Happy Returns wants to make reverse logistics, well, happier. Before the Los Angeles-based service emerged on the scene in 2015, returning online orders to a brand that didn’t have a physical presence was typically a hassle-prone process, one that involved boxing up the unwanted product, a trip to the post office and then playing a waiting game for a refund.
So Happy Returns established “Return Bars” at malls, college campuses and inside stores like Cost Plus World Market, Paper Source and Sur La Table for shoppers to drop off unwanted goods from digitally native brands such as Eloquii, Everlane, Huckberry and Rothy’s.
Consumers don’t even need to scramble for a cardboard box. Happy Returns has been processing “box-free” returns since its inception. It took a step further in August: The company now consolidates orders in reusable totes, made from recycled plastic, for bulk shipping to one its two “Return Hubs”—one in California, the other in Pennsylvania—for sorting, processing and routing to their final destinations.
Whereas cardboard boxes get used up once, Happy Returns’ reusable totes can be employed up to 100 times, said Caitlin Roberson, its vice president of marketing.
“When we learned that cardboard shipments in e-commerce kill an average of a billion trees every year, we started exploring sustainable alternatives,” she said. “We wanted to empower retailers to reduce waste while they reduce costs.”
By eliminating cardboard from this portion of the supply chain, Happy Returns customers are also helping reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 120 pounds for every 1 million returns, Roberson said, citing a York Engineering study it commissioned.
“Lined up, those boxes would reach from Santa Monica to Palm Desert,” she added. “That’s enough cardboard to get from L.A. to Coachella.”
A number of the company’s clients are also opting for shipments of their aggregated items in the same reusable totes. But even without the eco-friendly packaging, eschewing the practice of dispatching one item at a time can save retailers up to 20 percent in shipping costs.
“While these innovators make the supply chain eco-friendly, they’re also reducing cardboard and fuel waste,” Roberson said.
Finding the optimal design for the totes required a few goes at the drawing board, but Happy Returns worked with its vendor to hit on an optimal set up. It also enlisted some help in developing an inventory tracking system to make sure the totes were circulating through its supply chain as expected. It will continue to fine-tune both of these as its customer base continues to scale up.
“When consumers think about sustainable shopping, shipping boxes aren’t the first thing that come to their minds,” Roberson said. “It’s up to retailers to raise their awareness, so we can all work together to take care of the planet.”
What’s the most important issue the fashion industry has yet to address?
“Retailers have a refund problem that fuels today’s shipment volume: Between 30 percent and 50 percent of apparel sales are ultimately returned.
Retailers are starting to suggest exchanges at the point of return, with software that makes intelligent suggestions based on the return reasons that shoppers provide. They reduce their refund rates and increase their exchange rates above twice the industry average, or 36 percent.
We anticipate a day in the near future, where brick-and-mortar stores will not just accept items for return, but will also store items for exchange—reducing shipment volume while streamlining supply and demand.”
For more on Sustaining Voices, which celebrates the efforts the apparel industry is making toward securing a more environmentally responsible future through creative innovations, scalable solutions and forward-thinking initiatives that are spinning intent into action, visit sustainingvoices.com.