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What Happens to My Product Returns: The Hidden Environmental Cost of Online Sales

Project Leads

Assistant Professor, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev


Senior Lecturer at the Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, Tel Aviv University


Professor of Operations Management and Sustainability and IBM Chair in Management, University of California, Los Angeles


Project Description

One of the common practices of e-commerce is to allow for product returns. Product returns are defined as any product sold to a consumer and then returned shortly after to the seller. Returns present economic as well as logistical challenges for retailers. While returns are widely studied, actual what happens to products once they are returned to the seller are poorly understood by scholars and businesses.

The goal of this research is to quantify the environmental impacts associated with product returns using a full lifecycle analysis. The researchers will build on data from industry partners and track the flow of returned products through complex return supply chains. They will quantify how many (or what share) of products are disposed of without ever being used. Building on these results, they will then quantify the carbon footprint associated with consumer returns.

The project aims to map common product return pathways including liquidation, resell via secondary markets, donation, disposal, and recycling. The researchers will (1) provide a data-driven estimate of the relative share of product flows in each return pathway by product category, (2) develop a methodological approach to quantify the full lifecycle impacts of e-commerce taking into account product returns, (3) estimate the full lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions and waste associated with returns, and (4) examine tradeoffs between environmental and economic optimization of post return logistics.

This research will rely on multi-disciplinary empirical research, collaborations with industry partners, collection of empirical data, and a series of interviews with industry and academic experts. The results will provide one of, if not the, first data-driven assessments of the environmental impacts associated with consumer product returns using full life cycle analysis. The goal is to enhance public understanding of the environmental costs of ordering and returning consumer products.