Product returns: a growing problem for business, society and environment

Regina Frei, Lisa Jack, Steve Brown

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Purpose: This article sheds light onto the increasing problem of product returns, which is exacerbated by growing e-commerce. Many retailers and academics are oblivious to the nature and scale of this challenge. Interdisciplinary research is needed to develop supporting theory, and cross-functional teams are required to implement measures addressing economic, ecological and social sustainability issues.

Design/Methodology/Approach: The initial project adopted a multi-case study approach, whereby returns processes were mapped, vulnerabilities identified and a returns cost calculator was developed.

Findings: Product returns processes are usually complicated, prone to internal and external fraud, inefficient and lack sustainability. They can generate considerable losses to the business, especially as returns data are often not systematically collected, monitored or reported to senior management. There are important implications for strategic and operational management, namely the need to develop a concept for Lean returns systems.

Product returns are a unique and understudied but growing field in academic research, with only few publications over the last two decades. Yet the phenomenon is causing increasing problems in business and society. Robust solutions could achieve great financial and non-financial impacts.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1613-1621
Number of pages9
JournalInternational Journal of Operations & Production Management
Issue number10
Early online date5 Jun 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2020


  • Sustainability
  • Business strategy
  • Operations strategy
  • Retail sector
  • Supply chain management
  • Reverse logistics


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