Returns are part of doing business online. Unfortunately, not all returned items are fit for resale. Sometimes, items come back used, damaged, or otherwise unsellable, and many times end up being tossed in the trash.

Each year, about five billion pounds of returned products and packaging get sent to landfill, making returns a major environmental problem as well as a financial and logistical headache for online brands. 

Fortunately, there’s a better way. Instead of trashing returns, some eco-conscious brands are taking a more socially responsible approach, and recycling or repurposing returned products. Instead of viewing returned products as waste, sellers are using them to solve pressing social problems.

Learn how sustainable returns can help your brand grow in the Future of Merchant Growth

So how can you get better results by throwing less away? Let’s take a closer look at how brands are finding new value in unsellable products.

Turning trash into social change, the sustainable way

Let’s say you treat yourself to a set of sheets from Brooklinen, run them through your washer-dryer—then realize you’ve accidentally ordered a California king set that’s far too big for your queen-sized bed. Fortunately, Brooklinen has a generous return policy, so you order an exchange, mail back the unwanted bedding, and in no time you’re enjoying perfectly fitted sheets. 

But what about the sheets you returned? Nobody’s going to want to buy your used bedding, so many brands would simply throw them away. Brooklinen takes a different approach. Instead of trashing unsellable returns, the company donates them to charities that help the homeless. 

When you order your exchange, Brooklinen identifies products that aren’t fit for resale, and issues a shipping label directing them to Brooklinen’s donation center. As a consumer, you never notice the difference—but a few days later, your unwanted bedding is being put to good use by a network of charities helping the homeless in communities all across the United States.

Donations are a great way to stay sustainable

Donating returned products to people who need them speaks for itself. But the process itself is effortless, and in fact almost invisible, for both shoppers and sellers. 

Brands simply use Loop’s “Policy Enforcer” tool to check if a product is not eligible for resale, like sheets that have already been sent through the wash. Then Loop’s Destinations feature kicks in, and ships those products to the appropriate charity or donation center.

There are no compromises or complications for the consumer, who simply mails back their return, just like normal.  And because the whole process is handled behind the scenes, there are no logistical headaches for the brand, either. There’s no need to waste time and resources sorting and processing unsellable returns, simply donate/recycle them.

sustainable returns

The icing on the cake? Brands that donate returned products also get a healthy tax break. The exact amount depends on your corporate structure, so ask your accountant for details. Generally, though, brands can recoup at least the cost of manufacturing the product, and sometimes significantly more. That adds up to big savings for brands and big benefits for the recipients of donated products. But donations have a broader social impact, too.

Doing your part for larger sustainability

Waste reduction is a big benefit of donating returns. All those returned products are kept out of landfills and garbage incinerators, so by donating their returns, brands are directly helping the planet.  

Because products are being shipped directly to charities or donation centers, instead of first being shipped to a company warehouse and then repackaged for donation, they’re also generating far fewer shipping-related emissions. Trucks account for almost a quarter of transportation emissions in the United States, so sending products directly to where they’re needed makes a big difference.

Every donation raises the profile of the charity it went to. You can help increase their exposure and even generate future volunteers.

Finally, every donation helps raise the profile of the charity that receives it. A shopper might never have heard of their local homeless charity—but after receiving a friendly message letting them know their unwanted jacket went to help people in their community, they’re more likely to consider volunteering or making donations of their own.

Better for sustainability, better for your brand

With eight out of 10 consumers worldwide saying they prefer to do business with socially conscious brands, there’s a clear benefit to turning your returns policy into a force for social good. What’s more, at a time when consumers—in the fashion sector and elsewhere—are increasingly wary of “greenwashing” and hollow corporate promises, donating returned products is a clear and straightforward way to showcase your values. 

Unlike gimmicky eco-labels and complicated emissions pledges, there’s something direct and immediate about a product return. Shoppers know that the exact item they were holding in their hands a week ago is now being used to help the needy. 

That simple, honest connection makes returns a powerful branding tool—and unlike expensive CSR projects, it can lower your costs and streamline your operations even as it boosts your brand. You’ll get all the benefits of a smart, eco-friendly strategy, but you won’t have to disrupt your customers’ shopping experience, and you’ll actually save money along the way.

Building a sustainable movement

At Loop, we strive to create tools that make life easier for shoppers and brands. But when it comes to donating returns, we aren’t just talking about a tool or a feature. This is a movement, with brands around the world increasingly searching for ways to breathe new life into returned products.  

In recent years, brands have worked hard to reduce returns-related waste. The results are impressive: most online retailers now throw away less than 10% of returned products.

But the next frontier is for brands to look beyond waste reduction, and start doing something positive with unwanted products. Patagonia donates returned clothing to environmental groups and disaster-relief charities. Even Burberry, after drawing heat for destroying returned clothing, now recycles or donates its returns.

Make your returns sustainable

As more and more sellers embrace socially conscious returns, we’ll see consumers rewarding brands that lead the way—and cooling on brands that fail to rise to the challenge. That makes it all that more important to ensure your brand is delivering the effortless, ethical returns that consumers now expect.

So don’t get left behindget in touch, and find out how Loop can help turn your returned products into a force for social good.