Back-to-school sales are underway, and people across the country will be shopping online to fill up backpacks, lockers and closets – and they’ll be taking advantage of free returns.

Making it easy for customers to return items at no cost started as a retail strategy to entice more people to shop online. But it’s getting expensive, for both retailers and the planet.

In 2022, retail returns added up to more than US$800 billion in lost sales. The transportation, labor, and logistics involved raised retailers’ costs even higher. Product returns also increase pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and waste in landfills, where many returned products now end up.

So how can retailers fix this problem and still provide quality customer service?

Iowa State University postdoctoral researcher in Supply Chain Management Christopher Faires and assistant professor of Supply Chain Management Robert Overstreet conduct research in reverse logistics, focusing primarily on the intersection of retail returns and customer behavior. Through their research, the duo has collected insights that can help reduce the abuse of free returns and lower costs without losing quality.

Read Faires’ and Overstreet’s full article in The Conversation here.