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Return to sender - Energy and environmental effects of the reverse logistics of e-tailing

Research project
Inactive research
Project period
2016 - 2018
Project owner
Centre for Retailing, Department of Business Administration, School of Business, Economics and Law

Short description

In Sweden, 3.3 million shipments of goods bought online are returned annually, with clothing accounting for the largest proportion. How do retailers deal with these returns and what can be done to minimize the impact of reverse logistics on energy use and the environment?

Together with increases in cross-border e-tailing, reverse logistics i.e. the logistics involved in returning goods to the retailer, has become very important in terms of energy use and environmental sustainability. 

This project aims to address these issues by analyzing and assessing the reverse logistics policies and procedures of clothing e-tailers in Sweden. It will also analyse the impacts of the various mitigation measures aimed at reducing the volume of returns adopted by the retailers. A framework will be developed to help e-tailers to understand, calculate and improve their energy use and sustainability in this key but understudied area. The project is funded by Energimyndigheten 2016-2018.

Research objectives

How do retailers deal with these returns and what can be done to minimize the environmental impact of the reverse logistics process?

The following sub-objectives will also be addressed:

  • To compare the reverse logistics procedures of goods bought online versus goods bought in-store.
  • To compare the reverse logistics procedures of pure online e-tailers versus the procedures of multi-channel retailers with respect to their online sales.
  • To compare the reverse logistics procedures for returns from different channels (i.e. from store; collected from customers direct; collected from dedicated collection points; sent by mail etc.).
  • To suggest ways in which the environmental sustainability of the reverse logistics of online clothing retailing can be improved.


The project will start with an in-depth study of approximately 10-12 clothing retailers/logistics companies. Using information obtained from this part of the study, it will progress to a more quantitative stage involving the collection of key data from many more companies in order to build a framework which can be used to assess environmental sustainability.

Contribution of the Project

The results of the study will enable clothing companies to adapt their operations to improve environmental sustainability. Such improvements will not only benefit society as a whole, but will also be of benefit to the companies involved, enabling them to improve their marketing-operations integration. It is also a critical strategic element in the achievement of a company’s corporate social responsibility policies, aiding positive public relations and, thereby, financial profitability.

Project members

Contact person:
Sharon Cullinane
PhD, University of Gothenburg
Mike Browne PhD University of Gothenburg
Yingli Wang PhD Cardiff University, UK

Reference Group


  • Dr Andrew Potter, Cardiff University and Chairman of Welsh section of the Chartered Institute of Transport
  • John Wedel, Logistics and Transport Society (LTS), Sweden
  • Magnus Swahn, Network for Transport Measures (NTM) , Sweden
  • Per-Olof Arnäs, Chalmers University, Sweden
  • Måns Danielson, Director,
  • Matthew Walsh, IMRG (Internet Marketing Retail Group), UK
  • Lena Hansson, University of Gothenburg, Centre for Retailing


Hamburg International Conference in Logistics, October 12th-13th 2017

24th EurOMA conference 1st-5th July 2017, in Edinburgh, Scotland


An examination of the reverse logistics of clothing
(r)e-tailers in Sweden. EurOMA Conference paper 201

Improving sustainability through digitalisation in reverse logistics. Hamburg International Conference in Logistics Conference paper 2017

 Media coverage

Webbhandelns returer av kläder en miljöbov, Tidningen Syre, 2019-01-09

E-handelns returkläder reser långt, Råd&Rön, 2019-01-09

Många returnerade varor efter näthandel – forskare chockad, Sveriges Radio, 2018-12-27

Returer i e-handeln miljöproblem, Butikstrender, 2018-12-14

Klädreturer en växande miljöbov, Buzzter, 2018-12-13

E-handelns returer ger stor miljöpåverkan, Extrakt, 2018-12-12

E-handelns klädreturer en miljöbov,, 2018-12-10

Osund returkultur i modebranschen - tre sätt att bryta negativ trend, Habit, 2018-12-10

E-handelns klädreturer 22 procent, Transport och Logistik, 2018-12-10

Returleveranser av kläder en dold miljöbov för e-handeln, Aktuell Hållbarhet, 2018-12-11

Ny forskning – därför har klädshoppningen på nätet en baksida, Dagens Nyheter, 2018-12-10

Overnight delivery: A convenient option for shoppers, but a killer for the environment, Global news Canada, 2018-11-30

Want it tomorrow? Some online shopping habits are terrible for the environment, CBC Radio, 2018-11-28

Navigate to video: What happens when you return an item?
Video (1:58)
What happens when you return an item?