Over the past decade or so, most of us have become very comfortable with buying stuff online, having never seen it or held it in our hands – from books to headphones, vacuum cleaners to hairdryers, we can get exactly what we want at a click of a button. And it might even turn up the next day. Of course, during CV19 lockdowns, many more of us relied on online shopping to get something we really needed, or to scratch that itch of just needing something new.
But we know that not everything we buy is going to be suitable. Perhaps it doesn’t work in the way we hoped. Maybe it doesn’t fit. The person we bought it for has one already. The colour is wrong… there are many reasons why items will be returned to a retailer for replacement or refund and fortunately or not, returns are almost as easy as purchasing the item to begin with.
So where do these returns go?
We probably all thought that they would be returned, checked and if there was nothing wrong with them, placed back on the shelf, ready to be shipped off to a new owner. Whilst this does sometimes happen, more and more reports are emerging of how Amazon – and many other online retailers (especially fashion retailers) ditch returns into landfill or incineration when there is nothing wrong with them. Why? Because it’s cheaper to ditch them than to put them back into circulation.
At the end of June 21, ITV ran an undercover story on the Amazon Dunfirmline warehouse which revealed a staggering 124,000 items were marked ‘destroy’ in just one week. Ranging from laptops to hard drives to face masks, these items were deemed fit for disposal. Some items were donated that week however – a measly 28,000. That is nearly 100,000 LESS items than the disposal pile.
These weren’t just returned items too – some were completely unsold and brand new items that were just sitting on the shelves and had to ‘go’ to make way for something else. So not only are perfectly functioning returned items being destroyed, many completely new items are being destroyed too.
At a time where many people are struggling to make ends meet, children are not able to learn effectively online as they do not have the right technology and oh yeah – the rampant acceleration of the climate crisis driven by boundless manufacturing and consumption, this is beyond criminal.
Whilst the ITV story came as a shock to some, to many, this unfortunately is old news. Canadian news outlet CBC Marketplace partnered with Basel Action Network to place GPS trackers in 12 Amazon returns, ranging from a coffee maker, a backpack, toys and a tent. After a few months, only four had been resold, one was found in landfill, one was at a destruction facility and some were ‘in transit’.
So should we change our pattern of purchase? Maybe. But for some, online shopping has given them the ability to buy items otherwise out of reach. Should we hold large corporations such as Amazon to account (and they are certainly not the only one – any large online fashion brand like Boohoo also falls into this camp)? More transparency and reporting is needed – and essentially, this is where a circular economy system should come into play. If something isn’t needed by one person, distribute it to another. Redistribution and Redirection is key.
But what can you do now? When purchasing online REALLY think about whether the item is right before you buy it. Sure returning is easy, but that should not be a reason to buy on a whim. With clothing, try not to buy multiple sizes to try something on at home – it is likely these ‘extra size’ returns will end up in landfill or incineration.
It is not all doom and gloom however. Sometimes things do get donated to charity shops and you can pick them up for a song – just like I did last week when I got this brand new with labels jumper in the British Heart Foundation for £5.99. Bargain. And when I got to the till, the lady informed me that ‘ahh yes – this is an Amazon return’, which just proves – the system can work well.