Why you should be cautious about online shopping

Most returned items get thrown away or incinerated, not resold.

Environmental journalist Adria Vasil has a message that might throw a wrench into your Christmas shopping plans. Avoid returning online purchases, she urges, since the vast majority gets thrown away or incinerated. In an interview with CBC Radio's Laura Lynch, Vasil explained that it's often not worth a company's time or money to return to store shelves or warehouses.

“[They have to] put somebody on the product, to visually eyeball it and say, Is this up to standard, is it up to code? Is this going to get us sued? Did somebody tamper with this box in some way? And is this returnable? And if it's clothing, it has to be re-pressed and put back in a nice packaging.”

Shopping habits have changed in recent years and the amount of associated waste has also exploded. In the past five years, returns incurred by Canadians have increased by 95 percent. A huge part of the issue is a practice called ‘bracketing,' when someone orders multiple sizes in order to get the right one, then ships back the ones that don't fit. “Brands do not want to deal with those returns. So they'd rather just dump them.” Nor do they wish to donate them because that could ‘devalue' their brand; hence the recent scandals with Burberry and H&M incinerating the previous season's goods to maintain an image of exclusivity.

What's to be done? Vasil urges shoppers to reconsider returning goods. If something doesn't fit, ask if can it be passed on to someone else or donated. She suggests buying second-hand. What she doesn't say outright is that perhaps we should avoid online shopping. Not only could this curb rampant consumerism and the spontaneous purchase of goods we don't really need, but it would force us to go into brick-and-mortar stores to try on clothes, which has the added benefit of supporting local business owners.

Store policies could be changed to limit returns, acting as a major disincentive for bracketing. There's already a precedent – the Package Free Shop, run by zero waste expert Lauren Singer, has a no-returns policy and says if there are any issues with a product, they'll be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

But really, if we're being honest, just start taking responsibility for your shopping habits. Stop being a jerk to the environment. Like I wrote just the other day, There is no green heaven. Everything has to go somewhere to die eventually, so we need to reduce manufacturing demand. Buy only what you need and will use, and make the extra effort to go to a store and try something on. If you're planning to use it for years and years, then it shouldn't feel like a major imposition.

Most returned items get thrown away or incinerated, not resold.