Sustainable returns, this is how it works

Sustainable returns, this is how it works

Sustainability is also a top priority in online retail today. Most store operators are now familiar with recycling and sustainable packaging, but the shift towards sustainable returns is not just in their own interests. Customers also demand that we treat our environment with care. In this blog, we explain how you can improve sustainability in your returns management.

It is obvious: returns in e-commerce have an unfavorable impact on CO2 emissions. Nevertheless, if you compare e-commerce emissions with those of bricks-and-mortar retail, the balance is in favor of online retail, according to a meta-study by Logistics Advisory Experts GmbH. One reason for the higher CO2 levels in bricks-and-mortar retail is individual transportation – i.e. customers’ journeys to and from the store. In addition, retail outlets produce more emissions on average than the infrastructures of mail order companies. As an integral part of e-commerce, returns cannot be demonized across the board.

Sustainability is a customer need.

According to the results of Swiss Post Ltd’s 2023 sentiment barometer, 77 percent of respondents pay attention to the origin and 71 percent to the sustainability of products when shopping. The issue of sustainability is therefore not just a “nice to have” today, it has effectively become an important factor for competitiveness. Not only are customers now paying more attention to sustainability, they are also looking for environmentally friendly packaging. A good three quarters want size-optimized boxes and packaging made from recycled material. However, a clear majority is also in favor of using reusable packaging such as shipping bags and shipping in the original box. For online retailers, this opens up a number of opportunities based on the principle of “less is more”. Specifically: less packaging and fewer returns equals more sustainability. What’s more, by choosing sustainable carriers and environmentally friendly packaging materials, you can also meet a few customer requirements at the same time.

Reduce returns.

The most sustainable returns are those that do not occur in the first place. Reducing your returns rate should be an important goal right from the start. However, minimizing them has nothing to do with making returns more difficult; rather, your measures should be aimed at supporting your customers in their sales decisions. Detailed product descriptions, professional images, comparison tools, reliable delivery partners and financial incentives for orders without returns are just some of the measures you can take to reduce your returns rate.

Reading tip: Find out more about measures you can use to sustainably reduce your returns rate.

Shipping options.

Of course, transportation is one of the first factors to consider when it comes to returns and sustainability. In reality, however, this part is much less serious than one might think, as existing logistics routes are often used for return transportation. A delivery van that collects parcels from the retailer can also deliver the returns at the same time. Ultimately, transport routes with returns can even be used more effectively. By choosing the carrier, you still have the option of controlling the emissions to some extent. Some logistics companies, such as Swiss Post, offer CO2-compensated shipping, while others rely on an electrified vehicle fleet – such as the Swiss provider Quickpac. Think carefully about whether you want to give your customers a carrier for the return shipment – in the end, it can have a positive effect on your sustainability.

Packaging design.

The most important lever for making returns more sustainable starts with your fulfillment. Because your packaging design has a major impact on your sustainability rate – and that includes returns. On the other hand, you have three options to visibly bring more sustainability into your business model with packaging. The key words here are reduce, reuse and recycle.


A common challenge in e-commerce is efficient packaging, which leads to the use of a lot of filling material. With an optimized packaging design, on the other hand, you can drastically reduce the amount of cardboard and filling material required. As a positive side effect, the packages are smaller and lighter, which means that the loading area of vans can be used up to 40 percent better. Last but not least, you save not only on materials but also on shipping costs. You can achieve more efficient packaging by using variable-height boxes or telescopic boxes, for example. There are also machines – like those from Packsize – which cuts cardboard boxes precisely to fit the respective orders. This allows you to save up to 80 percent filling material and 17 percent cardboard. If you want to reduce even more drastically, you can omit the shipping carton altogether and send your products in the original box or in a shipping bag. .

MS Direct customers can have their cardboard packaging cut to size by a Packsize machine.


Most consumers who return ordered goods usually do so in the original packaging. It is therefore advisable to use more robust packaging material, as this can be used several times. Suppliers such as Sendmepack have specialized in precisely this type of reusable packaging. Their reusable cardboard boxes not only save resources, but also reduce packaging waste. A QR code printed on the box also allows you to track how much CO2 has already been saved by reusing the box. Kickbag from Switzerland and BoomerangPack from Germany are two examples of innovative cardboard alternatives that are already well established. Both companies rely on bags made from recycled plastic that can be used again and again. The bag’s Velcro fasteners also make adhesive material superfluous. From the second use onwards, emissions are significantly reduced as a result of the savings. After ten uses, a Kickbag even saves around 86 percent more emissions than cardboard.


Sooner or later, all packaging reaches the end of its life. It is therefore all the more important that packaging is recyclable. Cardboard is a natural choice, but there are also other ways in which you can stand out from the competition. Organic packaging made from sugar cane, palm leaf or wood is a sustainable alternative to disposable packaging. The aforementioned Kickbag, on the other hand, is also a very good product in terms of recycling, as it is made from recycled material itself.

The second life.

In addition to taking back new goods, many online retailers now also buy back used products such as clothing, electronic devices and books. Re-commerce platforms, such as Namuk‘s, then give such items a new lease of life after thorough refurbishment. While purchases at flea markets or second-hand stores tend to be chance finds, pre-owned stores offer all the advantages of online shopping, including search filters and various shipping and payment options. In this way, the service life of many items can be significantly extended, which helps to avoid waste and thus contributes to a more sustainable life.

Reading tip: Find out more about Namuk’s commitment to sustainability.

All articles on the sustainable e-commerce supply chain.