you do if you were the merchant? Don’t forget that these may be unsellable items. If returned to the seller, it also depends on whether it is economically viable. The merchant needs to inspect, clean, and repackage the item before selling it at a discounted price. For electronic products, regardless of the reason, over 70% are discarded as waste for recycling, as no one has time to test all the functions. Items with large volume, difficult to clean, and low sales rates may also be discarded even if they are not damaged. The cleaning cost of bedding such as blankets and sheets is too high, and no one wants to buy used ones, so they are either discarded or flow into the waste fabric recycling center.

Humanity has entered the era of “disposable” fashion

Buying clothes nowadays is no longer about necessity, but rather because they are “too cheap to resist”. When browsing online for clothing, it’s easy to accidentally purchase items that we don’t truly love, simply because they are so cheap that it seems unethical not to buy them. But once we receive these “too cheap” clothes and realize we don’t actually like them, we simply return them without a second thought. The fate of these cheap clothes is to be discarded, as they are not worth the time and effort to process. Even slightly more valuable clothes that are returned become second-hand items that no one wants to buy, as they have been worn by someone else and are not worth cleaning.

As for high-end fashion, even if it looks good, manufacturers may choose to dispose of it to protect their brand and avoid selling it at a discount. Ironically, high-end fashion also has the highest return rate. Consumers may buy three items, try them on, keep one they like, and return the other two. In the age of online shopping, people have brought the fitting room into their own living rooms. In addition, to create a sense of scarcity, some businesses even take back out-of-season fashion and burn it, not as a return item, but as a brand new product. In the $2 trillion global clothing market, 40% of unsold out-of-season items may end up buried or burned.

Even if we choose to sell our unwanted clothes to second-hand stores or auction them off, the waste management companies that handle them still only pick out the good items and throw away the rest. It’s not cost-effective to transport them anywhere. Of course, Amazon may ask us to keep the product instead of returning it. But don’t get it wrong, this is not a generous act, but rather a way to avoid trouble. In one instance, they asked me to keep a medical product. Taking it back would mean disposing of it.

However, asking customers to keep the product may indirectly encourage fraud, so in most cases, it’s cheaper for companies to take back the product and dispose of it themselves rather than giving it away to consumers.

Returned fashion = discarded fashion

Amazon may also “donate” returned fashion to charity organizations to be sold as second-hand clothing. This is also a way to avoid trouble. However, charity organizations are not garbage dumps. Americans pick out the leftover second-hand clothes, and they are eventually shipped thousands of miles away to the third world for them to pick through. Under this charitable act, 70% of second-hand clothes are still buried or burned after being transported thousands of miles to the third world. The only difference is that they are buried in the third world, where Americans cannot see or smell them. What the first world considers garbage, the third world may not even want.

Kenya in Africa has become the world’s dumping ground for discarded fashion.

Returns are not free – Ask the Earth

In the age of online shopping, consumers have been given unprecedented power to return items with just a click, without any cost or verification. Similarly, businesses can click to make the headache disappear from their balance sheets. This seemingly convenient solution has led to unprecedented waste and pollution.

In the US, the total carbon emissions from returns each year is equivalent to that of three million cars. Let’s not forget that this is a complete cycle – the discarded items were developed, raw materials were collected, transported, produced, packaged, sent to distribution centers, and finally delivered to consumers. After a single click, this entire process is reversed and the items are sent on a one-way trip to destruction. Humans create and then discard, leaving behind an indelible carbon footprint, with the Earth bearing the cost. This is the shopping culture that has been nurtured in the era of efficient e-commerce.

We often overlook things that we cannot see. If consumers can easily discard items with a single click, have we also learned to be indifferent to the absurdity behind it? Numbness is the easiest choice.

Since the media exposed the dark side of this issue, Amazon has begun to take it seriously. They have promised to achieve “zero waste”. This is good, but not good enough. As responsible consumers, can’t we also avoid being accomplices? It’s actually quite simple: first, don’t treat your living room as a free fitting room; second, do your homework before buying; third, don’t assume that returns are free – ask the Earth.