This is insane. If you are reading this and you are anywhere in the European Union, look around you. Statistically, you, and the person next to you, and the person next to them — in fact everyone around you — is guilty of doing this, not once, but twice. 4 billion online purchases are made every year in the EU. If you take an average return rate of 25% this means that 1 billion of these packages are returned. Look around you again. That is like every single European Union citizen returning two online purchases a year. It is hard to picture this dense, crazy influx of boxes, packages and parcels migrating over land and sea. That is some kind of insane, intense flock of birds.

Of course it is more complicated than that. After all, some of us have never made an online purchase. Some of us are kids. Some of us aren’t interested in shopping. Some of us still prefer the corner shop. On the other end of the scale, some countries return more often than others. According to Statista, Germany leads the way, followed by Holland, with a little over half of the population returning at least one online purchase over 2018. And then, if you look a bit closer, there are some people who are serial buyers and serial returners, to the extent that online retailers are beginning to raise eyebrows and question whether or not these return patterns are suspicious. Quite recently a big online retailer (one of my personal favorites) modified their amazingly generous return policy (I mean this sincerely). It now says the following:

“If we notice an unusual pattern of returns activity that doesn’t sit right: e.g. we suspect someone is actually wearing their purchases and then returning them or ordering and returning loads – way, waaay more than even the most loyal …… customer would order – then we might have to deactivate the account and any associated accounts.”

There is another thing we customers do that leads to this really high return rate. Some of us over-order products. We order the same garment in several sizes, so that in the end we keep the one with the best fit. The reasons for this are clear. Our intent is to buy, but we want to save ourselves time. Sizes are not universal, and the way things fit on your body is completely unique, so best to try on a couple of variations in order to get the best possible fit. We would totally do this when trying on in physical shop, so why not when we make an online purchase?

So there you have it. Over half a billion people, and over a billion packages circulating the continent making their way to a multitude of destinations. Just imagine the carbon footprint on that lot: fuel consumption, packaging, resources, time spent… About half of these circulating packages will eventually make it back to the store shelf and the rest will land up elsewhere: a secondary market, an incinerator, a dump, etc.

And now, a trip down creativity lane — imagine if each one of us represented just one wandering package. What uncertain fate awaits us? What borders will we cross? What hands will handle us? There are a billion uncertainties for a billion packages. But one thing is for certain: this situation sure ain’t sustainable.

Want to hear OtailO’s plan for online returns? Let’s talk.