Tamar Makov, PhD
The hidden environmental costs of consumer product returns

During the 2020 holiday season alone, US consumers sent more than one million products back to retailors each day(!). Consumer returns are a particularly challenging issue in e-commerce where as many as 20%-40% of all products sold are returned. While many consumers consider return policies to be a key factor in their purchase decisions, few seem realize that the products they send back don’t necessarily make it back to the shelf. Instead, many returns travel through a complex reverse logistics supply chain, at the end of which some are resold via outlets and secondary markets at a fraction of their original retail price, while others are recycled, donated, or sent directly to incineration.

Beyond the added transport and waste associated with the post-return lifecycle stages, disposing of brand-new perfectly functional products also squanders the embodied materials and energy invested in their production and distribution. While the environmental impacts of eCommerce are well discussed, returns are seldom included in analyses. As a record number of households adopt eCommerce following the global pandemic, gaining a better understanding of the environmental implications of such a massive shift in consumption patterns is both timely and imperative.

Building on a unique dataset covering over 600,000 apparel items returned in the EU, semi-structed interviews with industry experts, and a comprehensive literature review, we use data-science methods and LCA, to map the flows of returned items across the post-return supply chain and assess the full lifecycle environmental impacts of product returns. Our results suggest that the embodied impacts associated with producing items that are never used far surpass the direct emissions associated with transport, processing and packaging of returned products. To the best of our knowledge, this work presents the first attempt to quantify the environmental impacts of product returns from a full lifecycle perspective.

Dr. Makov investigates the potential to address social and environmental challenges through sustainable business practices, technologies, and entrepreneurship.
Adopting a systems approach, she draws from the fields of Industrial Ecology, Data Science, and Behavioural economics, and combines methods including Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), machine learning, and psychological experiments.

Her goal is to generate insights informing theory, policy, and real-world decision-making on issues including sustainable food systems, the circular economy, and digitalization.

Makov’s work has been published in high-impact journals including Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Nature Climate Change, and Nature communications, and is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Internet Society Foundation, Israeli Science Foundation (ISF), and the German – Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development (GIF).

Makov is the head of the Circular Economy lab and a faculty member at the Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management and the Goldman Sonnenfeldt School of Sustainability and Climate Change at Ben Gurion University. She holds a PhD and MA in Environmental Management from Yale University, and a B.Sc. in Nutrition science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Tamar Makov’s website
Tamar Makov on Google Scholar

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